The Influence of Mass Protests on Political Attitudes

Academics, media pundits and activists alike have often pointed to the policy and institutional changes that large-scale collective actions can produce. Yet despite its role in generating social change, we still know relatively little about how collective action shapes the political attitudes of not only those engaged in these mobilizations, but also of those who may be watching from the sidelines. This blog post summarizes findings on this question from a study of a period of demonstrations across the U.S. and their effect on Latino political attitudes towards government.

Spatial and Temporal Proximity to Protests

According to prominent social movement scholars, for members of the general public to support and/or participate in social movements, they must first believe that their actions can make a difference (Goodwin et al. 2004: 421). Thus, the question of whether protests make potential actors feel more efficacious or alienated is critical. The primarily Latino wave of protests that occurred in 2006 provides an excellent opportunity to explore this research question. In the spring of 2006, up to five million people took part in more than 350 demonstrations across the country in response to proposed federal anti-immigrant legislation, H.R. 4437. Combining the Latino National Survey (LNS) 2006 with our 2006 Immigrant Protest-Event Dataset, we test how exposure to protests that occurred near where respondents lived shaped their attitudes towards government.

The protests were spread across the country in traditional immigrant gateways but also new destinations, (see Figure 1). We utilized respondents’ addresses in the LNS to map the distance in time and space to each of the protests. We created two protest measures. One measures whether a large protest occurred before the interview, and another that counts the number of small protests that occurred near a respondent before the interview.

We looked at attitudes towards government, focusing on political efficacy, trust in government, and political alienation. These are important because opinions about government have significant effects on political participation and political attitudes. Previous research has shown that Latinos tend to feel less efficacious than other Americans. Additionally, we know little about how political alienation, trust and efficacy are themselves shaped and formed since we often utilize these measures as explanatory variables, not the outcome for which we want to explain.

Our research indicates that proximity to greater numbers of small marches had a positive impact on feelings of political efficacy, whereas exposure simply to larger protests led to a greater sense of political alienation.  The results reported in the table below indicate that exposure to more small marches reduces the likelihood of agreeing with statements that big interests dominate politics, people have no say in government and politics is complicated. On the other hand, exposure to large marches had the opposite effect.

AJPS Wallace

Figure 1. Immigrant Rights Marches by Location & Number of Participants during Spring 2006


Big Protest No. of Small Protests
Big Interests Dominate 4%** -9%*
No Say in Government 3%** -8%*
Politics is Complicated 3%** -7%+
** p<0.01, * p<0.05, + p<0.1

Table 1. Substantive Effects of Protest Variables on Attitudes Towards Government

Our interview data with immigrant rights activists across the country help explain the differences in effects from large versus small marches. Large marches often deployed both the mainstream “We are America” frame and a more radical frame that was critical of the U.S. government.  We contend the latter frame was more likely to be covered negatively by the media and, consequently, resulted in Latinos having less confidence in our political system. Conversely, small marches often contained a more unified mainstream “pro-American” frame that emphasized immigrant integration and their potential to influence the political process.

Conclusion and Implications

As noted by the achievements of the civil rights, women’s suffrage, environmental, and other American social movements, mass activism can contribute to producing important policy changes. The historic 2006 immigrant rights marches left no such policy legacy, though they did help thwart a major piece of anti-immigrant legislation. Yet just because immigration reform was not passed in 2006 does not mean that this national protest wave had no effects. As indicated by our findings, the mass marches had a significant impact on Latino public opinion. Our results indicate that large-scale immigrant rights activism shifted Latinos’ perceptions of the U.S. political system and their own abilities to influence the outcomes of government. Activists and policymakers should take note of these findings as they devise their strategies for their current campaign to pass comprehensive immigration reform.

About the authors: Michael Jones-Correa is the Robert J. Katz Chair and Professor in the Department of Government at Cornell University. Sophia Jordán Wallace is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at Rutgers University. Chris Zepeda-Millán is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Ethnic Studies at University of California, Berkeley. Their article, Spatial and Temporal Proximity: Examining the Effects of Protests on Political Attitudes appeared in the April 2014 issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

References Cited:

Goodwin, Jeff, James Jasper, and Francesca Polletta.  2004. “Emotional Dimensions of Social Movements.” In The Blackwell Companion to Social Movements, eds. David Snow, Sarah Soule, and Hanspeter Kriesi. Malden: Blackwell Press, 413-432.

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.