Voting vs Direct Action: Which Makes A Bigger Difference?

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direct action

Voting and direct action are often conceived of as diametrically opposed or even mutually exclusive pathways toward social change. However, in practice, both forms of civic engagement can work together to bring about change.

Voting helps set a general policy platform through the endorsements of candidates and/or political parties. Direct action, conversely, is when citizens mobilize independently (e.g. protest or strike) to achieve an end. Some theorists assert that acts like direct action are vital for democracies.

Often when discussing voting vs direct action, someone will raise the question of which method has a bigger impact on society. The question is difficult to answer as it depends on factors such as what type of impact is someone trying to have? What do we mean by “impact” and how do we measure it? Are we comparing a specific election with a specific direct action? We could draw these questions out further but the point that it’s not such a clear cut question should be obvious from just those examples.

Nonetheless, many political theorists have concluded that direct action is necessary to maintain a democracy – suggesting that the form of government is a continuous process that requires upkeep from its citizens. Some claim that without this type of civic participation, democracies slowly morph into kleptocracies or, even worse, downright tyranny. 

An argument could be made that the increasing political turmoil and polarization in the U.S. over the last several decades are the result of citizens participating less in their communities since approximately the 1950s. Robert Putnam’s famous assertion in his book Bowling Alone was that Americans spent less and less time engaging with their communities. He showed data that depicted precipitous declines in memberships to various civic organizations and clubs. Putnam showed that Americans had become so detached from regular civic and community life that they were even bowling alone (hence the title).

While Putnam’s point was in relation to community life and not about direct action events like protests, it does seem Putnam caught onto a significant (and related) change in the way Americans engaged their communities – mainly that they were detaching from everyday types of involvement. This was something Americans had been warned against in the early days of its democracy.

This warning came from none other than Alexis de Tocqueville, a famous political theorist, and commentator on early U.S. culture and civic life. His book Democracy in America was published in 1835; it was a close look at what was working and what wasn’t working in the American experiment. In the book, he offered Americans this dire warning:

Subjection in minor affairs breaks out every day and is felt by the whole community indiscriminately. It does not drive men to resistance, but it crosses them at every turn, till they are led to surrender the exercise of their will. Thus their spirit is gradually broken and their character enervated; whereas that obedience, which is exacted on a few important but rare occasions, only exhibits servitude at certain intervals, and throws the burden of it upon a small number of men. It is vain to summon a people, which has been rendered so dependent on the central power, to choose from time to time the representatives of that power; this rare and brief exercise of their free choice, however, important it may be, will not prevent them from gradually losing the faculties of thinking, feeling, and acting for themselves, and thus gradually falling below the level of humanity.

In other words, Tocqueville is saying that voting is important but cannot replace things like direct action. He predicts that citizens will eventually become subjugated by those in power if they disengage with their communities and neglect civic duties beyond voting. He even asserts that citizens will lose their ability to think for themselves and engage meaningfully.

Tocqueville also rightly points out that subjection is a subtle and gradual process. He notes too that if any citizen is disempowered, it impacts the whole community. Tocqueville, then, would have likely confirmed Lily Watson’s famous assertion that “our liberation is bound together.”

Direct action seems to hold a particular role in a democracy that voting cannot replace. While voting is no doubt important, it is, for Tocqueville and others, a minor civic responsibility in the sense that it requires very little effort on the part of the citizen. Civic involvement in things like direct action is what truly makes a democracy function.

Because direct action requires a bit more explanation than voting, below is a quick look at the following common questions: 

  1. What is direct action?
  2. What are examples of direct action?
  3. Is direct action effective?

What is Direct Action?

Direct action can be defined as citizen-led initiatives that seek an immediate resolution. Direct action is often defined as including both violent and nonviolent means. For example, revolutions, insurrections, demonstrations, protests, boycotts, and strikes can all be considered direct actions.

Some activists and theorists may try to offer clear distinctions between what is considered direct action and what is not; readers should be mindful, however, that the definition can be highly contextual. 

Traditionally, “direct action” refers to confrontational (though not necessarily antagonistic) events where citizens pressure their own government. Activists have often separated direct action from other forms of civic participation like community involvement, volunteering, lobbying policymakers, or participation in public comment periods.

However, in some circles, the term “direct action” is broadened to include any action in which citizens are coordinating without government assistance. Some may even include things like starting a community charity or cleaning up a local park as direct action.

I should note that Tocqueville, mentioned above, may not have been familiar with the term direct action, and he may not have differentiated so clearly between something like a strike and a citizen-led effort to clean up a neighborhood park. 

In both cases, citizens are acting without their government to bring about a change and/or an improvement in their community’s circumstances. Some charity work such as food donation efforts is often cited among activists as being direct action as well. The inclusion of service provisions like food donations though, widens the idea of direct action to include almost all types of independently-driven community involvement.

Further, close examinations of the traditional definition make it difficult to determine what – except for confrontation – exactly sets a direct action like a protest apart from other means of engagement such as a grassroots lobbying event. Perhaps, for this reason, confrontation has become associated with direct action even though it may not necessarily be the defining feature.

What Are Examples of Direct Action?

Traditional examples of direct actions include:

  • Protests
  • Marches
  • Strikes
  • Boycotts
  • Sit-ins
  • Civil disobedience/intentionally breaking the law
  • Internet activism/hacktivism
  • Occupations 
  • Revolutions/Revolts/Insurrections
  • Sabotage/Property destruction
  • Rioting
  • Terrorism/Violent political acts

Is Direct Action Effective?

Research has shown that from 1900 to 2006 nonviolent direct actions were more than twice as effective as violent direct action. The same research also suggests that a campaign’s success correlates with levels of participation and that success is almost guaranteed with just 3.5% of the population.

While 3.5% of the population may sound like a small number, in practice it is a very high bar. In the U.S., 3.5% of the population is close to 11.5 million people. For context, the March on Washington in 1963 had somewhere around 250,000 participants and the Women’s March in 2017 had around 3.6 to 4.6 million participants.

The Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020 may have recently become the largest movement in U.S. history. Demonstrations had somewhere between 15 and 26 million participants. This level of participation exceeds the 3.5% threshold, suggesting the movement has a high chance of success.

Much of the research regarding the effectiveness of direct action comes from the work of Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan. The researchers laid out much of their work in the book Why Civil Resistance Works. The data likely represents one of the most comprehensive studies done on the effectiveness of direct actions.

Interested in Taking Action? Check out these posts for more information:

Dan Jasper

Dan Jasper is the founder and primary author of Street Civics. He specializes in advocacy and international affairs.

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