Understanding Protest in 2020
Lockdowns vs. racial injustice
Original research / Social unrest
UNDERSTANDING PROTEST IN 2020
Lockdowns vs. racial injustice
In 2020, there was a surge in American protest. Here, I report the results of my senior thesis research, supervised by Prof. Lee Jussim and Akeela Careem of the Rutgers Department of Psychology, examining why people supported protest.
Why Study Protest?
· Protest surged dramatically in 2020. Several factors may have fostered it. Most notably, the COVID-19 lockdowns left many people in their homes with time on their hands.
· Protests split into two groups: protests against lockdown restrictions and protests against racial injustice, particularly in response to police brutality, under the banner of the Black Lives Matter movement. There appeared to be a political split with respect to protest topic. Those on the right were protesting lockdowns, while those on the left were protesting racial injustice.
· The big questions are: Why did people protest? And what, if anything, predicted protest?
People often defend or justify even extreme protestors on their own “side.” Thus, we saw some (not all) on the right supporting armed protests at statehouses and, ultimately, downplaying the January 6th storming of the Capitol. Meanwhile, some (not all) on the left supported or sought to downplay the sustained riots that lead to almost $2 billion in property damage and at least 19 deaths. On the right, Tucker Carlson’s media have implied that the Jan 6th riot was a “false flag” operation. On the left, we saw the oft-repeated refrain that the protests were “mostly peaceful.” This was of course literally true, but it ignores the fact that there were unprecedented numbers of violent and destructive protests and related activities in 2020.
So, the purpose of this study was to try to get a better understanding of what predicts whether and how much people on the left and on the right support different types of protest, both violent and 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 right 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 of both types were peaceful, some were threatening or violent.
Thus, I examined why people supported the following four types of protests:
During the timeframe under study, there were no violent anti-lockdown protests. Most people involved were unarmed. However, in some states, especially those with “open carry” laws, some anti-lockdown protests were attended by armed individuals.
The study was largely exploratory. I included measures of (1) political identity and ideology, (2) rightwing and leftwing authoritarianism, (3) belief that racism is an issue within the U.S., and (4) concerns over freedom within the U.S. after the implementation of COVID-19 restrictions. The goal was to examine the extent to which these factors 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.
For example, in the case of the protests against racial injustice, it is possible that increased perceptions of racism led to stronger support for the racial injustice protests. However, it is also possible that the large amount of support for the racial injustice protests lead to increased perceptions of racism. We cannot assume the directionality of a relationship between factors, so proving the credibility of “obvious” findings remains an important task.
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.
Predictors of Unarmed Anti-Lockdown Protests
Political identity correlated .16 with support for unarmed protests against COVID-19 restrictions. These results indicate that conservatives did tend to be more supportive of the protests than liberals, though not by a large amount. 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 unarmed protests against COVID-19 restrictions. In short, rightwing political identities and values tended to correlate with support for unarmed 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 strong opposition to established social hierarchies and support for censorship of, “canceling” of, and aggression against one’s opponents. It makes intuitive sense that people high in LWA would support violent BLM protests.
Predictors of Armed Anti-Lockdown Protests
Political identity correlated .21 with support for armed anti-lockdown protests, 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 unarmed protests (.16).
Concerns over freedom correlated .28, showing again, and to a somewhat greater extent than in the case of unarmed protests, that 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), which includes strong support for protecting established social hierarchies, correlated .28, indicating that the higher someone scored on RWA, the more support they expressed for the armed protests against COVID-19 restrictions. Again, this finding makes intuitive sense. Note, however, that while LWA predicts support for violence, the most we can say from this study is that RWA predicts support for armed protests. Whether or not RWA also predicts support for violent protests seems intuitively likely, but is not proven by the data studied here. This is an empirical question that needs to be addressed by future research, such as an examination of whether RWA predicts support for the January 6 Capitol riot.
Authoritarianism and Support for Violence
The results here show that authoritarianism of the left and right predicts support for escalating means to advance one’s political goals, and particularly so in the case of the left. The political left is engaged in a fierce struggle to advance social causes, and the results of this study may help explain why it is resorting to escalating means in order to do so.
It’s evident that the state of modern politics is tense. The fear that authoritarianism, rearing its head at both ends of the political spectrum, will erode American democracy is a real one. Generally speaking, the political left continues to advocate for greater social equity and for establishing legal remedies to prevent harms based on biases against immutable “identities.” Black Lives Matter offers evidence of this trend. The political right generally strives to limit government control over personal freedoms. The COVID-19 restriction protests offer evidence of this.
What is unclear from this study is whether American authoritarianism is actually on the rise, or whether it’s always been there, but has, for some reason, only now become virulent. The findings of this study are especially important because of the influence political identity currently exercises in our public discourse. It is particularly important to gauge the extent to which people on either end of the political spectrum are willing to align with and enforce authoritarianism, even to the extent of engaging in or excusing violence.
For this study’s supporting data and survey questions, see here.
NOTE from Prof. Lee Jussim: Respondents in the study were Rutgers Psychology students—a convenience sample. Consequently, the results reported here, on their own, need to be replicated with a more representative sample before anyone can conclude that they are generalizable. They should be interpreted with caution and as preliminary. However, we recently completed just such a replication. Although analyses are still continuing, the main findings of Byll’s study seem to replicate quite nicely in the follow-up study with a more representative sample.
Brett Byll is a Master’s student in Television, Radio, and Film in the S.I. Newhouse School Of Public Communications at Syracuse University. As an undergraduate Psychology student in the Rutgers University Social Perception Lab, Brett produced two research papers under the supervision of Prof. Lee Jussim. The first of the two papers was an investigation into the nature of citations, focused on the social sciences. This project was submitted as the product of Byll’s 2020 summer research project as a McNair Scholar. Byll’s second research paper focused on assessing the sociopolitical dynamics of the racial injustice and anti-lockdown protests. Byll submitted this paper as his Senior Thesis and was awarded the Henry Rutgers Award by the Psychology Department’s Honors program. The present article represents a shortened form of that second research paper. A version of it appeared previously here.
Some constructive responses. First, it would be interesting to compare cross-sectional data (which this study appears to rely on) with longitudinal data. There is research in Germany taking this more challenging type of study. That study looks at the perception of discrimination among migrants to Germany and why most groups reflect less egregious discrimination while one group (Turks) persist over time, especially those who are more educated. How Often Have You Felt Disadvantaged? Explaining Perceived Discrimination, Claudia Diehl, Elisabeth Liebau, Peter Mühlau. 7 March 2021. Related to this research is how LWA beliefs is embedded in the argument about the legacy of slavery and whether associated beliefs do not ameliorate with substantial civil rights reforms. The RWA belief structure is tied into relatively concurrent time policies and reactions (lockdown policies and protests). One might ask ‘so what?’ Perhaps LWA beliefs are more resistant to change – that is, more stubborn to the RWA – with respect to the specific events/policies cited. Are both equally stubborn with respect to historical forces at work in U.S. society. A second concern relates to research conducted by economists such as Roland Fryer Jr. and Glenn Loury. Their statistical measures call out for a dialogue with these belief structures. In addition, leaders may be out of sync with the community they ostensibly represent such as noted in the call for defunding the police growing out of BLM protests and Gallup Poll measures that find substantial disagreement with such a policy in the black community. My thought is that Byll has a bright future for bringing all these strands together. Right now, we have Humpty-Dumpty pieces of belief, perception, statistics, polls and policies that are designed to put Humpty Dumpty back together again; so far, Humpty Dumpty is still broken.
I would be interested in seeing correlations between class/income and support for violent protests. I suspect that those from higher income / privilege are more prone to authoritarianism on either side of the spectrum.