Protest against authoritarianism is integral to a democracy. In the U.S., touted as the defender of democracy, expressing dissent against actual or perceived wrongs is intrinsic, especially when other passive methods have failed. All sides of the political ideologue in the American political genre -- the right, the left, and the liberal centre -- have indulged in demonstrations, sometimes peaceful and occasionally with some degree of violence. With the desire to express dissent so deeply ingrained in the American psyche, such mass movements do have a correlation to the outcome of elections, especially one as important as the Presidential one.
Protests have, on occasion, increased voter turnout. Michael Kazin, a Georgetown University historian, describes how the Populist Movement in the 20th century helped drive up turnout by nearly 5 percentage points between 1892 and 1896. The 79.3% turnout thus achieved has never been matched since.
Sarah S. Soule and Daniel Q. Gillion, who co-authored a study on the 'Effect of citizen mobilisation on both electoral outcomes and on the likelihood that new candidates will enter races to challenge incumbent politicians', concluded that it did not matter which party led the protests -- Democratic or Republican --,for the voter turnout received a boost.
Rosemary Feurer, a historian at Northern Illinois University, notes that some protests galvanise counter-movements. This happened in 1968, one of the most tumultuous years in U.S. history, when university protests against the Vietnam War coincided with the multi-racial agitation against the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The Civil Rights Act had also been passed, which ended race-based housing segregation. This prompted the Southern whites to come out in larger numbers to vote for the erstwhile segregationist Alabama Governor George Wallace.
According to Gillion, the way people look at and interact with protests has changed. “You see individuals engaging in, let’s say, Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests, or individuals engaging in gender protests, and you don’t look at those protest events and say to yourself, 'Okay, those are just protests. They have no party affiliation. These are just individuals protesting, let’s say over discrimination.' Rather, when individuals look at these types of protests, they tend to put them in boxes. That’s a liberal protest, that’s a conservative protest,” he says in an interview with Niskanen Center.
RE-ELECTION BID UNDER THE SHADOW OF PROTESTS
While initially it seemed as though President Donald Trump and Democratic candidate Joe Biden were running neck-to-neck (as per The Economist’s election tracker), the BLM protests have changed that. For now, at least, Biden has been pushed into the limelight, with Trump appearing too aggressive and harsh against the protests, with calls to summon the military to quell the protesters.
Even though the recent protests have been largely peaceful in nature, Trump has time and again emphasised only on the violence, rioting, and looting. What has been particularly galling for the protesters was the use of heavily militarised police to clear the path for the presidential entourage for a photo-op in front of the St. John’s Episcopal Church, a few blocks from the White House. His approach has been likened by many to former President Richard Nixon's 'law and order' rule during the 1968 elections in response to the riots. However, Nixon was not the one in power then, and was pitching himself as the solution to the lawlessness.
Biden, on the other hand, has been trying to surf the BLM wave. His campaign donates to a group that pays the bail fees of BLM protesters. The Democratic Party campaign managers have refused to divulge whether the expenditure incurred to pay the bail fee is from the campaign budget. In a well-covered event, Biden paid a condolence visit to the family of the late George Floyd, whose death sparked off the current protests.
Biden has been critical of Trump's handling of the pandemic, and these protests have provided him with more ammunition to target the incumbent president. He has called on the Congress to pass a legislation that would ban police chokeholds, create model use-of-force standards, end the transfer of military weapons to police forces, and has promised that he would create a police oversight commission during his first 100 days in office. He has been against calls to defund the police and instead wants to focus on better training.
Biden is by no means a “Mr. White.” He too has a murky record in law enforcement. He received flak for his treatment of lawyer Anita Hill during the 1991 Supreme Court nomination hearings for Clarence Thomas, and had a hand in enacting the controversial and repressive Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 that activists and researchers say led to an era of mass incarceration. But for now, Biden has stuck to his neo-Liberal leanings, playing it safe by passively supporting the protesters and not getting in too deep.
Dana Fisher, a University of Maryland sociologist, who specialises in researching activism, and University of Michigan political scientist Michael Heaney, conducted a study with 255 respondents and asked if they would vote for Biden, Trump, or neither of the candidates. Every respondent said he/she would support Biden, with none saying they would vote for Trump. While this is, firstly, a very small sample size, and secondly, some of them might not have registered for voting yet (they were people on the street), it still highlights the sentiment of the people. What was interesting is that no one said that they would not vote in the upcoming elections.
There also seems to be a change in the way these protests are progressing -- instead of fading away as spontaneous protests do, there seems to be more organisation and focus, leading to a larger consistent gathering. The longer they last, the greater will be the impact.
HOW IT STANDS, AND HOW IT COULD GO
“In 1968, the United States was in a state of shock,” Dan Rather, a veteran journalist, in an interview with The Guardian said, “This election may well boil down to this: Are the white voters in the suburbs more afraid of Trump than they are of the protesters? I want to believe that the combination of the fear and disgust that a lot of people have with President Trump’s leadership will be a greater motivation than whatever racial fears they might have. I want to believe, and I do believe.”
While most Black American voters have been loyal Democrats, the new-age voters and young activists are demanding for more to be delivered. “If Biden does not come correct, he’s going to take a hit,” says Brown of Black Voters Matter. “He needs Black folks and young folks. He cannot win without either.” Stuart Stevens, a Republican strategist, pointed out that Ronald Reagan got 55% of the white vote in 1980 and won, but John McCain got 55% of the white vote in 2008 and lost, mostly because non-white voters turned up for Obama.
Not much is known about the attitude of the silent majority who are not protesting or engaging in the BLM debate. Amongst them, there might still be those who stick their hopes on Trump to ‘Make America Great Again,’ or there could be a major upheaval against him that places a Democrat back in the White House. Either way, this election is bound to be a tricky piece of work.