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Political Protests Can Indeed Work

New research suggests political demonstrations are effective in influencing legislators when they are large, peaceful, and unified.
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(Photo: Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images for

(Photo: Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images for

Did the many protests against killing the Affordable Care Act — including loud demonstrations at public forums — convince moderate members of the House of Representatives to vote no? A number of left-leaning commentators, including New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait, argue they did.

Newly published research provides hard data that backs up Chait’s anecdotal evidence. It finds protests can and do change lawmakers’ minds — if they are well-organized and well-behaved.

“Can protesters — by who they are, and how they behave — send cues to politicians that affect their opinions? Our results suggest they can,” write Ruud Wouters of the University of Amsterdam and Stefaan Walgrave of the University of Antwerp. Their study is published in the April issue of the American Sociological Review.

The study, conducted in 2015, featured 269 Belgian politicians — members of the national parliament, or one of two regional parliaments. As part of a larger survey, all indicated their position on the issue of asylum for refugees.

Then they watched two short video clips of a demonstration in which protestors called for faster, more humane, and less arbitrary rules governing asylum claims. After watching each, they were again asked their opinion on the issue, how important they considered it, and whether they contemplated any action to address it.

The vignettes were manipulated to convey high and low levels of participation, unity, and “worthiness.” Low worthiness was depicted by images of broken windows and demonstrators getting into altercations with police, indicating the protest had turned violent. High worthiness was depicted with images of peaceful demonstrators, including parents walking with their children.

“Unity” was depicted as either high (with all banners conveying a single message) or low (with different demonstrators airing various grievances). “Numbers” were manipulated to show a small demonstration (about 500 people) or a large one (more than 5,000, shown in aerial photographs).

“We found that who the protestors are, and how they behave, influences elected representatives’ opinion formation,” the researchers write. “Protests that mobilize demonstrators who agree among themselves, share a single claim, and bring many people to the streets impress elected officials. Unity and numbers significantly change representatives’ opinions regarding the importance of the underlying issue. These cues even alter representatives’ positions, and make them willing to undertake action.”

The effect of these images was relatively small, compared to that of the politicians’ pre-existing beliefs. Nevertheless, the results suggest “elected officials’ opinions are not entirely stable,” but rather are affected by “signals coming in from society” — including protests. This held true for politicians on the left as well as the right.

The fact that the lawmakers’ shifted their stances, at least somewhat, is more impressive when you consider that “the demonstrators show in the clip, and mentioned in the voice-over, came across mainly as being foreign and poor.” In other words, they weren’t likely voters. This suggests protests by “stronger societal groups, such as teachers or employers,” could have even stronger effects on lawmakers’ opinions.

In announcing the study, Wouters directly addressed the anti-Trump protest movement in the United States, suggesting it will be most effective if people turn out in force and convey a single, unified message. He adds that “violence will further polarize the situation and burn bridges.”

Resisters: You have your — literal — marching orders.