2017 saw protest movements return with a vengeance, as millions protested Donald Trump at marches for women, science, immigration, & more. But will that translate into public opinion shifts or electoral mobilization in 2018? Dana Fisher finds a lot of cross-over in concerns and participation across a year of big protests and signs it is translating into electoral mobilization. Nazita Lajevardi finds that protests and news coverage surrounding Trump’s immigration executive order moved public views against the policy.
The Niskanen Center’s Political Research Digest features up-and-coming researchers delivering fresh insights on the big trends driving American politics today. Get beyond punditry to data-driven understanding of today’s Washington with host and political scientist Matt Grossmann. Each 15-minute episode covers two new cutting-edge studies and interviews two researchers.
Grossmann: This week on Political Research Digest – Who’s protesting the Trump administration? And is the resistance changing public views? From the Niskanen Center, I’m Matt Grossmann.
2017 saw protest movements return with a vengeance as millions protested Donald Trump at marches for women, science, immigration, and more. But will that translate into public opinion shifts or electoral mobilization in 2018?
Dana Fisher of the University of Maryland is publicly drafting her forthcoming book, American Resistance, with Colombia University Press in real time. Her newly released chapter, “Resistance in the Streets,” finds a lot of crossover and concerns in participation across a year of big protests. I talked to her about related organizing for 2018.
But can the resistance impact people beyond those who attend? I talked to Nazita Lajevardi of Michigan State University about evidence that protests and news coverage surrounding Trump’s immigration executive order changed public views. Her new study, “A Change of Heart: Why Individual-Level Public Opinion Shifted Against Trump’s ‘Muslim Ban,'” co-authored with Lauren Collingwood and Kassra Oskooii in Political Behavior is the first big evidence that the resistance may be impacting the wider public.
Scholars often see protests as an alternative to traditional political participation, but Dana Fisher says her research shows it is the product of highly engaged activists.
Fisher: What I’ve been doing since 2000 is collecting data on people who participate in large-scale protest events. And based on the data I’ve collected I have a lot of evidence to show that these are not first of all disengaged complainers, if you want to call them that, which is not a technical term. The people who are participating in these events are also extremely civically engaged. And the people who are participating in the resistance which started after the inauguration are particularly so.
And the ways that I can tell you that I know are that they are engaged in a whole bunch of other types of civic activities. They vote as I already mentioned. They contact their elected officials. They do it regularly. They do it much more than the general population does. And they also have attended town hall meetings quite substantially. More than half of the people who participated in recent events report also going to town hall meetings. Which is interesting, because town hall meetings are becoming less and less easy to go to because a lot of members of Congress are no longer holding them.
Grossmann: January’s anniversary Women’s March marked a full year of big protests under Trump with a broadening audience.
Fisher: The anniversary ended up turning out something like two million people around the country which is not small at all. And that’s particularly interesting because it was organized not by these large-scale national professionalized organizations that played a large role in organizing the first Women’s March. But rather it was coordinated by these small local groups, many of which represented state organizations. And so that was fascinating in my opinion.
And the other thing that I think is very interesting is the degree to which based on the surveys that I’ve done with people in the crowd across the large-scale protests that have happened since and including the Women’s March in 2017, what we found is that the percentage of moderates, political moderates and people who self-identify as being right-leaning is going up as well as people who are not Clinton supporters, did not report voting for Clinton, but reported voting for third party candidates. So what we’re seeing is an expansion of the resistance to include a broader range of people.
Grossmann: The Women’s March fits well with the year of protests, often including the same types of participants.
Fisher: There are very few statistically significant differences between the people who’ve turned up to the women’s marches and the people who’ve turned out to the March for Science, the People’s Climate March, the March for Racial Justice.
In a lot of ways, much of my work right now is aiming to look at patterns across all of these marches to see how they’re similar and different. And the women’s marches, number one, brings out more women than men more so than all the other marches. Although all of the marches bring out more women than men.
And that is, although noteworthy, it’s not different from any other form of volunteering in America because all the research points to the fact that women tend to volunteer and participate in activism and civic activities more than men.
Grossmann: But Fisher says the protests aren’t bringing out less educated citizens. And therefore are disproportionately white.
Fisher: It is true that the people who’ve been participating in protests are predominantly white. However, what I think is really interesting in that I found in the data that I’ve collected which is based on over fifteen hundred people who’ve participated in protests since the Women’s March last year, is that well round seventy-seven percent or so give or take depending on the event were self-identified as white.
What we also had is the rest of the people who participated ran the gamut in terms of the racial and ethnic backgrounds. And these are highly educated people. They are mostly holding at least an undergraduate degree if not more.
And if you compare the racial and ethnic make-up of Americans who have undergraduate degrees, what you end up with is a percentage of whites that are around seventy-six percent. And then you have people who fall across other racial and ethnic backgrounds within that. And so what we basically have found is that the racial diversity is consistent with educated people in America.
Grossmann: Many of the protests build on prior mobilization, but there was some new action.
Fisher: The March for Science was new. And organizers, the AAA, played a very large role in organizing the March for Science. That was new. It was trying to work through a lot of academic associations some of which I’m sure you remember of.
The other ones however are building on lasting constituencies and lasting movements. The People’s Climate March last year in April was the second People’s Climate March in the United States. The first one was in 2014. And it mobilized over 450,000 people in the streets in New York City as well as having sister marches across the country.
Grossmann: But protests have amped up lately because Democrats are back to protesting.
Fisher: I think that there’s no question that there is some degree of just a partisan swing here. However at the same time the degree to which we are seeing protests and other contentious tactics being used by people on the left is new and definitely noteworthy.
Grossmann: This time, the protests are translating into electoral and legislative advocacy.
Fisher: Here this is all about getting people not just registered but to vote and specifically focusing on midterm elections and midterm candidates even thinking about the primaries. And based on what I’ve observed so far, it looks like there is a lot of potential there, particularly because of these new organizations that are merging specifically to provide what we would think of as kind of grassroots infrastructure to keep people involved. I know that many of the branches of Indivisible have reported being formed on buses coming back from the Women’s March in 2017.
So there’s a link just there – that there are people marching, they wanted to do more. They started these Indivisible branches. So now I know Indivisible is planning on coordinating to some degree or at least assisting local branches in working through the primary season as well as through the miterm elections.
Grossmann: Fisher says the protest movements have earned positive media attention due to non-violence.
Fisher: The fact that all of these protests are peaceful and they’ve you know the organizers across the board have done a very good job of sending a clear message. They want what they call ‘”green protests,” which are protests which are purely peaceful with no civil disobedience. I think that that message has been received by the participants and it does play a role in the way that the media frames and covers the events.
Grossmann: But she thinks the primary influence is on participants rather than the wider public.
Fisher: I think with regard to the kinds of large-scale protests I’ve been looking at, I’m not sure how they’re related to changes in public opinion. I think that probably the places where the marches are actually having the most effect is on the people who choose to participate. And I suppose those who choose to come out, that’s where you probably see the relationship most closely with public opinion.
Grossmann: Nazita Lajevardi has found that at least some of the resistance is impacting the public.
Lajevardi: Typically when we think about public opinion and how just ordinary Americans have different attitudes towards issues, we think that these opinions are typically stable over time and the aggregate. And even in the individual level, we do see some fluctuations with partisanship but when it comes to opinion change, it’s pretty rare to see long-lasting shifts.
What we show here is one issue that actually showed a shift with a changing information environment that can really lead to some good lessons for policy makers and for academics alike.
The second big contribution about this is that the reason why the shift actually took place is that the information environment shifted into an un-American set of language basically. The information environment meaning the legislators, the media pundits. People began to frame the issue that we explore which is the ‘Muslim Ban’ as particularly un-American, as violating egalitarian norms of American identity and what not.
So we show not only that public opinion can actually shift but also that this information environment can help shift it.
Grossmann: She thinks it was the immediacy of Trump’s action in the swift backlash that led to big change.
Lajevardi: The study takes advantage of an executive order that was issued six days after the inauguration. And so it really shows the mass public sort of reacting to something that was a policy that was really severe and that happened quickly.
And I think conventional wisdom would have thought “OK, this is going to take some time. And perhaps it’s not going to be implemented in the way that it was stated.” And I think that the mass resistance that we observed perhaps stemmed from the fact that it happened quite rapidly and also to the tee of what was proposed.
Grossmann: She’s followed up later to show that shifts in opinion against the ban have lasted.
Lajevardi: We actually went back into the field nearly a year later so a couple of weeks ago in early January and we re-sampled the same people. And what’s really unique about this issue that we hope to be able to publish as future research is that these opinions actually stayed. So once they shifted they actually never regressed back to the mean. And that is really big for us because this is basically going in opposition to scholarship that would have expected us to regress back to the mean.
Grossmann: Lajevardi thinks positive media coverage of the resistance made a big difference.
Lajevardi: Throughout 2017 the media coverage, it subsided a little bit, but especially when Muslim Ban 2.0 and 3.0 were revealed and then with the ensuing court challenges the volume did peak, but the coverage never shifted back. So that is to say that the coverage remained either neutral or anti-ban. So really the opportunity and the information environment never really arose.
Grossmann: People with strong American national identities were the ones who changed their minds.
Lajevardi: We’re pretty set on the fact that this is about high American identity voters having moved. Now that’s not to say that we’re ruling out any other stories. It’s just that our sample was a bit too small to be able to capture whether for instance there was a racial effect or not. We did try to do those analyses, but I think we’re hesitant to sort of draw a line there.
I can say that when we go back into the field and we do our follow-up study, the trend that we saw with American identity remains consistent and it still tells the story. And it’s the most significant predictor of our story. So I do think that this was about high American identity voters moving on this issue.
Grossmann: And the protests helped drive the media coverage.
Lajevardi: The participants were not solely Muslims, solely people affected by the travel ban. They were in fact mostly ordinary Americans who were there sorting of fighting for these values and ideals. So we think that’s sort of the key difference. This was something that mobilized enough Americans to get out of their houses and go to airports and go to landmarks. And it wasn’t something that was more a partisan thing. You saw a lot of people across the island, across generations coming together.
Grossmann: Lajevari thinks the images they created were quite influential.
Lajevardi: What we do know is that images of course that we’re being portrayed in the media environment showing people stranded at airports, kids being separated from their families and what not, these images were striking.
In addition of course we had numerous legislators especially across the partisan isle and so, plenty of Republicans, coming out and denouncing the ban And we think that was pretty effective as well.
And the fact that the frame was consistently about how it violated these American norms of egalitarianism and just welcoming immigrants and equality. We think that it was sort of overarching theme that moved this opinion. The protests of course played a really important role as well.
Grossmann: But the opinion change so far was still mostly Democrats moving to oppose Trump.
Lajevardi: In terms of movement for Democrats, I think there’s a substantial amount of people who can sort of buy into this frame that what Trump is doing is, and this is just me speculating, is just un-American and it’s violating our norms and it’s destroying our democracy.
And then I think on the other hand you have people who, their priors are just being reaffirmed. And that these were any racially resentful attitudes that pre-existed and maybe weren’t as openly expressed.
Grossmann: The immigration protests may have been uniquely able to shift opinions.
Lajevardi: The difference between these protests and the Women’s March for instance was that the Women’s’ March was about a larger subset of the population. My guess was that highly mobilized people to the left were the ones who showed up. And that the organization was a little bit more official and planned.
What was unique and different about this protest and I think which is why we saw such a stable and rapid shift is because this was about a very small segment of the population. It was an issue that was framed to really violate these core tenants of American identity.
And it was somewhat disorganized right? The way that these protests sort of sprouted up was really on a grassroots sort of level where people were organizing on Facebook and Twitter and by word of mouth. And the same planning that went into the Women’s March didn’t go into this. So the people who showed up I think were just ordinary people who were afraid and were upset. And it was a reactionary response. I don’t think it was as much of a planned response and a strategic response.
Grossmann: So what should we be looking for in 2018? Fisher wants to know how much the protest movements will evolve into an electoral backlash.
Fisher: I think that the place that we have to be watching right now is how all of this collective energy that has emerged around these different political issues when it runs the gamut as I already said, how that starts to translate into political action at not necessarily the local level but at the state level around legislatures as well as local politics for sure and of course the congressional election.
Grossmann: But she says 2018 democratic victory could demobilize the movement.
Fisher: If all that happens, does the resistance die? That’s the big question for me. And I think that it will be extremely difficult to maintain momentum if the Democrats are as successful as some people are predicting.
Grossmann: Lajevardi said she’ll be in the field tracking any rapid shifts in policy that lead to new resistance.
Lajevardi: I am very curious and I’m working on having studies in the field before rapid shocks occur. So I think that this is sort of one way to start to measure public opinion. It’s sort of be in the field, testing a number of questions prior to events occurring and sort of just take that risk. And that’s something that I’m working on right now. So I can expect a number of policies that were brought up during the election to occur rapidly and swiftly and without the public’s knowledge.
And that’s the sort of opinion shift that I’m going to keep an eye open for. So you can imagine the Mexico border wall, a deal on DACA. Things like that.
Grossmann: She says it’s still not clear when and where the public shifts its opinion in response to events, but it’s more likely when opinions are not as well formed.
Lajevardi: We still don’t have a systematic theory of when to expect opinion shift to occur either with a treatment such as face-to-face or an exogenous shock as we observed in our papers. So I think really what’s an open question is when can we expect this to occur? And sort of teasing out what other groups and policies are going to be able to be moved, people are going to be able to be moved on. And why?
Lajevardi: And I think the why, I think Brockman and Coller where on to something and I think sort of delve it, teasing that out further is where we have to go. Which is these are groups and policies that people have unformed opinions about. The public is just not educated about them. It’s not something that they’ve learned through childhood and through partisanship. These are issues and groups that they just have very little information about. So trying to sort of develop that theory more as it pertains to other groups and policies I think is the way forward.
Grossmann: There’s a lot more to learn. Lajevardi will be tracking opinion change while Fisher follows resistance in the streets and in the election.
And Political Research Digest will be available bi-weekly from the Niskanen Center. I’m your host, Matt Grossmann. Please encourage others to subscribe on iTunes and read more on niskanencenter.org.
Thanks to Nazita Lajeavardi and Dana Fisher for joining me.
Join us next time to find out why American citizens are losing trust in their government and how much it matters.