A recent report from Harvard Kennedy School, American Enterprise Institute (AEI), and Stockholm University offers a study of the effects of protest rallies on voter turnout and public policy, and in particular the Tea Party movement which they define as a conservative libertarian political movement that rose to prominence through coordinated rallies across the US on Tax Day April 2009.
“While freedom of speech and assembly are central pillars of democracy, recognized as intrinsically valuable, it is unclear how effective the exercise of these freedoms is in bringing about change.”
“Though there are numerous historical episodes where political change has been associated with or preceded by political demonstrations, such as the French Revolution, the Civil Rights movement, and the recent Arab Spring, it is unclear to what extent these protests caused the change.”
Their study asks – Can political protests bring about political change? The answer seems to be yes. Freedom of speech and assembly can and does matter. Protests can affect and bring about political change.
In summary, they report that “protests can build political movements that ultimately affect policymaking, and that these effects arise from influencing political views and behavior rather than solely through the revelation of existing political preferences”. This means people’s minds were shaped, and not just a symptom of confirmation bias. The study reveals:
1. Policymaking was affected, as incumbents responded to large protests in their district by voting more conservatively in Congress.
2. Voter turnout – estimates suggest a significant multiplier effect: with Republican voter turnout 7-14% higher causing a shift to the right in selection of politicians and policymaking
3. local activism suggests that the protests operate by enabling social interactions and altering political preferences
4. A temporary positive shock in rally size causes a persistent increase in the number of active movement members
5. Larger Tax Day protests also increase member and monetary contributions to the movement, where the effect is increasing over time
6. protests impact subsequent protests, as larger Tax Day rallies drive larger Tax Day protests in the following year
7. protests increased support in the general population in favor of the political views promoted by the Tea Party movement, such as the opposition to raising the income taxes of high earners
“Our results suggest that political activism does not derive its usefulness solely from the provision of information or its consumption value, but that the interactions produced at rallies and protests can affect citizens’ social contexts in ways such that a movement for political change persists autonomously. This confirms the importance of social dynamics in networks of citizens for the realization of political change, and seems of relevance not only in the context of representative democracies, but also at the onset of revolutionary movements.
Authors: Andreas Madestam, Stockholm University, Daniel Shoag, Harvard Kennedy School, Stan Veuger, American Enterprise Institute, David Yanagizawa-Drott, Harvard Kennedy School
You can find the full study here: http://www.aei.org/papers/economics/do-political-protests-matter-evidence-from-the-tea-party-movement/