Takin’ It to the Streets

Recent political history gives reasons to doubt the efficacy of political protests. I struggle to name something Occupy Wall Street accomplished before it fizzled out. The Tea Party movement may have sent a few extra Republicans to Congress, but the Tea Party’s elected standard-bearers mostly served to turn the House GOP into a grandstanding, obstructionist mess. I am skeptical that the recent pro-2nd Amendment rally in Richmond, Virginia will have any meaningful long-term consequences.

The 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, VA was supposed to demonstrate the normalization of explicit white identity politics. Instead, more than any other event, it led to the collapse of the so-called Alt-Right. Black Lives Matter is perhaps a more ambiguous case. That movement did help shift the nation’s discussion on race to the left, yet it may have prompted a backlash from many whites, inadvertently increasing levels of racial polarization.

The backlash hypothesis, especially as it relates to protests about race, obviously predates Black Lives Matter by decades. The right-wing pushback from Nixon’s “Silent Majority” against left-wing activists of all stripes was real and may help explain the nation’s move toward the GOP in the last century’s closing decades. On the other hand, it is hard to believe this pushback was more significant than the gains won by the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.

Even if a protest movement is perfectly organized, maintains discipline, holds frequent events, and does not attract a gaggle of nutjobs (who will be in every photo taken of the public events), we still may question whether it could move the needle in elections. After all, with party affinities so entrenched, can we really believe many Americans would change their votes because they saw a crowd waving signs and blocking traffic?

Whatever we suspect about protesting’s effectiveness, we can think of anecdotes to demonstrate our case. Fortunately, although it requires a tremendous amount of labor, the political consequences of protest can be considered from an empirical perspective. Daniel Q. Gillion, in his new book, The Loud Minority: Why Protests Matter in American Democracy, seeks to make sense of this question. He makes a strong case that protests do matter, and anti-protest backlash, while a real phenomenon, is less meaningful than many people assume. Gillion, a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, has considered these issues before. His previous book, The Political Power of Protest, argued that protesting is an effective means of securing minority rights.

To make his case, Gillion needed a comprehensive data set of protests in the United States. He largely relies on the Dynamics of Collective Action database, though he also performed his own data collection. He then coded each protest (more than 20,000 of them) according to its size and its ideological perspective.

To examine the myriad ways protest may influence U.S. politics, Gillion merged these data with various other data sets. For example, by comparing protest activity with FEC campaign donation data, he found that protest activities are associated with a surge of donations to the party most aligned with the protesters. However, this was ideologically asymmetric. Liberal protests lead to immediate new donations to the Democratic Party. Conservative protests are, according to Gillion’s analysis, less useful for Republicans in this regard.

Using both historical examples and quantitative evidence, Gillion shows that protests are associated with better-quality candidates entering the political arena.

Despite the entrenchment of ideological and partisan identities in the American electorate, Gillion argues that protest activities can influence voter behavior. In his analysis of the Black Lives Matter protests, he found that communities where protests were concentrated also had higher levels of voter turnout. Further, although there was fierce pushback against Black Lives Matter from some conservative and centrist voices, the political net effect of the protests was positive for the movement, at least when it comes to the variables he was able to measure.

Protests also influence American politics in indirect ways. Candidate quality is an important determinant of election outcomes—is the challenger a pillar of the community, or a College Democrat with too much time on his hands? According to Gillion, sustained protest activity can serve as a useful signal of incumbent vulnerability. Potential candidates will often wait several election cycles before concluding that the conditions are sufficiently favorable. For opportunistic would-be politicians, protests are a sign of blood in the water. If this interpretation is too cynical, one could instead say that protests galvanize strong candidates to enter the ring and work for real change—most candidates would prefer this interpretation of their behavior. Using both historical examples and quantitative evidence, Gillion shows that protests are associated with better-quality candidates entering the political arena.

Most importantly, Gillion provides evidence that protest activity can directly influence election results. Looking at the geographic distribution of protest events, he shows that “protests that espouse liberal views lead Democrats to receive a greater share of the two-party vote in House elections, whereas protests that champion conservative views stimulate support for Republican candidates.”

The data Gillion collected are sufficient to make his case that protests can shift political outcomes. The book also benefits from many real-world examples. Gillion’s explanation of Abner Mikva’s political career and his relationship with protest movements is especially enlightening. His lengthy discussion of the Black Lives Matter movement and its consequences is also compelling.

In his chapter on party convention protests, Gillion discussed the ways protesters at the 2016 Democratic and Republican conventions differed. It is notable that protesters outside the Democratic convention were overwhelmingly liberal, whereas protesters outside the GOP convention were a mix of conservatives and liberals. Conservative protesters seem less willing to go into hostile territory. Gillion’s examination of protesters’ causes also demonstrated that activists in liberal protest groups were more likely than conservatives to have multiple and overlapping lists of grievances. His analysis showed that conservative “protest groups do link up with one another, but to a lesser extent than liberal protests.” The fact that right-wing protesters are less likely than their opponents to share common concerns across issue domains strikes me as an important difference. This may help explain why conservatives (in my view) are rarely successful at creating and sustaining grassroots protest movements that span multiple issues.

The book argues that protests work largely by conveying information and raising the salience of certain issues. A political party benefits when the protests are focused on issues that the party “owns”—civil rights expansion being associated with Democrats, for example, and anti-tax or pro-life efforts aligned with the GOP.

Although the book shows that protests can be effective for conservatives and liberals, the results consistently show that protesting is more effective for liberals, and liberals protest more often. Another unsurprising conclusion is that protests will be more effective if they occur in the context of an election cycle, though persistence over time is also an important attribute of effective protest movements.

Although he provides fascinating information and the book is useful in the sense that it demonstrates protests have value, Gillion provides little practical advice for activists. Readers looking for nuts-and-bolts advice on how to organize an effective protest will unfortunately need to look elsewhere. Gillion is a scholar and this was a dispassionate analysis. It was not written as a handbook for protest movements. This was a reasonable approach for Gillion, but I was nonetheless disappointed. As a leading expert on protest politics, Gillion unquestionably has fascinating and useful insights into this subject. I would be especially curious to know why some protest movements fail to accomplish much of anything, or even prove counter-productive. A brief list of best-practices for protest organizers would have been a useful resource.

The Loud Minority is the result of an impressive amount of work, especially in terms of data collection and coding. Nonetheless, not every part of the analysis is equally compelling. Many models showed a statistically significant and substantively important relationship between protest activity and the dependent variable Gillion was considering. However, he presents models where readers could reasonably question whether the relationships were spurious—perhaps some other variable, not included in the data set, was driving both phenomena. There were other times when I was not persuaded that his models adequately account for period effects. But this is a case where the whole is more convincing than the individual parts. When examined in its entirety, it is hard to complete the book without concluding that protests matter.

Before reading Gillion’s work, I had no grounds to argue against cynics convinced that protests are mostly ineffectual—a way for frustrated Americans to blow off steam while wielders of real power did as they pleased. I am now persuaded otherwise. If you want to cause real change in American politics, hitting the streets is one of your better choices. This is especially true if your resources are limited, as it is less expensive than many other options—though Gillion notes that being endorsed by respected institutions will be helpful.

The Silent Majority is not an all-powerful electoral behemoth, and getting on its nerves is less problematic than many assume. If one dislikes the message of a protest, the most effective way to neutralize its effect is to organize a counter-protest movement, however distasteful one finds that prospect. In the long run, vocal, persistent minorities can have more sway on American political life than insouciant majorities.

Reader Discussion

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on May 08, 2020 at 09:42:51 am

These arguments don’t make sense to me for a couple of reasons. First, the left (not “liberals”) has a large pool of non-working activists and camp followers from which it can draw, unlike “the right.” Hence deep pocketed donors can finance movements like “Occupy” and “Black Lies,” while there’s no equivalent ability on the right. Hence the analysis discussed here confuses effect with cause.

The analysis also ignores a very important ideological difference; leftists (not “liberals!”) tend to see themselves as revolutionaries who are disrupting & overturning society. The demonstrations by left and right are not trying to accomplish the same things. The Keystone XL protests illustrate this well - there’s nothing equivalent on the right.

Analysis that doesn’t take these things into account doesn’t seem very illuminating to me.

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Charles N. Steele
on May 08, 2020 at 10:20:20 am

Charles Steele makes an excellent point. Let me add as a supplement that the impact of a protest depends how its treatment by the media--and since the media is dominated by the far left, such protests have automatic media support.

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John Braeman
on May 08, 2020 at 10:29:29 am

Charles N. Steele makes an excellent point. Let me add as a supplement that the popular response to a protest
depends initially at least upon its treatment by the media, and since the media are dominated by the far left,
left wing protests receive favorable treatment until their excesses (such as the lawlessness and violence of black riots) become too blatant to be ignored..

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John Braeman
on May 08, 2020 at 11:15:10 am

"...the results consistently show that protesting is more effective for liberals, and liberals protest more often."

Gee, who wudda thunk it? Liberals protest more often!
Re: The frog in boiling water: Perhaps, leftists have noticeably thinner skin than do conservatives and begin to scream at the slightest upward change in temperature. Then again, they do seem to enjoy screaming. These screams are then reported as "wisdom" by their ideological cohorts in the media.
Of course, Leftist protests provide benefit to their cause. How could they not do so when the mass of the citizenry have only the media to rely upon.

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on May 08, 2020 at 12:10:06 pm

I need to think on this matter before replying.

But I do have a quick empirical observation: Is it just me or is it really the case that you can judge the moral and intellectual deficiency of a protest merely by observing the faces of the protesters?

I think so, but, as I say, mine is just an empirical conclusion based solely on my own numerous observations (thousands over 55 years,) evidence that the "believe the science" Left, ever contemptuous of our lying eyes, would disregard as not even rising to the level of anecdotal.

Yet, I have expert opinion on my side. Psychologists for a hundred years have affirmed Shakespeare and put much emotional store in observing the human face. And each of us does so consciously and subconsciously in our every encounter with another.

So, reject me if you will; I care not about rejection. I've learned from experience to believe what my lying eyes suggest and to draw from that a rebuttable presumption of truth. And I conclude that the women in Leftist demonstrations almost always are physically unattractive, often ugly, an empirically-verifiable fact to which I attribute much of their political rage. And I maintain that the "men" (one hesitates to make the charge) almost always look puerile, an empirically-verifiable fact to which I attribute the fatuousness of their protest.

Today, as evidence of my propositions, I offer a close view at the photo header of Professor Hawley's excellent essay, as to which I will say more after my overdue breakfast.

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on May 08, 2020 at 23:12:32 pm

You are absolutely correct--I wish I had thought of making the point. Most female left protesters are grotesque banshee look alike.

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John Braeman
on May 09, 2020 at 12:29:29 pm

Now here is proof of Paladins contention:


Clearly, this is not someone unaffected by their own grotesqueness. Instead it seems the she thrives on it.

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Guttenburgs Press and Brewery
on May 10, 2020 at 11:33:27 am

This review concludes that a new book, The Loud Minority: Why Protests Matter in American Democracy, shows that protests sway political outcomes and would seem to provide Republicans, who are endemically incapable of organizing politically-effective protests, the most electorally-useful political information ever to appear in this blog site.
I will restate the book's politically-important conclusions, offering my own insights as to how the Trump Campaign can deploy protests across America to further MAGA and KAG political goals.
1. Election outcomes: The book finds "that protest activity can directly influence election results," that concentrating protests produces higher voter turnout, that "sustained protest activity... signal(s) incumbent vulnerability," "that protests are associated with better-quality candidates entering the political arena," and that "to cause real change in American politics, hitting the streets is one of (the Republican Party's) better choices."
Protest Strategy for Republicans: the overriding strategic message to Republicans is obvious: in the upcoming 2020-2024 federal and state elections the RNC, the state Republican Parties and Republican PACS must mimic George Soros. They must conspire to incite ongoing protests and then to fund, organize and orchestrate those protests in those states, state legislative districts and Congressional districts where a Democrat incumbent is vulnerable (i.e. a blue state or district that went for Trump in 2016) and where a Republican incumbent is vulnerable.

2. Barriers to Republican Protests: The author concludes that "conservative protesters seem less willing (than Democrats) to go into hostile territory" and "are are less likely than their opponents to share common concerns across issue domains," which may explain why conservatives are less successful than Democrats at grassroots protest movements.
Protest Strategy for Republicans: The RNC, state Republican Parties and Republican PACS must mimic the decades-long success of the Democrats and deploy the Saul Alinsky tactics of attacking the enemy on his own turf, forging alliances of intersectionality. This means that the Establishment Republican bread and butter issues (lower taxes, less regulation, fiscal responsibility) must become existentially important to the Trump Republicans and the bread and butter issues of Trump Republicans ( control of illegal immigration, originalist judges and conservative constitutionalism, more jobs and higher wages, abortion suppression, religion in the public square and gun-rights) must become existentially-important to Establishment Republicans. These "alliances of intersectionality" must be forged in any particular campaign before any Party money and planning expertise will be used for inciting and carrying out protests in a particular election race.

3. The Nature of Republican Protests: ''The book argues that protests work... by conveying information and raising the salience of certain issues," particularly when the protests focus on issues that the party “owns.”
Protest Strategy for Republicans: In the upcoming 2020-24 election cycles Republicans will "own" more issues of political salience than at any time since the election of Dwight Eisenhower. Not only will Republicans "own" all of their bread and butter issues (see above,) but they will "own" the added issues of a) Obama Administration and Democrat Party criminality and political corruption in the Russia Hoax and SpyGate scandals, b) the Democrat Party as the Road to Socialism, c) the new and ugly "faces" of the Democrat Party (Adam Schiff, ACO and the anti-American, anti-white Squad; d) the demented, incoherent, corrupt Biden and e) Governor Cuomo and Blue State governors who were unprepared for and managerially- incompetent, economically- destructive, wantonly-cruel and medically-deadly in responding to the pandemic.

4. Protest Message, Forum and Messenger: As the book makes clear, if protests are to succeed they must not only focus on issues that Republicans "own," they must also raise the salience of those issues in the voters' mind and convey decisive information to the voters about those issues. Doing so raises the vital matters of message, messenger and forum. Because these vital matters are not discussed in the book or the book review, I offer a few thoughts, which are novel and most important if, for the first time in its history, the Republican Party is to wage a politically successful campaign of nationwide protests, which it should wage if it is to adopt the Democrat play-book and take the fight to the enemy.
Strategy for Republicans on Protest Message, Messenger and Forum:
(A) The pretext of modern protests must be a moral message (Dr. King taught us that) but the protest message, itself, like King's message, must be starkly negative to be effective, it must be harshly against something that is destructive of the good. Protests that are positive, that stand "for" something may bolster morale among the faithful, but they fail to generate the anger required to motivate campaign workers and, more importantly to sway public opinion, to influence voters. We are told by the Left so as to weaken their enemy and by RINO's who are fools that "positive" is what the public wants to hear. That's crap, and it's one reason Democrats always win the battle for the streets. So protests must be against something. These lame protests "for" the Second Amendment are examples of what not to do. Indeed, because the large, annual, "right to life" gathering in DC is an impressive rally, not a protest, it is mere "preaching to the choir" and serves largely to energize the spiritual zeal of right-to-lifers but not to sway voters.
Voters are drawn to the negative for the same psychological reasons people are drawn to bad news. So go with the negative dynamics, the transference, scapegoating, repression and projection of group psychology, all of which have been scientifically confirmed since Freud's 1921 "Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego," essayed in Hoffer's 1951 book, "The True Believer" and elaborated in Ernest Becker's "Denial of Death" in 1973. And it's all in the Democrat Party Protest Playbook written by Vladimir Lenin, simplified by Saul Alinsky and used successfully in every modern protest by a Democrat special interest group and their intersectional co-conspirators. It works not only because it's based on human nature and group psychology, but because going negative guarantees media coverage, which is essential for a protest to sway public opinion and influence voters. If you are against something, protest it vehemently and loudly, say it with anger and sarcasm and display the pain of the victim's of what you are against and the media will come. And, nowadays, an effective protest must always have victims, lots of victims with lots of suffering and injustice at the hands of the evil-doers you are protesting.
(B) Protest Forum: Forget the parades to the state capitol or to the White House or up Pennsylvania Avenue to the Congress. They waste manpower, dilute the optics and minimize the power of speech. Instead protesters must fill small university arenas with large crowds and have lots of people waiting outside unable to get in but participating via audio- video link. Sound familiar? Yep, it's the game plan for Trump's road show of campaign rallies AFTER becoming President. They were partly and repetitiously promotional rallies ("look at all the good stuff we've done") but largely and consistently negative protests AGAINST. They were populist to the core and bigly successful.( That the Wuhan Virus has shut down that protest forum is very bad for Republicans.) The university is the perfect forum to protest against something and to display victimhood because the university and its students are a showcase offering so much to be against and so much that the public at large opposes. And the university forum will draw crowds of opposition, which will bring the media. Central planning by the RNC of these events must be done by RNC lawyers who i) who demand that public universities and cities where they are located provide the opportunity of free speech and provide adequate police protection and ii) go to court to obtain those rights. The protesters must be carefully prepared to expect and cope with disruption without physical response. (The lunch-counter sit-ins of the 1960's are the model of passive resistance to Leftist student taunts and disruption.) And it all must be caught on RNC video for later use in the election campaigns.
C) Protest Messengers: Dr. King and Senator Eugene McCarthy, the most successful protesters in American history, demonstrated clearly that successful protests require a spokesman of moral authority and rhetorical skill. The Republican Party seems abundant in the former and deficient in the latter, while the Democrats have an abundance in the latter and are utterly lacking in the former. Republican speakers with both must be found; they are out there and some are known: Ann Coulter, Tucker Carlson, Mark Levin, Mark Steyn, David Horowitz, Victor Davis Hanson, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and half-a-dozen members of the House Conservative Caucus. One of the good consequences of the recent impeachment scam was the introduction to the public of a group of very skilled, very verbally-talented lawyers who are very prepared to speak in protest and on behalf of victims, including a couple of surprising, powerful allies, LawProf's Alan Dershowitz and Jonathon Turley. The legal academy and the liberal arts colleges have many more articulate, intellectually powerful, potential stars, and the RNC must find them and deploy them as protest messengers.

If one dislikes the message of a protest, the most effective way to neutralize its effect is to organize a counter-protest movement, however distasteful one finds that prospect.

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