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Does protesters' dissatisfaction with democracy explain willingness to use violence?

Updated: Jul 7, 2020

By Michael Heaney

Within days of the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers on May 25, 2020, peaceful protests – as well as violent unrest – spread around the United States. People smashed car windows, set buildings ablaze, and looted. President Donald Trump encouraged states to respond harshly to these events, and many did. Curfews were imposed, tear gas was deployed, and many people were arrested, including a CNN crew while it was reporting live on television. The President even threatened to invoke the Insurrection Action to deploy the military within the territorial boundaries of the United States.

These events collectively left people in the United States and around the world astonished by what they had observed. They wanted to know, for example, how is burning down a Wendy’s restaurant a justified response to a man’s murder? How can police be allowed to use tear gas to disperse a peaceful demonstration?

The logic of these events can be better understood by considering the strategies and tactics of challengers and power-holders. People in both groups see unrest as an opportunity to achieve their goals. Yet they are playing a dynamic game. As political scientist E.E. Schattschneider once explained, the winner in a conflict such as this is determined by the crowd. Winning means bringing public opinion to your side.

One way to understand unrest is to talk to peaceful protesters. These are activists that have taken time to try to make a difference on some issue. They have chosen to do so peacefully. But many of them have at least considered that, under certain circumstances, they might expand their repertoire to include property damage or other more contentious actions. Indeed, splinter groups from otherwise peaceful movements may form an organizational basis for deploying political violence.

To understand these motivations better, I conducted surveys of randomly selected participants at all of the large political demonstrations held on weekend days in Washington, DC in 2017 and 2018. I fielded surveys at 6 right-leaning events (such as the March for Life and the March for Trump) and 18 left-leaning events (such as the Women’s March and the March for Racial Justice). In total, I surveyed 3,860 people.

The survey drew a question from the American National Election Study (ANES) in which respondents were asked, “How much do you feel it is justified for people to use violence to pursue their political goals in this country?”. As indicated in the figure below, respondents overwhelmingly rejected political violence, with 74 percent saying that it is “not at all” justified. At the same time, this means that 26 percent saw it as justified at least a little. The question thus arises as to when these activists might be likely to see political violence as more justified.

One of the key factors that explains these attitudes is how people see democracy working in the United States. Is it working fairly for everyone? Does it favor some over others? Does it harm minorities? To assess these attitudes, I asked another question from the ANES: “On the whole, how satisfied are you with the way that democracy works in the United States?”.

In the figure below, I examined how answers on democratic satisfaction corresponded with the willingness to justify political violence at least a little.

Results show a significant, negative relationship between these factors. When activists are not satisfied at all with democracy, they are more likely to see a cause for political violence. As satisfaction with democracy increases, they are less likely to back violence. This relationship is robust. It holds up when sophisticated statistical models are estimated including appropriate control variables, such as gender, race, ideology, partisan identification, and religiosity.

These data provide insight on how the murder of George Floyd could prompt peaceful people to turn to violence. Social movements have responded peacefully to similar incidents where unarmed black men were killed by police. Yet the problem persists. If voting, running for office, and demonstrating do not work, some people may think that violence is the only way to be heard. Challengers may reason that powerholders will pay attention to burning buildings, thus forcing concessions from them.

The data also illuminate the dilemma that challengers face from the unrest. Much of the public is largely satisfied with the way that democracy works in the United States. They may not have voted for the current president or agree with a range of his policies, but they would prefer to address these issues within the established system. Consequently, they may not see or fully understand motivations for seemingly random property damage. If they themselves have not suffered “a long train of abuses”, then they may support efforts by powerholders to restore order, as some polls show.

President Trump is gambling that these dynamics give him the upper hand. He expects that the public prefers order to disorder, even if they are appalled at the murder of George Floyd. Such was the case in 1968, when violent protests helped a Republican to win the presidency.

Trump’s strategy depends on other powerholders staying on his side. Recent criticism of his use of the military from his own former Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, led other prominent Republicans to also raise concerns. Trump’s missteps in addressing the protests have helped to shift the dynamic in favor of challengers in recent days.

My final thought is that even though challengers may ultimately win this round in the battle for public opinion, powerholders generally hold the upper hand in these struggles. A major reason for this advantage is that easier for powerholders to act collectively than is the case for challengers. Social movements, such as #BlackLivesMatter, are well advised to beware of the political identity paradox in which activists become caught up in their own beliefs and lose sight of opinions in the wider community. Mobilizations for social justice are most effective when they are able to address the concerns of their own activists and other supporters while at the same time communicating these issues in a way that the wider public can understand and act on.

Michael T. Heaney is a Political Scientist at the University of Michigan and the University of Glasgow. Follow him on Twitter at @michaeltheaney.

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