The Social Movements Behind Protest

Anthony DiMaggio Explores the Social Movements Behind Protest

DiMaggio's book dissects the progression of social movements in the United States since 2008.

Story by

Stephen Gross

Photography by

Illustration by Jimmy Turrell

In the last decade, protest has become mainstreamed in America—both on the left and right sides of the political spectrum, says political scientist and activist Anthony DiMaggio. Not since the 1960s has the United States seen such a “never-ending wave of protests.”

Shortly after the 2008 financial crisis came the Tea Party protests over taxation and government spending, followed by protests over Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s collective bargaining legislation. Next was Occupy Wall Street (economic inequality), the Fight for 15 (minimum wage), Black Lives Matter (police brutality), anti-Trump protests and the #MeToo movement (sexual harassment in the workplace). Demonstrations over environmental concerns also have occurred throughout.

In his book, “Rebellion in America: Citizen Uprisings, the News Media, and the Politics of Plutocracy,” DiMaggio, an associate professor of political science, dissects the progression of recent social movements, along with the populism of both Sen. Bernie Sanders on the left and former President Donald Trump on the right. He uses his experiences—at Tea Party protests, the Capitol building in Madison, Wis., and anti-Trump protests—along with media reports and public opinion data to understand the motivating and driving factors for those involved in each of the movements.

Studying these movements is important, DiMaggio says, because researchers do not have a great understanding of how social movements impact the political process.

“We risk, especially in these disciplines like political science, coming off as really disconnected and aloof from reality when these things are happening under our noses and people aren't writing about them,” DiMaggio says.

Collage of protesters

Although people are protesting at a rate not seen since the 1960s, mass public opinion is much different today. DiMaggio writes in his book that in 2018 nearly 60% of Americans “were upset enough over an issue that they were willing to protest.” In the 1960s, he notes, a majority of the population held unfavorable views of civil rights and anti-war protests. Today’s movements include multiple issues within them, most notably with anti-Trump protests.

“You've got people who are concerned with misogyny and sexism, people who are concerned with things like racism and xenophobia, people who are concerned with healthcare as an economic issue, and so that's where it's getting interesting,” DiMaggio says. “People are starting to cross-pollinate these movements, which were pretty separate waves in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. First was civil rights, and then on the back of that was anti-war, and then by the time that was winding down, you had women's rights and then environmentalism. … Now with Donald Trump, when he was in office, separate movements started coming together.”

DiMaggio makes four main arguments. The first is that intersectionality—the study of different types of identity and how they intersect—-matters. Intersectionality is crucial to understanding movements on both sides of the political spectrum, but it’s largely ignored and dismissed by political scientists and sociologists, says DiMaggio. The second argument is that social transformation occurs through mass movements that utilize the media to communicate their values and shift public opinion. The third is that leftist social movements are mainly responsible for promoting progressive societal transformation, as opposed to political parties or government institutions. Finally, DiMaggio argues that grassroots populism during the 2010s was primarily a leftist phenomenon, while corporations and business elites fueled and had more impact on populism on the far-right. Right-wing social movements exist, but they’re smaller than progressive ones, DiMaggio explains, because they’re often assembled from the top down.

DiMaggio weaves these arguments through book chapters on the Tea Party, the economic justice movement, Black Lives Matter, populism in the 2016 election and the anti-Trump movement. His hope, he says, is that his work can inspire important and necessary scholarly engagement.

“If a book like this can't break through in political science and elsewhere—when all of these protests are happening and it's so in people's faces—then I don't think it's probably going to happen for my discipline,” he says.

Anthony DiMaggio’s research is interdisciplinary, and is based in the fields of political science, political sociology and political communication. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Illinois-Chicago.

Illustration by Jimmy Turrell

Story by

Stephen Gross

Photography by

Illustration by Jimmy Turrell

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