Could the riots help Trump?
This week’s newsletter is an 8 to 10 minute read:
(1) I explore why Democratic hand-wringing over riots in Kenosha throwing the election to Trump may be overblown.
(2) What I’m reading.
Note: Since no newsletter went out last week, there will be two this week.
New around here? Make sure to subscribe!
Should Dems be terrified of riots?
There’s been a great deal of liberal hand-wringing about the few days of rioting in Kenosha, Wisconsin, last week in the wake of the police shooting of Jacob Blake. Kenosha is the fourth-largest city in the Rust Belt state that DNC chairman Tom Perez has deemed the “tipping point”of 2020. Politico and New York Times reporters are on the ground there digging up quotes from swing voters concerned about looting and Democrats anxious that the chaos will hand Trump the election. Some members of the liberal commentariat appear to be breaking out into sweats; Vox’s German Lopez warned: “Riots are bad.”
Every time riots have occurred in response to police brutality in recent years, there’s been a wave of debate about the meaning, ethics and effectiveness of them among politicos, activists, concerned citizens and public intellectuals. But as we stand just a couple months from a hugely important election — one which the incumbent has attempted to cast as a referendum on law-and-order attitudes — that ongoing debate has taken on a more urgent and frantic tone; even those sympathetic to or supportive of riots against police brutality may be concerned about how blowback in the voting booth could ultimately hurt progressive causes.
Kenosha has been tense but peaceful for the last several days, but Trump’s plan to visit the city on Tuesday could unravel that fragile stability, and photos of burning buildings are still circulating among right-wing media. Should the Democrats be freaking out? I’m afraid I can’t give you a firm answer. Experts say that riots can alienate and push away voters in some cases, but in other cases they can actually help mobilize sympathizers. Ultimately, I’d say I’m fairly skeptical about this being something to be fixated upon.
Violent protests can alienate and repel some voters
The most-discussed piece of empirical research on non-peaceful protest this summer has been a recently published study by Princeton’s Omar Wasow, which found that in 1968 “violent protests likely caused a 1.5–7.9% shift among whites toward Republicans and tipped the election” in favor of racist law-and-order champion Richard Nixon. Wasow has a great thread explaining his study and some of his inspiration for it, which you can click through on below if you’d like to. (He also has a good explanation of his findings in the New Yorker.)
He found that when the state used violence against nonviolent protestors, it elicited sympathy from the public; but when protestors engaged in violent resistance, it tended to alienate white moderates. Crucially, a major mechanism for this was narrative formation in the press — when protestors use violence, news narratives shifted away from discussing the causes that gave rise to the violence and instead focused on the violence and discord itself — and that in turn affected elite discourse and public opinion. When protestor violence enters the picture, “the focus in reporting tends to shift from a justice frame to a crime frame,” Wasow told the New Yorker.
There have also been other recent studies showing how violence can backfire for social movements. For example, a recent Spanish study of the outbreak of a riot linked to the Spanish 15-M / indignados anti-austerity movement found that the violence “reduced support for the 15-M movement by 12 percentage points on average” and that the effects of violence depended in part on pre-riot attitudes about the movement:
Our results point to the fact that, through the use of violent tactics, social movements might keep their core bases of support but risk losing the sympathy of less committed citizens, alienate those who display lower support levels, and increase antagonism of those that are already distant from the movement. This points to a clear dilemma, common with other political actors, including parties: the decisions that movements may take if they care primarily about their core supporters are different from those that they would take if they are concerned about the opinions of the rest of the population.
That last point resonates — an election is one such situation where the opinions of the rest of the population matter quite a bit!
To get a sense of local conditions, I reached out to Barry Burden, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He told me that in the immediate aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, there was widespread support for Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests, and that protests were larger and more diverse than BLM protests before Floyd’s death. But he said over the course of the summer the “white public has soured somewhat since then” on the movement, and he attributed it in part to a shift in public commentary in late June after two statues on the state capitol ground were taken down and damaged by protestors.
“That activity seemed lawless and unhelpful to many,” he told me. “Governor Evers and big city mayors were criticized for not protecting government property and allowing rioters to have free reign over downtown areas.”
The limitations of drawing lessons from the 60s
Do the studies I just mentioned mean that all is lost for the Democrats if Kenosha riots flare up again or if a new Kenosha pops up somewhere else in a battleground state before the election? Not exactly.
Let’s start with the Wasow study / the Nixon election that has become the most-invoked analogue among worried liberals.
It’s important to remember the specific historical contingencies surrounding the ‘68 election and how different American life was then. Whitelash at the time was fueled by consecutive summers of riots during a decade of tremendous turmoil and big wins in the fight for Black liberation in the form of civil rights and antipoverty laws. In an era in which white supremacist terrorist campaigns operated freely, urban demographics were shifting rapidly, and the white majority was more energetically and openly opposed to racial equality, it should probably not be a surprise that the white response to riots (which were much destructive in 1968 than today) was fierce.
Historian Rick Perlstein, an expert on the era, has an op-ed in the New York Times explaining in detail the many reasons that the moments aren’t directly comparable. Among them:
The Republicans’ attempt to run on a racialized law-and-order message again in the 1970 midterms, only to lose overwhelming to the Democrats, suggests that “when disorder is all around them, voters tend to blame the person in charge — and, sometimes, punish those who exploit the disorder for political gain.” In other words, Trump can’t make the same argument Nixon did because he’s already in power.
“In the 1960s, the racial backlash followed an unprecedented flurry of civil rights and antipoverty legislation, championed by a liberal president. Because that legislation only seemed to be followed by more anarchy, it was all too easy for millions of white voters to conclude that liberalism was to blame. No such dynamic obtains now.”
Cellphone footage of unprovoked brutality and murder has played a substantial role in shaping public opinion today about the state of race relations and law enforcement.
“Strikingly empathetic media coverage of the protesters’ grievances [exists today], in contrast to the 1960s, when establishment institutions trusted the police implicitly.”
I recommend reading the whole thing, which culminates in a spirited rant against the perils of searching for historical parallels.
I also asked Wasow — the author of the big Nixon election study— to weigh in on whether Kenosha unrest could influence Election Day, and he wrote me an extended response which could probably be summed up as “it depends”:
Whether or not police violence and protests in Kenosha influence the election will depend a lot on what happens on the ground in the next two months. If there is more police violence and/or violent protest, the issues will likely remain salient. Between Covid and the recession, though, there’s a lot of competition for people’s attention. Also, as serious as the issues are in Kenosha, these protest events are much smaller than what we saw in the 1960s.
In addition, subtle things about the particular details of events, like the images and media coverage that emerge, can have a big effect on public perception. For example, part of what was so powerful about the video of George Floyd’s killing is that we saw Floyd’s face, watched him cry for his life and could see with our own eyes how police officer Derek Chauvin proceeded to rest his body weight on Floyd’s neck with utterly callous indifference. Similarly, in Buffalo, we saw blood coming out of an elderly man’s ears after being knocked-over by a cop. Small details mean a lot with this in terms of who are the “good guys” and ”bad guys.” If this is the last uprising before November, I'd expect it doesn't have a big effect. If we see continued aggressive resistance to state violence through November, though, it will remain in the news and salient in the public’s mind.
Note Wasow’s emphasis on framings in the press — more on that later.
The takeaway here isn’t meant to be that the effects observed in 1968 could never be repeated, but rather that there are a number of specific mitigating factors and broader historical trends that might plausibly dampen a backlash.
But riots can also mobilize the left
So far I’ve discussed how violent protests can alienate people outside of a movement and mobilize opponents, and the limitations of extrapolating from seemingly analogous past events. But there’s also scholarship suggesting that riots can in fact mobilize voters who sympathize with the political grievances of rioters.
This work operates with a Thompsonian assumption that property destruction and violence have historically operated as a form of direct action to express grievances and compel societal change.
Ryan Enos (Harvard), Aaron Kaufman (New York University, Abu Dhabi) and Melissa Sands (University of California, Merced) published a study last year showing that the the 1992 Los Angeles riot “caused a marked liberal shift in policy support at the polls” among both Black and white voters. Proximity to the riot in LA caused voters (especially Black voters) to register as Democrats and increased support for spending to improve public schools on a ballot initiative. So the riot mobilized new voters, both white and Black, who then took a liberal policy position. Remarkably, the mobilization endured over a decade later, suggesting that the riots had a significant impact on the political consciousness of those it motivated.
As the authors explained in a summary of their study, it’s possible that a progressive search for social stability was at play, or that people were persuaded of the needs framed by rioters:
Why were these voters mobilized? It could be that some citizens feared more violence if they didn’t do something to improve conditions for residents of places like South Central L.A. It could also be that the rioters’ extreme behavior — risking arrest, injury or death — helped convince voters that the conditions in some parts of L.A. were really bad, which motivated them to try to fix those problems.
I asked the authors of the study if they believed the Kenosha riots could mobilize liberal whites and people of color in greater numbers. Enos wrote back:
Yes, there is certainly reason to believe that the protests can mobilize voters and may even persuade some voters that the protestors have legitimate grievances. That appears to be what happened in Los Angeles in 1992 and the movement we’ve seen in recent months in opinion on Black Lives Matter and other questions of racial justice. The mobilization of POC — which is what we saw in LA in 1992 — could have particularly widespread implications because this mobilization is a necessary ingredient for Biden’s success in November.
And there are reasons to think that a sympathetic mobilizing effect could be in play in 2020.
The surge in antiracist sentiment we saw this summer was enormous, transcended partisan lines, and strongly suggested a significant degree of tolerance for riots. Experts say that the BLM demonstrations we saw this summer might constitute the largest protest movement in American history, and that 95% of the counties that had protests early in the summer were majority white — a break from BLM protests in the past, and 20th century patterns. “Without gainsaying the reality and significance of generalized white support for the movement in the early 1960s, the number of whites who were active in a sustained way in the struggle were comparatively few, and certainly nothing like the percentages we have seen taking part in recent weeks,” Douglas McAdam, an emeritus professor at Stanford University who studies social movements, told the New York Times in July.
We know that corporate America and organizations with zero interest and even hostility to racial justice like the NFL have felt obligated to pay lip service to the cause of antiracism. And we saw astonishing polling numbers early this summer: One poll found 76% of independents and 53% of Republicans supported protests taking place across the country. That same poll found that among those who believe the protests have been mostly violent — a group made up of plenty of Republicans and independents — 53% still supported them.
It’s worth noting that that the surge in support has since ebbed somewhat according to early August polling data, and there’s a big debate as to why. It’s possible that Trump’s messaging finally broke through as viral news about statue-toppling made some Americans uneasy.
But it’s also possible that the slow-down in protests and cultural momentum has dampened enthusiasm. FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver has argued that the decline in BLM’s popularity might in fact be attributable to the fact that Trump has been less direct in his attacks on the protests: “An alternative inference is that BLM popularity is waning *because Trump is saying less about it,*” Silver tweeted last week about the decline. “His Twitter feed has made few references to "BLM"/"Black Lives Matter" over the past 6-8 weeks, and he's also used terms like "rioting" and "looting" much less often than in June.”
“In other words, some of the popularity boost for BLM in June may have reflected a reaction against Trump / negative partisanship. Voters give Trump TERRIBLE marks for his handling of race relations and people may flock to the opposite position of whatever he says on these issues,” he added.
The final point I’ll make about how riots could help Democrats is that there’s good reason to think they can inspire other nonviolent dissent that will keep racial justice in the news and keep citizens mobilized. While the image of burning cities might frighten those predisposed to generally value law-and-order above racial justice, it’s also an expression of anger that can motivate sympathizers to protest nonviolently out of solidarity, or prompt non-political actors to feel obligated to do something out of concern. Those other actions in turn diversify protest tactics and can take the spotlight off the polarizing effects of riots.
For example, the Kenosha riots might have motivated more citizens to march peacefully this weekend, or might have made the Milwaukee Bucks’ strike more likely. That strike was high-profile and very popular:
This is why I argued on Twitter that Obama’s decision to intervene and accelerate the end of the strike was the exact wrong move by Democrats.
How we talk about this matters
If you’re feeling more confused and uncertain than before reading this, then perhaps I’ve succeeded. There are so many variables at play in a highly unstable political environment that I find it exceedingly difficult to trust my instincts on this question, or even know what my instincts are.
But I will say that in the aggregate, expert guidance and my interviews and observations over the summer have led me to believe that limited rioting should not be seen as a major electoral liability in the scheme of the many, many crises that are going on at the moment, evidence indicating that even some of Trump’s supporters disliked his handling of the Floyd episode, and the fact that Biden’s popularity isn’t tracking with BLM’s popularity so far.
I’ll conclude by pointing out that the nature of public discourse on this matters quite a bit. Wasow — in both in his study and his remarks to me — has made the case for why news narratives are pivotal in shaping national consciousness, and there’s part of me that wonders if too much fretting by influential liberals in the run-up to the election could be a self-fulfilling prophesy.
Riots should be documented and discussed — and as I’ve written before, it is my belief that they should be taken seriously as political actions chosen by conscious agents — but fixating on their theoretical perils isn’t exactly judicious when they’re part of a broader set of phenomena worth discussion: the systemic violence and exploitation that prompt them; other styles of protest; right-wing vigilante violence; Trump’s proto-fascist provocations.
What I’m reading
“Listen, liberals. If you don’t think Donald Trump can get re-elected in November, you need to spend more time on Facebook.” What if Facebook is the Real ‘Silent Majority’?
AOC and the politics of beauty (behind a Financial Times paywall)
A Twitter thread documenting the marches and rally in Kenosha this weekend.
When Americans don’t riot, politicians feel unrestrained.
Rittenhouse appears to live in a fantasy world where police and car dealerships are more endangered than unarmed Black men, and where he is a warrior.
China rounded up so many Muslims in Xinjiang that there wasn't enough space to hold them: “China has established a sprawling system to detain and incarcerate hundreds of thousands of Uighurs, Kazakhs, and other Muslim minorities, in what is already the largest-scale detention of ethnic and religious minorities since World War II.” (BuzzFeed’s Megha Rajagopalan has been doing superb work on this beat for a long time.)
Big Oil is in trouble. Its plan: flood Africa with plastic.
“Since the dawn of time — by which I mean June 20, 1975, the day Jaws chomped its way into movie theaters — the Hollywood summer blockbuster has been America in a nutshell: ambitious, expensive, loud, fond of firearms and legends and heroes, quippy, a little shallow, and always, always wrapped in the stars and stripes. … But this summer looked different, for the first time in 45 years.”
“Majorities of people—even in Sweden! Italy!—think their countries did a good job handling COVID in all countries but the UK and the US. Would seem to suggest an even halfway competent and empathetic response could have been a boon to Trump's reelection.”
“The narrative that dangerous Black people are causing violence that white men must suppress for the good of the community serves Trump's election narrative, but it is a trope right out of Reconstruction. In 1873, for example, in Colfax, Louisiana, white southerners murdered as many as 150 of their Black neighbors, while 3 white men died, one likely shot by his own compatriots. Despite those shocking numbers, newspapers reported the events at Colfax as a riot of Black men, put down by law-abiding whites who were restoring law and order.”
“To me, it’s not helpful, I think, to think about the rise of backlash as the fault or responsibility of people who spoke out on behalf of justice. We’ve somehow gotten this idea that we wouldn’t have had Nixon or law and order if it hadn’t been for the activism of the 1960s. And I just think that’s a fundamental misreading of the historical record. The truth of the matter is that it’s precisely because of that level of racial backlash — because of lynching, because of slavery, because of the high prevalence of white backlash — that the 1960s were born in the first place.”
Thanks for reading! If you liked what you read, please forward and share on social media.
If you want to give me any feedback you can reply directly to this email, or like and comment on the post itself using the buttons below.
Not a subscriber? Let’s change that!