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Progressive protesters face longer odds than the Tea Party did

Experiments suggest progressives will have a harder time converting protests into policy, compared with the Tea Party.

A protest at JFK International Airport, against the immigration ban
A protest at JFK International Airport, against the immigration ban, February 2017
Stephanie Keith / Getty

Over the past several weeks, progressives have taken to the streets (and airports, and school gymnasiums, and pipeline paths, and so on) in historic numbers. These public demonstrations owe some lineage to Black Lives Matter and Occupy, but the election and recent executive orders have clearly catalyzed a broader urgency on the left.

The protesters probably aren’t hoping to persuade many GOP legislators directly (let alone the Trump administration). They presumably do have Democrats in their sights, but even if Democrats heed the call, they will be hard-pressed to thwart the right’s agenda now that the filibuster is enfeebled.

So the activists’ real target audience, of course, is the broader citizenry — which is not a bad strategy. Indeed, if all the shouting and clever signs can nudge public opinion even a little to the left on some key issues, then lawmakers might feel pressure to respond.

To pull it off, though, the demonstrators must win the sympathies of people who pay only casual attention to public affairs. And for that to happen, those casual observers must first view protests as legitimate. If they don’t, the protesters may create a boomerang effect when it comes to public opinion (and to their policy goals).

So will these so-called Herbal Tea Party protests win over enough people to make a policy difference, or will they just deepen the backlash? Our new research points to the latter, and provides clues as to why conservative activism, by contrast, enjoyed relative success during the Obama years.

In February 2016, using a representative sample of 725 California residents, we conducted a survey experiment to see if liberals and conservatives view protests differently, and how those attitudes might be conditioned by the ideological goals of particular social movements. A few studies have shown that conservatives hold protesters in disproportionately low regard, but they were conducted with liberal ’60s protests as backdrop. We were interested to see if the ideological differences hold up in an era of prolific conservative unrest (the Tea Party, the pro-life movement, etc.).

First, we prompted all respondents with the following statement:

“In the past year, we have seen several groups of citizens stage disruptive protests against what they see as misuse of government power.”

Then we randomly assigned split halves of the sample to see one of two images. One half of the sample saw an image of conservative protesters at the 2016 Oregon Malheur Wildlife Refuge standoff involving the Bundy family. The image below is very similar to the image used in the experiment (copyright permissions prevent us from publishing the exact same photo as the one used).

Ammon Bundy, the leader of an anti-government militia, speaks to members of the media in front of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge Headquarters on January 6, 2016 near Burns, Oregon.
A photo from the Oregon protest in 2016. (Not the actual image used in the experiment, but a close approximation).

The other half of the sample saw an image of Black Lives Matter protesters (again, not the exact image used but a close approximation):

A Black Lives Matter march in Washington, DC.
A photo from a Black Lives Matter protest. (Not the actual image used in the experiment, but a close approximation.)
Mladen Antonov/AFP via Getty Images

We then asked all respondents: “Would you say that such anti-government protests are ‘appropriate or inappropriate?’” Responses split almost perfectly.

Using probit regression analysis, we looked at how the probability of viewing protests as “appropriate” depends on respondents’ ideology/party identification, the image they saw, and how those two things interact.

As the chart below makes clear, liberal Democrats reveal overwhelming support for the appropriateness of Black Lives Matter protests, while conservative Republicans find such activities from the other side of the aisle (or tracks) illegitimate. But here is the key finding: As the Bundy bars highlight, liberals have as much sympathy for their opponents as conservatives do for their friends. So liberal support ranges from middling to strong, whereas conservative support ranges from weak to middling. No wonder the Tea Party did pretty well over the past eight years but Occupy did not.

Distribution of experiment participants’ ideology by stimulus. Graph shows the percentage of each category that viewed protests as “appropriate.” Differences between groups are statistically significant at the 95 percent confidence level.
Data collected by authors.

So while progressive readers are patting themselves on the back for supporting the First Amendment, it may also be necessary to temper expectations that the current torrent of civil unrest will yield a course change. As we discussed above, to achieve short-term success beyond motivating their existing allies, the protests would have to convince majorities in ideologically red congressional districts and states to pressure legislators into more moderate stances. Given how conservatives seem to feel about protesters — especially liberal ones — we wouldn’t hold our breath.

We are not, however, saying the demonstrators should pack up their placards. In fact, though our findings indicate that they probably won’t make much headway as long as the GOP is in charge, they also suggest that those on the left respect their efforts. They might even be galvanized by them. Indeed, if the agitators can maintain their enthusiasm for about 20 more months, a Democratic congressional majority might be within reach. And then the protesters’ policy goals will be within reach as well.

David C. Barker is currently director of the Institute for Social Research at California State University Sacramento. In August, he will become director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University.

Kim L. Nalder is a professor of government and political director of the CALSPEAKS Opinion Research Center at California State University Sacramento.

Jessica Newham is a research technician at the Institute for Social Research at California State University Sacramento.