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Direct Action: The Practical Politics of Protest


By Daniel Q. Gillion

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.

Read entire article at The Nation