The Politics of Student Protests and Their Unintended Consequences

The current pro-Palestinian student protests may influence President Biden’s policies towards Israel, but the protests may also be used by Republicans as part of their law-and-order platform. If Newton’s third law of motion states that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, a first law of protest may be that for every protest there is an equal and opposite backlash. If the protests continue up to and at the August Democratic Convention in Chicago, a possible repeat of the chaotic 1968 Convention will help Republicans and Donald Trump just as they helped Republicans and Richard Nixon get elected in 1968.

Should protesters think about how politicians and voters will use them?

Republicans and Donald Trump will certainly use current student protests on campuses to appeal to voters wary of “woke” and “critical theory.” As Louis Menand observed in The New Yorker after the 1968 election: “To liberals who believed in the righteousness of the civil-rights demonstrations and the antiwar protests, the disruption and violence that accompanied them was caused by the overreaction of the authorities. For most voters, though, the disruption and violence were the fault of the demonstrators. Most people don’t like righteousness in others.”  So while the current pro-Palestinian protests may have short-term benefits, previous experience shows that they may have negative long-term unintended consequences.

There are indications of a relationship between violent protests and shifts to the Right. Scientifically, Omar Wasow, currently an assistant professor of politics at UC Berkeley, observed that following the violent protests after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in April 1968, “we can then claim a causal relationship between violent protests and the shift away from the Democratic coalition” in the November election.

The relationship between the current student protests and the upcoming November election may not be as causal, but there could be a correlation. The 1968 massive protests certainly influenced U.S. policy, but they also led to the unintended consequence; Richard Nixon was elected president in November.

How did Nixon do that? He used the civil rights/anti-Vietnam War protests as the basis of his law-and-order campaign. “Nixon…relied on television, crafting an ad campaign which offered soothing hope that Nixon would end the riots and disorder,” Jeremy D. Mayer wrote in The Historian. “The most memorable Nixon ad featured a middle-aged white woman walking alone down a dark urban street, while the announcer recited bleak statistics on the frequency of violent crime.” Mayer noted; “Nixon privately praised one of his law and order because ‘this hits it right on the nose… it’s all about law and order and the damn Negro-Puerto Rican groups out there.’” Substitute Trump for Nixon. Substitute students, lefties, woke and critical theorists and here we go again.

What does this mean for the actual protesters? Should they change their protests because of possible future consequences about how the protests will be used? Should one stop protesting Biden’s continuing sending arms and money to Israel because Trump and his followers will use the protests negatively in November?

There are three levels here. The first is the reason for the protests. The second is how politicians react to the protests. And the third is how voters react to the way politicians use the protests.

To go back to 1968; did any of the violent protesters at the Chicago Convention see the relationship between their actions and Nixon’s election? Did they regret what they did?

At the end of the film of the trial of the legendary leaders of the Convention protesters, The Trial of the Chicago 7, Judge Hoffman says to Tom Hayden before sentencing; “If you make your statement brief, if you make it respectful, if you make it remorseful and to the point, I will look favorably upon that when administering my sentence.”

Hayden replies, “We have no choice. We had no choice in Chicago. We had no choice in this trial,” somehow echoing Martin Luther’s 1521 response “Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise.” when Luther was questioned about his heretical views before the emperor and the princes of the Church at the Diet of Worms.

(Columbia University President Nemat Shafik recently used similar language. In a statement justifying calling in the police, she said: “After the university learned overnight that Hamilton Hall had been occupied, vandalized and blockaded, we were left with no choice.”)

Did the leaders of the 1968 Convention protests have no choice? At a reunion of the remaining survivors of the 1969 Chicago conspiracy trial, Tom Hayden was reported to have said; “It’s not over.” And Lee Weiner, when asked if he would do it all again, didn’t hesitate; “I’d do it better.” No remorse from either. No feelings of guilt that they were responsible for Nixon’s election.

On the level of the Convention protesters, they believed their protests were justified. “We had no choice.” They felt they had no responsibility for Nixon’s election, we surmise, because they had no control over how the protests would be used by politicians. And, they had no responsibility for how voters would be influenced by how politicians used their actions.

Grumpy seniors will certainly echo George Santayana’s “Those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it,” as a warning to students that today’s protests will help Trump get elected in November. Today’s protesters will undoubtedly echo Tom Hayden; “We have no choice.” Some religiously oriented protesters resisting the police may even use Luther’s defiant; “Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise.”

The same grumpy Baby Boomers will also wonder how the excitement of the 1960s, levitating the Pentagon, Woodstock and all, has gotten us to where we are today with Trump’s MAGA, Barbie, riot police on campuses, and all that. Watching the current protests is more than merely observing polarization and generational conflict. It’s about wondering how momentary protests in a good cause have had and could have negative long-term unintended consequences.

Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.