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How Disruption And Discomfort Drive Political Change

Hundreds of activists gathered in downtown St. Louis to protest the death of George Floyd. May 29, 2020
Chad Davis | St. Louis Public Radio

As a professor of political science at Washington University, Clarissa Rile Hayward had a front-row seat for the protests and disruption that followed the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson in 2014. She paid attention as activists blocked highways, demonstrated at a symphony performance and even interrupted brunch at fancy restaurants to agitate for the Black Lives Matter movement.

And she found herself thinking about what tactics work, and why. She believed that the conventional wisdom about such protests — that they only work if they present a “stark confrontation … between good and evil” in the words of noted sociologist Doug McAdam — was incomplete. She set out to develop a new model, one that accounts for protests that disrupt “elites’ agenda-setting,” and thereby transform the political calculus.   

Hayward explained on St. Louis on the Air she was drawn to more controversial actions because of the reaction they drew from people. 

“I heard so many people raising issues about those kind of protests, things like, ‘I support the message of the protesters, but shutting down a highway or interrupting brunch seem to me like a bad way to do it,’” Hayward recalled. “I wanted to explore what, if anything, was the political work done by disruptive actions that are not necessarily popular.” 

June 10, 2020 Clarissa Rile Hayward
Credit Courtesy of Washington University
Clarissa Rile Hayward of Washington University.

And the work, she found, is real. As she detailed in a paper published last January in the Journal of Politics, disrupting spaces of privilege (like brunch, or the symphony) can shake people out of their “motivated ignorance.” It can force them to choose sides.

And, by making the news or erupting on social media, it can help set the agenda. In a two-party system like ours, that can be critical, Hayward explained.

Presidential candidates like Joe Biden have to “find a way to cobble together an electoral majority that’s made of pretty strange bedfellows,” Hayward explained. “He needs to try to win the people who are to the left of the median Democratic voter and also independent voters, and maybe even some moderate Republicans. And in order to do that, his strategy’s got to be to avoid conflicts that would threaten his ability to bring together that coalition.” 

People marching across the U.S. to affirm that “Black Lives Matter” — or, yes, even blocking highways in cities across the U.S. — forces politicians like Biden to quit ignoring the issue, even if it seems too controversial for the proverbial big tent.

“That is a key point of what a disruptive political protest can accomplish, even if it’s not super popular,” she said. “It can force onto the political agenda an issue that elites are going to be incentivized by the two-party system to try to suppress.”


Hayward said she believes the current protests sweeping the U.S. have been effective. 

“They are accomplishing the agenda-setting task,” she said. “I also think that in this case, it might be too early to say, but it seems like maybe they are also winning that public sympathy piece of it, which could actually do what the conventional view demands of all disruptive politics: prompt the public to identify with and be sympathetic to the protesters.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Sarah Fenske served as host of St. Louis on the Air from July 2019 until June 2022. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.