How Many Protesters Are Enough in Your Opinion?

What happens to you when protests, scandals, or expressing political opinion though voting or opinion polls all stop working? 

There is this conversation that keeps happening. A populist government does something outrageous. Well-meaning first world person hears about it and asks “but didn’t people protest?

And I suddenly have so many things to say that I don’t even know where to begin. First of all, please note that you are assuming that protests change anything. That is not a given.

Secondly, yes, they did protest. But protests don’t matter.

No, scrap that. Protests do matter.

Protests are where people learn that protests don’t work. So they do work – but for the autocrat.

Death by a thousand protests

In an emerging autocracy protests don’t change a thing. And every time dissenters organize themselves and go out to protest in vain, they get just a little more dispirited. They feel just a bit more helpless. Until they stop trying altogether.

Remember what happens when someone keeps trying but nothing changes? 

In the end, the message is loud and clear. No one, not even the parliament janitor ever responds to protesters. Politicians most certainly don’t. The thing people protest against will go ahead at full speed – even faster, actually, because that drives the message home even harder: People don’t matter, only the autocrat’s will. So stop trying.

In other words: the only thing you learn from protesting against an emerging autocrat is that you are politically helpless.

It is also true for other forms of political expression. They can all prove to be a dead end and thus push you even deeper in the sense of feeling helpless.

You answer surveys, you can petition your politicians or start collecting signatures, you vote at a referendum, you turn up at a protest, you can even turn up to vote. Methods of political expression require a varying degree of activity, some of them being pretty passive (like answering a phone to opinion pollsters), others very active. These tools – and the reactions to them – shape your view of your place in the world, politically speaking.

A healthy first world mind grew up in an environment where public opinion mattered. When people bothered to organize, something changed. At least a politician felt uncomfortable, maybe someone resigned, maybe the protest even worked. In a politically healthy society a scandal is enough to make a politician resign. In a healthy society an unpopular politician doesn’t get elected. And when there’s a protest, there is some reaction. At least someone explains something.

An autocracy, however, is by definition deaf to the public. Willfully deaf. That is the whole point of an autocracy. It should not be a surprise that during the emergence of authoritarianism, these expressions of political opinion get ignored more and more often. And when people learn that something doesn’t work, they eventually stop trying. Less and less people turn up to protest until eventually only a desperate core group keeps doing it – and they are easily ridiculed, not just for their numbers.

And when political helplessness sets in, the practicing of power and pushing things through by sheer political will becomes really cheap – politically speaking. Surviving a scandal becomes a breeze. What tools are at the disposal of an outraged citizen? And do they work? So why should a bully/autocrat retreat as long as there is no resistance that can hurt him? Shame doesn’t work anymore – and suddenly we realize that we forgot to build in a hard limit for them. (Or we just let them to remove the hard limit.)

The only job an emerging autocrat ever needs to complete is to teach his citizens that they are helpless. Make them stop trying. It doesn’t just make keeping power easy and cheap – it will even make the helpless population hysterically support said autocrat. 

It is true that sending the army or just a bunch of hitmen to beat the protesters up can also happen. But that’s an expensive and risky tool. It is much better to build your power on the slow death by a thousand protests. (Not to mention that actual attacks eliminate the deniability of oppression – another powerful tool to gaslight your entire population at home and abroad.)

A budget-autocrat would just sponsor a hundred opposition groups to keep organizing protests until no one can keep track of them. And organize protests without any achievable goal, maybe even without any goal at all.

The helplessness of public opinion: Scandals and your toothless little outrage

I envy you, first world people, for your political scandals. Yes, it sucks that your politicians turn out to be crooks over and over again. But it’s a good thing that

1) it had even come to light, and that
2) it is still considered scandalous.

Trust me, one day you will miss these glory days.

Just look at the United States. 45 years ago Nixon resigned for being a crook – his transgression nowhere near the things that fly today. Publicly admitting that he thought he’s above the law was scandalous. In 2019, the president can tweet thousands of lies, claim his immunity even more openly, and the reaction is pure helplessness – and hysterical support.

No one knows what to do so they come up with excuses and explanations. He may have tweeted that he murdered someone, but can we prove it? Do we have enough evidence? The burden of evidence suddenly falls on the powerless – while the powerful doesn’t even remember self-restraint.

Lying is no longer a problem for a politician. They do it so naturally, in our face, on camera, even to each other – only to find out that there are no consequences.

Scandals are also perfectly safe. Politicians demand that you go through all the legal steps to remove them – they will never leave the juicy office on their own volition. And if they don’t – you can’t. When did we allow this to happen and why? Can we remember why it seemed like a good idea to allow them to change the rules and make themselves way too powerful and irremovable?

Are there enough prosecutors in your country who want to spend the next years trying to get all the crooks prosecuted? Are they good? Do we even have the manpower? Are there enough lawyers who want to fight corruption – or have too many of them given up? We don’t have enough investigative journalists to keep all the scandals and the public money theft on the agenda. How many lawyers would it require to get through all the muck – even if the legal system wasn’t fatally wounded?

We feel so helpless against politicians, we don’t even apply the same standards against them anymore.

Especially against strongmen. We scrutinize each other, we give up on our own right to live without surveillance, we endlessly come up with excuses why the latest transgression by the powerful is really in our interest – but we don’t even dare to ask for transparency from the powerful because we know it wouldn’t work. We are exposed, we have to prove our innocence over and over against various enforcement arms of the government – while politicians live with immunity.

Every crook that doesn’t lose his job and doesn’t go to prison (like you would if you did the same) teaches you to give up.

It should be the other way around, the powerful being held to higher standards (not lower), demanded more transparency (not less), and living under constant public scrutiny (not us). But our minds have been bent to evade the painful sensation that no matter how outraged we are, nothing will ever happen. We blame and scrutinize the underdog because it is safer and more convenient than keeping the powerful to account.

The burden of evidence should fall harder on those who hold power over others – not on the powerless public.

Remember that a few decades ago we used to at least pretend that politics was for the people? That it was about serving the public? Remember when politicians at least had to pay lip service to public interest?

Today they can complain if their little ego is hurt and somehow they are not required to put their egos aside while doing their job of negotiation on our behalf. Imagine if you tried to tell your boss that you negotiated on behalf of your company but they hurt your pride so you started a war. And we let politicians do that and keep their jobs.

Your outrage can be used against you

When your outrage doesn’t change anything, you learn a political lesson. And again and again. If no attempt does ever make a difference, you will stop trying. You will even stop wanting things because it is so painful to get frustrated in your efforts. So no more efforts and no more goals – your mind is only there to excuse the powerful and try to appease him. That is the essence of learned helplessness. And it can never work.

This is what today’s crooks are using against you by putting out scandals with new ones, by crowding out public debate with inane wedge issues, and by using your very own outrage to induce the sense of helplessness in you.

If you are repeatedly angered and disappointed – when will you stop getting angry? Disappointment is too painful, and when outrage achieves nothing, you will become cautious of getting outraged again. Gradually, with every scandal and with every step down the road leading away from civilization, you accommodate yourself to the crook in power by rationalizing his moves for him. You explain why nothing is as outrageous as it seems. Everyone is overreacting. It doesn’t affect you, and when it does, well, it barely hurts, you had worse. And you wanted to do this anyway. They took your horse but you wanted to get rid of it anyway. And it happened in the public interest. In the war effort. Against the enemy. To protect you from the virus. And if anyone keeps pushing why you aren’t angry – you will get angry: at the person who called you out for not doing something.

Political helplessness can take many shapes

Remember the last time a protest achieved its goal? When a bill was cancelled because public opinion was against it? When a politician resigned because of a scandal? If the answer is no, you might be living in an emerging autocracy, where voting, protesting, getting outraged is still allowed – but doesn’t lead anywhere.

Public opinion stops working when the surveys can not to be trusted anymore – or when the politician doesn’t need to care.

You know the feeling when your finances suck but they announce that the GDP is happy and growing so it must be you? The same thing happens when surveys get manipulated. You may be angry – but it must be only you because the survey just said that 102.5% supports the strongman.

Why do you think it is such a hot issue who conducts a certain opinion poll before elections? Why does it matter to you what anyone else thinks before you cast your own vote? Do you remember when Putin’s popularity seemed to tank – but then he growled at the pollster and his approval numbers were immediately adjusted skyward? Why did he care?

And do you think you would feel differently about an outrageous policy if you thought that your fellow victims overwhelmingly agree with the policy? Does it make you feel more or less active if the polls tell you that 80% of your fellow citizens adore the dictator you hate? That they hungrily demand that policy you disapprove? Even if you don’t know a single person who supports the autocrat, hearing that he is super popular deflates you. That’s why opinion polls are so important – and they get manipulated just like statistics.

Scandals are an important part of political life. Independent media is the best way to keep your politicians more or less honest. But what happens when a politician sees the scandal but refuses to resign? Politicians can learn from past experience, not just you. And they are learning that scandals (as well as lies) are without consequence. Shame is not a baseball bat that can hurt them or a brick wall that could stop them, after all. Shame is all in their head. Or not, in this case.

Public disgrace is just an imaginary boundary that they have feared to cross – until now. But the truth is that they cannot be forced to resign that easily. Who would come and physically remove them from their offices? They have rights and they have immunity and they have all the resources – what does the public have?

Loyalists of an autocrat would only have to go if their master wanted them out – but when that happens no scandal is even necessary. The system that is known to know everything can bury anyone with a simple accusation – politicians and civilians alike. (That is the power of the asymmetry of information people don’t realize until it’s too late – and then they still don’t know what hit them. You see, they had nothing to hide…)

Protests are not necessarily righteous things. For one thing, they only happen when someone bothers to call the public’s attention to something. Outrageous policies can pass without a single angry protester, if no one tells them they should be pissed off – while minuscule details and purposeful misrepresentation of a well-meaning policy can get viciously attacked by dedicated and motivated troublemakers.

Protests are also a curious measuring tool to weigh a political decision against the public will. Or more like

the number of protesters,
times their anger,
times the damage they do,
divided by the traditional propensity and intensity of protests in that given political culture.

A small number of violent protesters can achieve more than a silent, polite mass, everyone knows that. A few people can effectively change political decisions in a country where politicians are more responsive – while huge crowds gathering for weeks get routinely ignored in autocracies. (Ignored first – intimidated later and in the last stages openly attacked.) It is really hard to tell how many protesters can be realistically expected at which stage of an authoritarian escalation, and it is even more of a question how many should be enough.

And finally, there is electoral helplessness.

This is the Holy Grail pursued by elected dictators. If you achieve this, your rule will be complete.

Electoral helplessness means that you feel that even your vote doesn’t count. It can be for different reasons.

– Maybe you are told (by opinion pollsters) that you’re outnumbered by hysterical fans of the dictator.

– Or you may feel that the elections are rigged, your vote will be ignored or destroyed with some excuse, and you are only making the autocrat more legitimate by boosting turnout.

– Or maybe there are so many opposition parties to vote for, it causes a major coordination problem for the unorganized electorate. It may happen from the opposition’s stupidity, but the fragmented opposition landscape preoccupied with in-fighting and character-murdering one another is usually the autocrat’s doing. Once you control the budget and enforcement, it is easy to punish serious opposition politicians, reward corrupt ones that work for you, and slap unruly parties that dare to build coalitions against you with lethal fines.

When the belief in the integrity of electoral process is compromised, it is a difficult process to get it back. It is always easier to destroy things than to build them up, easier to slide down on slippery slopes than to stay civilized and grow an actual backbone – so no need to admire the autocrats’ achievement.

Political helplessness can also be defined as having no upside for an individual to raise his voice, only the (near) certainty of negative consequences for any attempt to change the system. In other words, if I blow the whistle, I will definitely make my own life worse, even my family’s (who will hate me for it), but I can’t see a chance to make a difference. Blow the whistle – the case never gets to court in the absence of independent prosecution. Talk to the media, the prosecutor doesn’t investigate politically sensitive cases.

But that leads us to the issue of generalized trust – or the erosion of it – in emerging autocracies, which is the hotbed of social helplessness.

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