Clarifying the Ideological Asymmetry in Public Attitudes Toward Political Protest

Date01 March 2021
Published date01 March 2021
Subject MatterArticles
American Politics Research
2021, Vol. 49(2) 157 –170
© The Author(s) 2020
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1532673X20975329
The right to petition is a 1st Amendment safeguard against
tyranny and an important instrument of social change (e.g.,
Branton et al., 2015; Gamson, 1975; Gillion, 2012; Madestam
et al., 2013; Piven & Cloward, 1979; Wallace et al., 2014).
However, its efficacy depends upon mass perceptions of
legitimacy (e.g., Agnone, 2007; Chenoweth & Stephan,
2012; Jeffries et al., 1971; Kernell, 1986; Lee, 2002;
McAdams et al., 2001; Schattschneider, 1960; Schumaker,
1975; Stern et al., 1999).
Thus, it is important to understand the variance in mass
attitudes toward political protest. Alas, though studies of
political tolerance are abundant (for classic treatments, see
Bobo, 1988; Bobo & Licari, 1989; Gibson, 1992; Stouffer,
1955; Sullivan et al., 1981), studies of protest attitudes are
relatively scarce (but see Herrnson & Weldon, 2017;
McCright & Dunlap, 2008; Mohamed, 2013). At first glance,
the latter may appear to be a subset of the former, but they are
not; whereas tolerance is the willingness to put up with
expressions that one considers repugnant (e.g., Gibson,
1992; Stouffer, 1955; Sullivan et al., 1981), protest support is
the embrace of collective action to redress perceived injus-
tices. By extension, tolerance may not necessarily require the
populist impulses that protest support does, and protest sup-
port may not necessarily require the libertarian impulses that
tolerance does.1 Therefore, focused examinations of protest
attitudes, specifically, are critical to understanding why some
protest movements succeed and others to fail.
The limited research on this subject suggests that support for
protests tends to be weaker on the ideological Right (e.g., Hall
et al., 1986; McCright & Dunlap, 2008; Olsen, 1968). However,
it is not clear whether such ostensible ideological asymmetry is
authentic or artifactual. Given the tendency of previous studies
to rely exclusively on liberal protest case studies—especially
the Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s Movement, Anti-
Vietnam demonstrations, the Environmental Movement, or the
2006 Latino Immigration rallies (see Barreto et al., 2009;
Benjamin-Alvarado et al., 2009; Branton et al., 2015; Martinez,
2008; Mohamed, 2013; Pantoja et al., 2008; Rim, 2009; Wright
& Citrin, 2010)—it is conceivable that the disproportionately
conservative antipathy toward protests that researchers have
tended to observe is entirely a byproduct of case selection,
reflecting heightened conservative antipathy toward liberals and
particular liberal causes.2 Furthermore, if such ideological
asymmetry in protest attitudes is indeed authentic, it is not clear
whether such asymmetry varies depending on (a) the specific
issue content of political protests, or (b) the nature of what we
mean, exactly, by “ideological.”
In this investigation, we analyze the ways in which the ideo-
logical and issue contents of a particular protest movement
interact with different conceptualizations of liberalism-conser-
vatism—ideological identification or two of the foremost psy-
chological constructs that undergird it: authoritarianism or
social dominance orientation—to affect perceptions of protest
975329APRXXX10.1177/1532673X20975329American Politics ResearchBarker et al.
1American University, Washington, DC, USA
2California State University Sacramento, Sacramento, USA
Corresponding Author:
David Barker, American University, 4400 Massachusetts Avenue, 234
Kerwin Hall, Washington, DC 20016-8007, USA.
Clarifying the Ideological Asymmetry in
Public Attitudes Toward Political Protest
David Barker1, Kimberly Nalder2, and Jessica Newham2
Political protests cannot succeed without public support. Extant studies point to weaker average support among ideological
conservatives, but researchers have yet to consider the extent to which such apparent ideological asymmetry is (a) an
artifact of the particular protest cases that researchers have tended to investigate, and/or (b) conditioned by the precise
meaning of “ideological conservatism.” In this investigation, we address these gaps. Specifically, we analyze public perceptions
of protest legitimacy after exposing survey respondents to one of a series of experimental treatments that randomize the
specific ideological and issue contents of the particular protests under consideration. In iterative models, we observe how
political ideology, social dominance orientation and authoritarianism condition the effects associated with these experimental
treatments. The data suggest that that the notorious ideological asymmetry that is often associated with support for protests
is authentic, but it is also conditioned in important ways by these other factors.
political protest, attitudes, ideology, authoritarianism, social dominance orientation

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