This post was written by Brett Byll and edited by me (Lee Jussim). It describes his honors thesis research, conducted under Akeela Careem (my graduate advisee) and me.
In 2020, there was a surge in American protest. The research summarized here examined why people support protest. (Notably, though, wide-scale lockdowns left many in their homes lacking other obligations.)
There were two broad types of protests that occurred in 2020: Protest against COVID-19 lockdown restrictions, and protests against racial injustice, particularly in response to police brutality, under the banner of the Black Lives Matter movement. In these cases, there appeared to be a political split. The right tended to be the ones protesting against lockdowns; the left tended to be against racial injustice.
What was going on? Why did people protest? What predicted protest?
Why is Understanding Protest Important?
People often defend or justify even extreme protestors on their own “side.” So on the right, we saw people supporting armed protests at statehouses and, ultimately, the January 6th storming of the Capitol. On the left, we saw riots and property damage of approximately $2 billion. On the right, media personality Tucker Carlson implied, without evidence, that the Jan 6th riot was a “false flag” operation (a conspiracy by the government to persecute conservatives). On the left, we saw the oft-repeated refrain, “Most of the protests were peaceful.” This was of course literally true, but some argued that it was often used to deflect holding the violent members of the left accountable for the anarchy they sought to create.
Thus, the purposes of this study were to try to get a better understanding of what predicts whether and how much people support different types of protest, on the left vs. on the right, and violent vs. peaceful.
This study focused on two prominent types of protests. The first occurred in response to police brutality and racism, largely under the banner of the Black Lives Matter movement. These protests started after the Minneapolis police killed George Floyd on May 25, 2020, and continued throughout the summer.
The second type of protest occurred in response to state governments imposing restrictions such as lockdown orders and mask requirements due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak; these protests began in the middle of April 2020. Although most protests were peaceful, some were threatening or violent.
Thus, my thesis examined why people supported the following four types of protests:
During the timeframe under study, there were no violent anti-lockdown protests. Most involved people who were unarmed, but, in some states, especially those with “open carry” laws, some anti-lockdown protests were attended by people brazenly displaying guns.
The study was largely exploratory. We included measures of political identity and ideology, rightwing and leftwing authoritarianism, belief that racism is an issue within the U.S., and concerns over freedom within the U.S. after the implementation of COVID-19 restrictions in order to examine the extent to which they were associated with support for the various types of protests.
Predictors of Peaceful BLM Protests
Political identity (liberal/conservative) correlated -.50 with support for peaceful protests against racial injustice. This means that liberals were far more likely to support these protests than were conservatives. Although this result may be obvious to many observers, finding the obvious can be important because it is plausibly interpretable as meaning that other, less obvious findings are credible.
The belief that racism is a large issue correlated .56 with support for peaceful protests against racial injustice. This is another case in which the result may have seemed obvious, but its meaning is not completely clear. Is it that people who perceive more racism were more likely to support the protests? Or that supporting protests led to increased perceptions of racism (perhaps by coming into contact with more information or rhetoric about racism)? Or both?
We do not yet know. This study cannot determine the directionality of the relationship between perceptions of racism and protest. Nonetheless, correlations in the .50 range are quite large, meaning something (or maybe many things) interesting are going on.
Predictors of Peaceful Anti-Lockdown Protests
Political identity correlated .16, with support for peaceful protests against COVID-19 restrictions. These results indicate that conservatives tended to be more supportive of the protests than liberals, though not by a large amount (even though the result was "statistically significant"). Concerns over freedom correlated .22, indicating that the more participants were concerned that the U.S. government was encroaching on their freedoms, the more support for protests against restrictions increased.
Satisfaction with Donald Trump’s presidency correlated .17, indicating that the more satisfied participants were with Donald Trump’s performance as president, the more support was expressed for the peaceful protests against COVID-19 restrictions. In short, right-wing political identities and values tended to correlate with support for peaceful protests against COVID-19 restrictions, but these relationships were not particularly strong.
Predictors of Violent BLM Protests
Political identity correlated -.51 with support for violent BLM protests. Liberals were much more likely to support violent BLM protests than were conservatives. Left-Wing Authoritarianism (LWA) correlated .50 with support for violent protests. LWA includes support for censorship of, and aggression against one’s opponents—so, again, it makes sense that people high in LWA would be more likely to support violent BLM protests.
Predictors of Armed Anti-Lockdown Protests
Political identity correlated .21, indicating that the further right a participant was, the more support they expressed for the armed protests against COVID-19 restrictions. Additionally, this correlation (.21) was stronger than for the peaceful protests (.16). Concerns over freedom correlated .28. showing that again, the more participants were concerned about the U.S. government encroaching on their freedoms, the more they supported the armed anti-lockdown protests. Right-Wing Authoritarianism (RWA) correlated .28, indicating that the higher someone scored on RWA, the more support was expressed for the armed protests against COVID-19 restrictions.
Authoritarianism and Support for Violence
The results here suggest that authoritarianism on both the left and right predicts support for violence to advance one’s political goals—particularly so in the case of the left. The political left continues to struggle to advance social causes, and the results of this study as well as the state of protest in the modern-day may help explain why.
It’s evident the state of modern politics is tense. The fear that authoritarianism will erode American democracy is present and rears its head on both ends of the political spectrum. Generally speaking, the political left continues to argue for social freedoms and to establish legal boundaries to prevent harm based on social issues; Black Lives Matter is a cause that exists as evidence of that. The political right also generally argues to establish boundaries that prevent the government from exercising control over personal freedoms, and the COVID-19 restriction protests are evidence of this.
What is unclear from this study is whether American authoritarianism is on the rise, or whether it’s always been there but for some reason has become more virulent. The findings of this study are especially important because of the influence political identity currently holds in our sociopolitical climate. It is particularly important to gauge the extent to which members on either end of the political spectrum are willing to align with and enforce authoritarian values, even to the extent of excusing violence.
Note by Lee Jussim: Respondents in the study were Rutgers Psychology students—a convenience sample. Consequently, the results, on their own, would need to be replicated with a more representative sample before anyone should conclude that they were generalizable, so they should be interpreted with caution and as preliminary. In fact, however, we recently completed just such a replication. Although analyses are still continuing, Brett's main findings seem to have replicated quite nicely in the follow-up study with a more representative sample.
Brett Byll is currently a Television, Radio, and Film student in the Newhouse School's master's program at Syracuse University.