March On Washington 2020 - Crowd of Protesters Marching in the street holding their fists up for Black Lives Matter. August 28, 2020. Photo: Julian Leshay /

The era of modern protest belongs to the American left

  • September 3, 2020

People & Protest

Left and right-wing movements in the US are falsely framed as equally energized, but BLM is the only true mass movement supported by a majority of Americans.

In my 20 years participating in protests, I have never seen a critical groundswell of anger like what is happening today. In the wake of the George Floyd protests and the police shooting of Jacob Blake, tens of millions of Americans have taken to the streets in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement.

In my new book Rebellion in America I argue that social movement protest has been mainstreamed over the last decade. Wave upon wave of protests have popularized movement activism as a means of political participation, including the 2011 Madison protests against Governor Scott Walker, Occupy Wall Street, the Fight for $15, Black Lives Matter, the anti-Trump protests, climate change activism and #MeToo.

A vigorous form of mass action

American protests — outside of a few exceptions — are almost entirely on the left. The largest demonstrations have been against police brutality. Kaiser polling estimates that 26 million people, or about one in 10 Americans, have participated in the protests following the killing of George Floyd. My statistical “regression” analysis of the June 2020 national Kaiser poll identifies the demographic groups that are significantly more likely to have participated in these protests, in addition to uncovering which Americans are more likely to support the protests, even if they themselves have not turned out in the streets.

These results show that younger Americans (18-29), self-identified Democrats and highly educated Americans are significantly more likely to participate in a BLM protest. Similarly, supporters of the Floyd protests are significantly more likely to be younger, Democrats, highly educated, higher income and Black.

My findings suggest that the BLM movement and its supporters are eclectic and represent a wide range of Americans. These individuals are, relatively speaking, a combination of more privileged — the highly educated and those with high incomes — and less privileged — young Americans and people of color — in their demographics. Importantly, 67 percent of Americans reported they somewhat or strongly supported the Black Lives Matter movement in June of 2020, compared to 55 percent in August 2017. So, not only is the movement widespread, but its popularity has grown over time.

BLM has spawned demonstrations in the tens of thousands in major cities across the country. The protests are a manifestation of contemporary democratic rebellion — placing its trust in the wisdom of the “average” American, rather than in the allegedly superior abilities and understandings of political or business elites. I argue in Rebellion in America, after examining a decade of US social movements, that the populism of the right — driven by the Tea Party and Trumpism — is extremely thin due to its inability to sustain mass movements over time.

In contrast, democratic protest movements like the Madison protests, Fight for $15 and BLM represent a vigorous form of mass action. These movements, because they challenge concentrated political and economic power, require large numbers of people who are active over extended periods in order to sustain themselves.

The rise of BLM threatens to destroy the conventional myth — thrown around by many journalists and academics — that right-wing populism is a political force that’s on par with left-wing protest movements in its size and scope. Trumpism and MAGA may generically be referred to as a “movement” in the media, but they fail to satisfy most of the basic prerequisites of a mass movement: mass protests, grassroots community organizing that sustains action over time and mass public outreach organized from the ground up in opposition to the status quo.

Rather, Trumpism is an elitist, top-down affair, centered on a single billionaire and reliant on the cult of personality of a tabloid-style political entertainer. Trumpism will struggle to persist as a national political phenomenon once this presidency comes to an end. It is not an organic, bottom-up phenomenon due to its reliance on a single demagogue. Without the benefit of mass attention conferred on this president via sustained reporting on his activities from the news media, Trump is unlikely to retain the critical mass of support he currently receives from more than 40 percent of the public.

“Make corporations profitable again”

Perhaps a more appropriate contrast between the mass protest of the left and the anemic populism of the right is found by examining BLM and the “reopen” protests. While the above evidence reveals the critical mass that characterizes BLM protests today, a closer look at “reopen” demonstrates its astroturf nature.

Journalists saturated Americans with reporting on the reopen protests in April and May 2020, providing the impression that the movement was mass-based and that it reflected the concerns of local communities that were rising up in large numbers against the status quo. But this narrative was largely manufactured. Investigations of the movement revealed that it was mainly driven by obscure libertarian rhetoric that lamented “big government,” “tyranny” and “socialism” via the shutdown, although these views were not actually shared by the large majority of Americans, who supported the shutdowns in order to protect the public health.

Reopen protest groups operating across the country were primarily concerned with making corporations profitable again, rather than being concerned with health care professionals and service workers on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic. These groups expressed virtually no concern with the poorest and most vulnerable Americans — disproportionately people of color — harmed by the coronavirus. Furthermore, the protests were heavily coordinated by a few large national and state organizations that were concerned with gun rights and corporate profits, rather than representing a spontaneous, decentralized, ground-up rebellion.

While the reopen movement retained a significant online presence, academic researchers found that nearly half of the accounts actively promoting the reopen protests on social media were bots. And there was little evidence, statistically speaking, that Americans who were the most harmed economically by the COVID-19 economic crisis were more likely to embrace the reopen movement.

This profile speaks to a classic astroturf movement, one that received a critical mass of attention via its support from President Trump and Republican governors and its embrace by the media and powerful business actors.

The reopen movement benefited from little public support. Only 22 percent of Americans expressed approval of the movement when surveyed, compared to more than two-thirds who said they supported the BLM protests following the killing of George Floyd. Furthermore, the number of people who participated in reopen protests was so miniscule as to be almost non-existent. Kaiser’s June poll found that only 2.4 percent of those who reported attending a protest in the months before being surveyed had attended a reopen protest. Of all Americans surveyed, just 0.2 percent said they attended a “protest to ease stay at home restrictions due to the coronavirus,” compared to one in 10 who attended a BLM protest.

Reflecting on these numbers, the distinction between the movements is a mile wide. One represents a genuine mass uprising, which has continued to grow over the last half-decade. The other was fleeting and represented the interests of corporate America and an obscure, small minority of Americans.

A sobering account of mass protest in America

Sociologists have long stressed the power of individuals to “socially construct” reality to fit specific narratives and beliefs and at the expense of other ways of looking at the world. In the case of mass protest in America, peoples’ truths have been artificially constructed, with left and right-wing populism inaccurately framed as being equally energized.

The truth of the matter, however, is that progressive BLM protests are experiencing a renaissance of mass support, with tens of millions of Americans demonstrating in the streets and more than 150 million, or two-thirds of Americans embracing the movement. On the other side, support for the reopen protests is a fraction of that for the BLM movement. There is little use in even trying to estimate which groups of Americans were more likely to participate in reopen protests, since the number of people who claimed to attend one in national surveys was so small, statistically speaking, as to be almost non-existent. The data explored here provides a sobering account of the realities of mass protest in America.

The era of modern protest belongs almost entirely to the American left. And this is unlikely to change as long as the right continues to rely on elite political and business actors to articulate its views, rather than turning out large numbers of Americans in the streets.

A digital copy of Anthony DiMaggio’s new book, Rebellion in America, can be read for free at the publisher’s website.

Anthony DiMaggio

Anthony DiMaggio is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Lehigh University. He earned his PhD from the University of Illinois, Chicago, and is the author of nine books, including most recently: Political Power in America (SUNY Press, 2019) and Rebellion in America (Routledge, 2020).

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