Are peaceful or violent protests more effective?

Are peaceful or violent protests more effective at achieving policy change? I study the effect of protests during the Civil Rights Era on legislator votes in the US House. Using a fixed-effects specification, my identifying variation is changes within the congressional district over time. I find that peaceful protests made legislators vote more liberally, consistent with the goals of the Civil Rights Movement. By contrast, violent protests backfired and made legislators vote more conservatively. The effect of peaceful protests was limited to civil rights-related votes. The effect of violent protests extended to welfare-related votes. I explore alternative explanations for these results and show that the results are robust to them. Congressional districts where incumbents were replaced responded more strongly. Furthermore, congressional districts with a larger population share of whites responded more strongly. This is consistent with a signaling model of protests where protests transmitted new information to white voters but not to black voters.

That is the abstract of the job market paper of Gábor Nyéki from Duke.


Surely this result must depend on the country in question? Could the USA Colonials achieved their goal peacefully by protesting against the British stamp tax? What about the 1820 Greeks vs the Turks (that was the Greek War of Independence for you guys that don't know much history). What about Gandhi? (you do know who he is? Google it). What about Simon Boliviar? And so on.

Bonus trivia: the Ottoman empire Turks made fully two-thirds of their revenue from non-Muslim subjects like the Greeks, that's why they were so keen on retaining their empire. By contrast, think about it: what did it cost the US Whites to give in the Blacks and concede some rights? Not much except pride, that's how I see it. Follow the money! Same with the British: it is said they reason they abandoned the colonies after losing the Yorktown battle was they were economically more concerned about keeping Gibraltar from the Spanish. Same with the French giving up the Louisiana territories to Jefferson for a song. And so on. Follow the money!

Violence is necessary when you don't have a good argument or "right" on your side. You must force people to accept what will harm them where as you can reason and discuss peacefully about things that will benefit them.

@Anon - thanks, very reasonable, but I think those Public Choice people like Mancur Olson and James Buchanan and even oldsters like Thomas Hobbes might disagree. The little problem with free riders not paying money (taxes) to the stationary bandit (government). That said, this analogy is not apt since in the OP we're talking about the minority (before they become stationary bandits, aka the majority).

Peaceful protest works when the oppressors give a shit about human rights, their image, or their diplomatic relations. Gandhi was successful because the British public weren't keen on being violent oppressors. Now, I don't think peaceful protest would have worked out well for the Jews in Nazi Germany.

'Now, I don't think peaceful protest would have worked out well for the Jews in Nazi Germany.'

Depends - there was this odd little incident. 'The Rosenstrasse protest was a collective street protest on Rosenstraße ("Rose street") in Berlin during February and March 1943. This demonstration was initiated and sustained by the non-Jewish wives and relatives of Jewish men who had been arrested and targeted for deportation, based on the racial policy of Nazi Germany. The protests continued until the men being held were released. The Rosenstrasse protest was the only mass public demonstration by Germans in the Third Reich against the deportation of Jews.'

Do note the success rate for non-violent German protest against the Nazis deporting (and killing) Jews was actually 100%. If there had been more than that single case, who knows admittedly.

One of the oddest things about the Nazis is just how often they backed down when faced with determined resistance. Basically, the leaders of a genocidal ideology were scared of losing control if enough people opposed them, and thus were always careful to avoid such situations.

Stalin, on the other hand ....

Who gets to define peaceful and violent?

What happened on May 3, 1963 was a violent demonstration, after all -

And for a more recent example, this too was a violent demonstration - 'The controversial Stuttgart 21 railway project has been the focus of increasing protests in recent months. But Thursday seemed to mark a turning point as the conflict between the authorities and protesters escalated dramatically.

Around 600 police used water cannon, tear gas, pepper spray and batons in an operation against over 1,000 demonstrators in the southwestern city of Stuttgart on Thursday. The activists had tried to use a sit-down protest to prevent the city's Schlossgarten park from being cleared so that work could begin on felling trees in the park as part of construction work on the new station. Thursday's protests were attended by a broad cross-section of society, including pensioners and children.

The protest's organizers said in a statement that more than 400 protestors had suffered eye irritation as a result of the police's operation, with some suffering from lacerations or broken noses.

The German Red Cross said on Friday morning that 114 demonstrators had been treated on site, and a further 16 were taken to hospitals. Among the injured were school children who had been taking part in an officially registered demonstration.'

Violent protests rarely are what's intended by the protesters; rather, the violence is often triggered by law enforcement. This study reinforces the belief that law enforcement often triggers violence because law enforcement opposes whatever goals the protesters may have. Civil rights demonstrations in the 1960s are a good illustration of the phenomenon. Less obvious were the incidents of violence during the Vietnam War by groups opposed to the War, such as fires and bombings in public buildings, which often resulted from the instigation of law enforcement personnel infiltrating the groups opposed to the war. What about when opposing groups clash, such as in Charlottesville? Law enforcement mostly stayed away when violence erupted between the groups, and our president pronounced both groups equally innocent. For many, the president's pronouncement meant that the counter-protesters were responsible for the violence; absent the counter-protesters, the Nazis would have staged a peaceful protest.

"Violent protests rarely are what's intended by the protesters; rather, the violence is often triggered by law enforcement. "

Good thing they already have hoods to cover their faces and weapons were handy.

"Violent protests rarely are what's intended by the protesters; rather, the violence is often triggered by law enforcement."

There are some current and former Seattle residents that lived there around 1999 that would like to have a word with you.

And now they — the protesters — are all very, very much in favour of Free Trade!

Hye, god of thunder, can I be your goddess tonight? I want to polish your hammer.

Sometimes violence is triggered by crazy people who drive their cars through peaceful protesters.

All that Undocumented Shopping in Ferguson in 2014 didn't do Hillary much good in the state of Missouri in 2016.

This is well timed with a recent post on Crooked Timber on when citizens have a moral duty to engage in civil disobedience (or more). It is pretty clear from the discussion that people are really frustrated that the limited effectiveness of respectful protest is about the best that you can usually do. (May not hold in other polities - South Africa?). Note that I'm not sure a lot of recent styles of protest qualify. I think if the public doesn't think you're making the case for a sufficiently important injustice, they will respond negatively to even a peaceful protest (because even a peaceful protest can be pretty disruptive)


What Tyler and the other Dems will never understand is that protests in general do not work, violent or otherwise. They are easy for the DNC to set up with a quick blast email and some pre-printed signs, and they are easy to film so that footage can be put up on Dem media websites. Dems will then say "OMG look how much we are accomplishing!!" but it fact it is nothing.

Unless you want to count alienating all the independents who are stuck in traffic, but I'd prefer to let them keep forgetting about that.

If the American colonists had never protested the British imposed Stamp Act, you wouldn't have a United States, genius.

Protest did nothing to bring about the United States genius. It took a declaration of war to do that.

...didn't do Dems much good nationwide in 2016. And still resonates...

It will take a bit more time, but I believe political historians will assign a much greater influence to the Michael Brown fiasco on the 2016 election and subsequent election than it currently receives.

That event was a bell-weather and a wake up call to a huge segment of the voting public, and I believe was responsible for that segments decided turn to a more permanently conservative position. Yes...I said permanently. That segment will never look at Dems the same way again.

We usually think of sheep more as followers than leaders, but in a flock one sheep must lead the way. Long ago, it was common practice for shepherds to hang a bell around the neck of one sheep in their flock, thereby designating it the lead sheep. This animal was called the bellwether, a word formed by a combination of the Middle English words belle (meaning "bell") and wether (a noun that refers to a male sheep that has been castrated). It eventually followed that bellwether would come to refer to someone who takes initiative or who actively establishes a trend that is taken up by others. This usage first appeared in English in the 13th century.

Appreciated. That event was definitely a bellwether, but Brown was no sacrificial lamb.

Violent protests did drive whites from the cities, which gave minorities a lock on local politicians (and squaring rights on extremely valuable real estate).

That does not bode well for the Democrats, given more behaviours are perceived as 'violent' these days. Paradoxically that is due to the leftists for a significant part.

I do not have access to the paper and I am confused about what he classifies as a violent protest, does he consider the riots protest?

If the riot had a clear intent to put pressure on policymakers (e.g. anti-Vietnam war, race riot, riot due to unemployment) then yes, it was included. If it was a simple hooligan riot because the enemy team won the Sunday football match, then no, it obviously did not appear amongst the numbers.

But did peaceful protests look more credible thanks to the violent ones? If all protests had been peaceful, what would have been the credible threat for politicians?

George Soros keeps funding more invasion Caravans

Hey Troll, still desperate I see.

There's a great example of how violent protest inspires change from the slave rebellion in Haiti.
In 1787 or so in England opponents of the slave trade began to organize, enlisted Wilberforce and started trying to get Parliament to outlaw the trade. No luck until after the slaves rebelled in Haiti, starting in 1797. The rebellion ended in 1804 or so, and in 1807 England outlawed the trade.
Yes, Haiti was a French position, but the English upper class could see horror of the rebellion and they finally got off their comfortable butts.
'Bury the Chains' is an excellent recounting of the end of the trade and the book made Thomas Clarkson my hero.

You make your appeal in Piccadilly, London, amongst those who are wallowing in luxuries, proceeding from the labour of the people. You should have gone to the gravel-pits, and made your appeal to the wretched creatures with bits of sacks around their shoulders, and with hay-bands round their legs; you should have gone to the roadside, and made your appeal to the emaciated, half-dead things who are there cracking stones to make the roads as level as a die for the tax eaters to ride on. What an insult it is, and what an unfeeling, what a cold-blooded hypocrite must he be that can send it forth; what an insult to call upon people under the name of free British labourers; to appeal to them in behalf of Black slaves, when these free British labourers; these poor, mocked, degraded wretches, would be happy to lick the dishes and bowls, out of which the Black slaves have breakfasted, dined, or supped...Talk, indeed, of transmuting the wretched Africans into this condition! ...Will not the care, will not the anxiety of a really humane Englishman be directed towards the Whites, instead of towards the Blacks, until, at any rate, the situation of the former be made to be as good as that of the latter?

Letter to Wilberforce, Political Register (30 August 1823), quoted in G. D. H. Cole, The Life of William Cobbett (Greenwood, 1971), p. 259.


Welp, you beat me to it.

“Pareidolia is a type of apophenia, which is a more generalized term for seeing patterns in random data. Some common examples are seeing a likeness of Jesus in the clouds or an image of a man on the surface of the moon.”

The full paper is here:

The point of obstreperous protests is not to garner policy changes but to prevent people from speaking and organizing and to harass skilled personnel to such a degree that they will not want to work for prominent figures the protesters are treating as an enemy. That actually may work - until the harassed start hitting back.

And the violence inclines you to fall to your knees before the nice peaceful revolutionaries. As they smile benignly and somewhat contemptuously down upon you, you stammer, "Protect me from your violent brethren!" They murmur, "Yes, this can be done."

Surely there is a chicken-and-egg factor at work here. It could simply be that violent protests took place in areas that were more opposed to granting civil rights. Indeed, the violence may have arisen from that fact in the first place. That would mean that the author has conflated cause and effect.

You should read their identification strategy before posting.

I can't help but feel that violent protests typically function by making peaceful ones more effective. Good-cop-bad-cop, Mutt-and-Jeff, etc.

How is this an econ paper? Are economists now just doing political science work?

Welcome to Bryan Caplan's career. You might think raiding other disciplines with their inherently dissimilar imaginations might be a recipe for doing misleading and reductive work, but they don't. (You might also think studying social relations should be left to neurotypicals, but that's not the line at the GMU econ department either).

The headline has to be that America is a land of peaceful protest.

Here is a:

List of protests in the United States by size

Amusing that basically all the comments above cherry pick much smaller events to discuss. I guess when you need a violent example from your enemies, you'll look for it in the corners of the room.

Sheeeeit, bro! You think I'm gonna talk about examples that don't conform to my priors?? Where you think you is?

To be fair ..

Despite Tyler not really believing in "priming" (from BE), this page might be an example of it. Think of "violent protest" and you focus on those, even though they are the outliers overall.

If you think of "American protest" instead, it's not very violent.

The biggest outlier in the last three decades has to have been the Los Angeles riots.

There was relatively little legislative change afterwards, but those who are familiar with LA history know that there was massive upheaval/institutional change following: LAPD...

Daryl Gates -> Willie Williams -> Bernard Parks

What did Nancy Pelosi say?

Not sure if this is directed towards my comment...

Pelosi was from the 5th District in 1992; outside of San Francisco. She was approximately 382 miles away from Los Angeles.

It seems she said something on Stephen Colbert recently.

Sure, we can lower the temperature. But only if we get what we want.

The highest-ranking Democrat said that before an election on national TV.

That doesn’t sound promising.

I heard something interesting on the radio today. It was that in very specific demographics, saying "Nancy Pelosi" gets out the vote.

But only there, outside those specific locations nobody cares.

It's weird right, where in the world would "fear of Nancy" be your most motivating factor?

Only cucks would give Pelosi free rent in their heads.

I end up feeling like we should compare #MeToo to the Women's March. Or to Occupy.

I hear stories of my parents and civil rights protests. I hear stories of my wife protesting against communism. And then, I look at all the protests of today and think, well, all you have to do is not care, and you're immune to everything a protest can throw at you. What's different? Something is, but I'm not sure what.

Great link. It's nice to see that moderation wins out!

And a lot of good sub-threads on here. There probably is an element of Good Cop, Bad Cop to protests in general.

I suspect it depends on the nature of the thing being protested. Civil Rights protests tend to be about either guilting or appealing to the majority to do whats right. That is easiest to do when the person feels safe, secure and relatively well off. A violent protest is highly unlikely to work.

On the other hand I suspect violent protests work better if they are for right wing causes. The 'rent a riot' in Florida during the Bush.v.Gore ballot dispute, for example, probably did not backfire on conservatives. Nor did Trump celebrating members of his audience who attacked protesters or simply non-white people who they presumed had to be protesters.

Pessimistic prediction:

A protest premised on "we must do what's right" or "you must do what's right" makes sense when the minority lacks power. "We are not putting up with this BS" makes sense as a protest when those making it have the power or the numbers.

As the US becomes less white demographically but gerrymandering and the constitutional system of 'geographic affirmative' action essentially subsidizes the power of places with richer in land than people, the civil rights discussion will get ugly. Protests for civil rights will be less high minded while those viewing the protests are likely to get less inclined to entertain their demands no matter how reasonable or just. Things, at least rhetorically, will get worse before they get better.

It's good to keep in mind that the peaceful protests of the Civil Right Movement were set against a backdrop of more violent resistance. This threat of violence made the non-violent protests more appealing to respond to, and is an aspect we often miss when talking about the CRM. Potentially, peaceful protests are most effective when violent protests are also happening, since they present a more palatable option to those in power.

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