The Role of Social Movements in the Macro Political System

By Petrow, Gregory A. | The New England Journal of Political Science, Fall 2016 | Go to article overview

The Role of Social Movements in the Macro Political System


Petrow, Gregory A., The New England Journal of Political Science


The system of representation in a democracy stands on two cornerstones. The first is that elected representatives respond to public opinion by creating policy that reflects the public's preferences. This first cornerstone reflects majoritarian theories of representation. However, democratic theory scholars have long recognized that the mass public is uninformed about, and uninterested in, many issues. Thus, the second cornerstone of democratic representation is rooted in the pluralist school-policy is the result of conflictual participation between active and interested groups, with policy makers hearing competing arguments and making policy based on the more compelling claims (e.g. Dahl 2005).1

Pluralism typically invokes interest groups and lobbying, but the "outside government" game is vitally important as well, as scholars have long claimed (Lee 2002; Lipsky 1968; Lohmann 1993; Mansbridge 1994; McAdam and Su 2002). American history is fraught with examples of seemingly voiceless groups organizing mass protests as the only avenue to deliver them the say-so they desired. Indeed, this option is sometimes held up as the great equalizer-if the voiceless and powerless can organize themselves, they can force the nation to take notice. This raises the question of whether or not an important part of this second cornerstone of democratic theory holds true. That is, to what degree do social movements influence public opinion and policy?

Remarkably, while studies move forward on the latter part of the question, very little study has been done on the former. Only a handful of published studies consider how protest affects public opinion. Most of these studies concern the impact of the pro-immigration marches in 2006 on Latino public opinion (Branton, Martinez-Ebers, Carey and Matsubayashi 2014; Carey, Branton and Martinez-Ebers 2014; Mohamed 2013; Wallace, Zepeda-Millan and JonesCorrea 2014). Two other studies consider the impacts of other movements on public opinion (Guigni 2004; Banaszak and Ondercin 2016). All of these studies find that social movement activities affect public opinion, with the exception of Guigni (2004).

Turning to how social movements might affect policy, scholars uncover the messy reality that the effects of social movements on policy are contingent on elements of the political opportunity structure (Amenta, Carruthers, and Zylan 1992; Amenta, Dunleavy, and Bernstein 1994; Amenta and Young 1999; Browning, Marshall and Tabb 1984; Burstein 1998; Cress and Snow 2000; Burstein and Linton 2002; Santoro 2002; Soule and Olzak 2004). As well, scholars now know that the effects of movements depend on the stage of the policymaking process (King, Cornwall and Dahlin 2005; King, Bentele, and Soule 2007; Soule and King 2008), and the level of counter-movement activity (Soule 2004; Soule and Olzak 2004).

While scholars have certainly learned a lot about the linkages between social protest, and policymaking, almost all of the research on both the emergence of protest and its effects on policy focuses on a single movement at a time, in a single period of time (four exceptions are: Baumgartner and Mahoney 2005; Gillion 2012; King, Bentele, and Soule 2007, and Madestam, Shoag, Veuger and Yanagizawa-Drott 2013). Researchers should study many movements, with variation across time, to increase the generalizability of their findings. This is a common critique of the social movement literature (see for example Amenta, Caren, Chiarello and Su 2010). Inspired by the concept of the protest cycle or protest wave (Tarrow 1994), in this paper I examine the entirety of social protest, in the United States, over a 23-year period (from 1972 to 1995). My goal is to understand whether the waxing and waning of social protest, writ large, is connected in any way to public opinion and policymaking. I assume that ideologically likeminded social movement groups are linked by common causes and roots, rising and falling together across time, and I test how well this assumption allows me to explain systematic variance in public opinion, and public policy. …

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