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SPA Professor David Barker Tracks Support for Political Protests

This recent study examined the ideological basis behind perceptions of protest legitimacy.

Last summer’s Black Lives Matter movement and the January 6 events on Capitol Hill have fixed the practice of public protest in the national consciousness. These demonstrations invited strong feelings of support and disapproval on both sides, but why? What makes citizens support or oppose protests?

SPA Professor David Barker, along with coauthors Kimberly Nalder and Jessica Newham, examined these questions in “Clarifying the Ideological Asymmetry in Public Attitudes Toward Political Protest,” published in American Politics Research on December 2, 2020.

“Over the course of the last 20 years or so, there has been a rise in the number of prominent conservative protest movements in the U.S., from anti-abortion protesters, to the Tea Party, to the folks who protest over gun rights or eminent domain,” said Barker. “Yet the social-scientific literature trying to understand why people support protests, or not, was limited, for the most part, to studies from the 60s and the 70s, when virtually all of the protests were liberal or progressive.”

To bridge this gap, Barker used the recent abundance of conservative protests as an opportunity to test for this “ideological asymmetry,” or whether conservatives are less likely than liberals to support their legitimacy. Does the traditional conservative opposition apply to protests in general, or just those in support of liberal causes?

“We wanted to test that hypothesis,” he said. “Is there something deep about conservatism that makes [conservatives] hate protests?”

Barker and his coauthors chose specific protest causes from each side of the ideological divide over the past 30 years, including economic inequality (Occupy Wall street protests of 2011), gender inequality (Women’s Marches of 2017-18), and police brutality (Black Lives Matter) for the liberal side, and government spending on social welfare programs (Tea Party protests of 2009-10), the right to an abortion, and illegal immigration for conservative protests. They primed 3,002 respondents to think about either liberal or conservative causes and recorded their perceptions of protest legitimacy.

Barkers’ findings were unsurprising but illuminating.

 “The previous studies were right to a point,” he said. “There is this ideological asymmetry, but it isn't always there, and it is conditioned on other factors. When liberals are primed to think about certain types of conservative protests, they don't support them either. But when the reverse is true, and conservatives are primed to think about liberal protests, they are even more resistant.”

Barker, who teaches Introduction to Politics for SPA, integrates these lessons into discussions about civil liberties, civil rights, and the impact of protest on the democratic process. “Protests affect the kind of policies that wind up being enacted,” he said, “but only when they are successful. And the thing that determines [success] is the degree to which the public supports it. Understanding why the public either supports or opposes a protest is important, ultimately, to understanding how social change happens.”

According to the lessons of this study, in general and on average, a conservative protest movement is more likely to be successful than a liberal one. “Conservatives will all support it, and some liberals will too,” Barker pointed out. “Liberal protests start off behind, because every single conservative is going to oppose it, making tougher to win over enough support to affect a policy change in the short run.”

Though this study has been in the works for years, Barker finds it fortunate that it came out now, when protests on both sides of the ideological divide are occupying public opinion.

“We didn't understand where support for protest movements comes from,” he said, “so hopefully we are contributing a little bit more to that understanding.”