How Protest Moves From the Streets Into the Statehouse

How Protest Moves From the Streets Into the Statehouse

Direct Action

The practical politics of protest.


The summer of 2020 was a summer of protest. In the spring, anger over the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin initiated one of the largest and most sustained periods of mass protest in the United States in decades. Enormous Black-led multiracial protests spread across the country, ultimately feeding into a global wave of collective action calling for racial justice and police abolition. Last summer was also the summer before a presidential election—a moment in which the engines of national partisan politics and electioneering were kicking into high gear. So perhaps it was inevitable that the grassroots politics of protest found its way—for better or worse—into the stump speeches of Joe Biden and Donald Trump.

At the Democratic National Convention in August, the party seemed to celebrate the resurgence of Black Lives Matter, embracing the movement—rhetorically, at least—as part of the Democratic coalition. The convention opened by featuring, on the first night, some members of the families of Floyd and Eric Garner, who was killed by police in New York City in 2014. A few days later, a video tribute to the recently deceased congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis interspersed footage from the 1960s with images from the current protests, tying the past and present of Black struggle to the Democrats through the vehicle of Lewis’s life. Meanwhile, at the Republican National Convention, Black Lives Matter was no less present and no less tied to the Democratic Party. Echoing a different set of connections to the 1960s—the politics of a conservative “law and order” backlash—Rudy Giuliani ominously warned that “a vote for Biden and the Democrats” would risk bringing “lawlessness to your city, to your town, to your suburb.” Whereas the Democratic convention featured members of the families of Black men killed by police, the Republicans gave prime-time speaking slots to Mark and Patricia McCloskey, a couple facing charges for brandishing weapons at Black Lives Matter protesters who were marching by their home in St. Louis.

The events of that summer drew electoral and protest politics together in a way that might feel familiar, even obvious, to most Americans. Given the increasingly polarized environment in the United States, it might seem natural that politicians would identify in protests an opportunity to position themselves politically, and that citizens, in turn, would interpret this positioning through their own commitments and thus their own partisan preferences.

Yet while elections have long been at the center of political science research, their connections with protest have not. As Daniel Q. Gillion observes in his new book, The Loud Minority, many of his fellow political scientists have tended to exclude protest from their consideration, ceding the study of social movements largely to sociologists and historians. As a result, their research has often neglected one of the main questions of US political life: how protest affects institutions, policy outcomes, elite incentives, and elections.

With The Loud Minority, Gillion seeks to step into this void. A scholar of political behavior—broadly speaking, the study of mass political attitudes, identities, and actions—he is also a student of movement politics in the United States. In his 2013 book The Political Power of Protest, he studied the effect of racial justice movements on policy agendas within an array of formal political institutions, from the presidency to Congress to the Supreme Court. Protest, he argued, served as a kind of informational cue for policy-makers and elected officials, by increasing the salience of particular issues and providing incentives for political elites to attend to the protesters’ demands. Forced to assess the intensity of protests as a means of understanding minority concerns, these elites would eventually conclude that addressing the issues at stake in “high salience” protests—those that are large in scale, persistent over time, and provoke a police presence—could well serve their own political or partisan interests.

The Loud Minority builds and expands on this argument by examining the relationship between “informative protest” of this kind and the electorate. Like congressional representatives or Supreme Court justices, voters look to activism for information—and as a result, protests become “part of the social learning process.” They “act as an avenue of social communication between activists and nonactivists,” enabling the voting public to “evaluate candidates as well as social conditions” when choosing whom to vote for. Protesters may be a loud minority of citizens, a set of especially motivated and impassioned individuals who are in many ways not representative of the general public. But the silent majority of voters are not as disconnected from—or dismissive of—protest as many assume.

Despite the limited attention paid to how protest influences US elections, Gillion contends that over the past 60 years, the Democratic and Republican parties have increasingly “absorbed” and “represented” the demands of protesters. The partisan realignment that began in the 1950s and ’60s—which was spurred in part by the midcentury civil rights movement—made both parties (along with their constituencies) more ideologically unified and cemented their relationships to the protest movements associated with them. Over the decades since then, the link between protest and partisan affiliation has only become stronger, as mobilized voters go to the polls to support or reject candidates based on their relationship with contemporary protest movements. As Gillion puts it, “protesters’ voices” have increasingly become “the party’s voice, and that voice [is] unapologetically ideological.”

To show us how protest became yoked to the parties, Gillion takes us through the various moments in the electoral process: conventions, the campaign donation cycle, Election Day. At political conventions, protesters mobilize not only to influence party platforms but also to capitalize on media attention in order to communicate with the electorate. By doing so, they turn conventions into opportunities to dramatize for voters the relationship, or gap, between partisan agendas and activist demands. At conventions, after all, Gillion writes, “the cameras are on and rolling.”

Gillion marks the emergence of this dynamic at the 1964 Democratic National Convention, when the breakaway Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, organized by a coalition of civil rights workers, attempted to unseat the Mississippi delegation and contest the statewide disenfranchisement of Black voters. Since that moment, activists have regularly transformed these political gatherings into sites of protest—from the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, where police brutalized anti–Vietnam War demonstrators, to the 2004 Republican convention in New York City, where a new generation of anti-war activists found themselves corralled into so-called free speech zones. Despite the repression they faced, Gillion argues—or perhaps because of it—the protesters succeeded in reaching a larger audience and influencing political action far beyond the convention.

Gillion also considers the differences in how liberal and conservative activists conceive of their role at conventions. During the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, where Gillion’s team interviewed protesters about their motivations and goals, liberal protesters expressed intense discontent with the party and hoped their actions would pressure politicians, influence the nomination process, or shape the views of voters watching from home. Liberal protesters also showed up at the GOP convention in Cleveland that year, aiming to persuade voters to join them in their opposition to the Republican Party. Beside them, a smaller number of conservative demonstrators rallied rather than protested: They wanted to show the intensity of their identification with the Republican nominee—to tie themselves more tightly to the party and to Trump.

Gillion’s account hinges on what he calls “ideological protest,” or what we might more straightforwardly think of as protest’s partisan character. He argues that voters view protests and social movements through a partisan lens—seeing some as “liberal” and others as “conservative,” based on which party is most associated with the issue at hand. Protests make particular issues more salient for voters, especially those who sympathize with the activists’ commitments and consequently feel motivated to act politically. But protest does more than simply mobilize voters; it also makes them more partisan, strengthening their support for the party they claim as their own and the political identity they view as more representative of their commitments and collective interests. “Put simply,” Gillion writes, “protest moves individuals to cultivate the seed of their existing partisanship.”

Most protests, of course, do not take place at political conventions, but as Gillion shows, they still operate as ideological links between voters, parties, candidates, and policy issues. After waves of what he calls “liberal protest” between 2016 and 2018 in Phoenix, Ariz., and Portland, Ore.—including teacher strikes against low pay, student walkouts and “die-ins” for stronger gun control laws, airport protests in opposition to Trump’s Muslim ban, and local iterations of the 2017 Women’s March—Gillion finds that proximity to such protests markedly increased campaign donations to Democratic candidates. While these protests also spurred what he describes as a “monetary backlash”—signaling their opposition, conservative voters increased their contributions to Republican candidates—its magnitude was comparatively small. “In other words,” Gillion concludes, “when liberal protest occurs, everyone makes money. Democrats just make more of it.”

Protests likewise increase the turnout on Election Day, operating as a mechanism of voter mobilization. In 2016, Gillion suggests, despite a widespread rejection of Black Lives Matter by conservatives, the strongest effect of the movement’s activism was in mobilizing Black voters and, more generally, liberal voters. In the lead-up to the election, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and the Democratic Party all credibly linked themselves to the movement, Gillion argues, and voters responded by expressing their support for the movement by turning out for Democratic candidates.

Voters may indeed be, as Gillion writes, “the silent majority watching protest from the comfort of their home.” But in any given election, the silent majority that matters most is the one that feels connected to the loud minority in the streets.

The Loud Minority addresses the perennial question of whether protest movements primarily motivate support or spur backlash; it also helps us understand the way that activism fits within the institutional landscape of American democracy. Though grounded in statistical analysis, the book is clear and readable, and it succeeds, by and large, in offering a theory and empirical analysis of how activism and the outcomes of elections are related. Pushing back against skepticism about the efficacy and purpose of protest, The Loud Minority makes an often impassioned case for viewing activism, social movements, and protest as essential elements of democratic life rather than irregular disruptions of it. Protests, Gillion insists, are part of institutional politics too, and the voting public’s response to them can help transform parties as well as their policy priorities.

But in other ways, The Loud Minority raises more questions than it can answer. The book glosses over the distinctions between left-wing and right-wing activism that are essential to understanding the power of protest to prompt real democratic transformations—or to intensify domination. And it ignores the violent capacities of the state to police and criminalize protesters, as well as the frequency with which the tools of repression are wielded—by Democratic as well as Republican officials—against movements on the left.

For Gillion, the dynamic between elections and protest enhances and strengthens liberal democracy, no matter who is doing the protesting. Protest informs voters’ opinions and mobilizes them to engage electorally, which in turn shapes the behavior, incentives, and concerns of elected officials. In this way, activism is an integral part of the United States’ “deliberative democracy.” Though he worries that protests can accelerate polarization and thus erode common ground, Gillion ends the book by suggesting that the “steady pounding of demonstrators’ feet” provides “the slow beating heart of American democracy” as the concerns of a passionate few shape the “evolving will of the people” and transform the polity.

Gillion assumes that protest arises organically from the grassroots and influences parties to the extent that it mobilizes voters. But the relationship between right-wing activism and conservative elites is much more complicated. Like the Tea Party town halls a decade ago, the anti-lockdown protests this past year were orchestrated, in part, by well-connected, well-funded conservative advocacy groups like FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity and amplified through a host of conservative media outlets, from Fox News to Infowars.

It is too simplistic to say that these movements are completely astroturfed; the “public anger is both real and manufactured,” as Lisa Graves wrote in The New York Times last year. But that is precisely the point. Despite its populist rhetoric and claims to powerlessness, right-wing activism feeds off its connections to “the superrich and their front groups,” not to mention its alliances with elected Republicans. Such protests are not merely the product of one loud minority mobilizing, like many others, around a cause; nor is their relationship to the party evidence of an evolving popular will so much as the political and economic priorities of those already in power.

Examining the tactics and aims of contemporary right-wing activism—its form and substance—likewise suggests that its interaction with electoralism and with the Republican Party is by nature neither liberal nor democratic. When, on January 6, hundreds of Trump supporters, mobilized by months of calls by him and other Republican officials to “stop the steal,” stormed the US Capitol, they were not strengthening or engaging with the structures of liberal democracy; they were both abusing and threatening them. Trump insisted that his was a “sacred landslide” victory, and the rioters agreed, despite all evidence to the contrary: They declared that their collective will represented a far truer one than that of the majority of voters who elected Biden. In the aftermath, 147 congressional Republicans legitimated that notion by voting against the certification of Biden’s win.

It is as easy to overstate the threat of the insurrection as it is to understate it. Those assembled on January 6 had no apparent plan to prevent Biden from taking office. Nor is it likely they knew much of Trump’s. But among the rioters were militia members and white nationalists, Proud Boys, off-duty police, small business owners, and elected members of state and local Republican governments—a snapshot of the modern right in all its shades. What they shared was less a specific demand than an insistence that true American democracy, properly construed, requires the domination of others—the disenfranchisement of the wrong kind of voters, the hardening of borders against the wrong kind of entrants, the use of overwhelming force against the wrong kinds of protesters. In the months since then, Republican lawmakers have affirmed this core idea, ratcheting up their efforts to restrict the franchise and to criminalize protest.

All loud minorities are not, in fact, equal. The repressive force regularly meted out against Black Lives Matter activists—the armored phalanxes of riot police, the mass arrests, the physical brutality of cops empowered to restore “order”—stands in stark contrast to the restraint and deference shown to right-wing protesters, including those on January 6, and tells a powerful story about which loud minority is perceived as a threat to the existing order and which is considered a privileged representative of it.

Gillion opens his book with Nixon’s 1968 invocation of the “silent majority,” linking it to Trump’s use of the same phrase nearly 50 years later. Nixon’s “silent majority,” like Trump’s, referred implicitly to the coalition of white voters he hoped to mobilize—those whose values and identities stood opposed to the loud minority of Black radicals in the streets, in 1968 no less than in 2016. Yet in taking up the concept, Gillion inverts its meaning: Against Nixon and Trump, he insists on the continuities between activists and electoral democracy and argues that the former needs to be understood as part of the ordinary institutions of the latter.

Repackaged as a metaphor for the entire electorate, however, Gillion’s “silent majority” masks the deeply anti-democratic nature of the contemporary right. The cross-class coalition of white Americans who previously constituted the silent majority of the Nixon era no longer enjoys the material, cultural, or electoral power it could once take for granted. In this moment, several dangerous dynamics meet and interact with one another: intensified right-wing and white nationalist mobilization, combined with the violence of the police, and at the same time a Republican Party increasingly dependent on voter suppression and arcane constitutional procedure to maintain power without assembling a majority coalition of voters. What Gillion depicts as a productive, progressive dialectic between the grassroots and electoral democracy—focusing largely on examples from the left—looks more like mutual radicalization when we consider the right.

Insurgent grassroots action can remake American democracy—indeed, can build a democracy worthy of the name. I share this belief with Gillion. But it can also serve as a wellspring of reaction, feeding and accelerating the growth of a racial authoritarianism already well established within American institutions. Simply put, democracy depends on the defeat of some loud minorities.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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