Now that the highly contentious confirmation process for Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh is winding down, will the resolution dampen the fervor of recent activism? In the past two weeks, protesters have interrupted Senate Judiciary Committee hearings, blocked the streets around the Capitol, sung on the steps of the Supreme Court, occupied a Senate building, and much more — including calling for a national day of action today. In fact, survivors who confronted Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) in a Senate elevator live on CNN may have pushed him to call for an FBI investigation into sexual assault allegations against the nominee before a confirmation vote. Given the protesters’ role in slowing the confirmation process, the outcome is likely to provoke more activism, not less.
Why have the protests against President Trump’s administration persisted with so much strength for so long? My ongoing research project offers some insight. With a multi-person research team, I have surveyed attendees at all the large-scale protest events in Washington since Trump’s inauguration. So far, the complete data set includes surveys collected from 1,946 protest participants.
Although each protest event has been different — with a different main focus and a different coalition of organizations coordinating the event — the research method is the same. My research team and I snake through these crowds sampling every fifth person at designated increments within the staging area to gather a field approximation of a random sample. More women than men have attended all these protests, and protesters have come from a highly educated portion of the U.S. population.
My colleague Lorien Jasny and I analyzed these data to understand who shows up repeatedly in these large-scale protests, and what they have in common. We find that two quite different variables — being motivated by a desire to protect reproductive rights and having contacted an elected official in the past year — are both strongly associated with participants turning out over and over again.
The early portion of the Kavanaugh hearings focused on the judge’s position on the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision striking down laws against abortion. That’s the issue that has mobilized the most engaged Trump protesters who have been turning out repeatedly since his inauguration to march in the streets and to do much more. Given the likely overlap between this issue and the women motivated to speak out about sexual assault and harassment by the #MeToo movement, if Kavanaugh is confirmed, we can expect even more activism. Since these models are not perfect predictors of persistence, our findings should be interpreted cautiously. But they do suggest what to expect in the coming days and weeks before the midterm elections.
Protesters had some success in attracting national media attention and, many believe, prompting the call for the final FBI investigation. Therefore, we shouldn’t expect such highly motivated activists to back off any time soon. These persistent protesters are very likely to contact their elected officials, whether inside or outside of elevators. And we can expect they will be doing a lot more than just sitting in and marching around the Capitol before the midterm elections that will be held in 31 days.
Dana R. Fisher is a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland. A draft of her forthcoming book “American Resistance” is available now online, and will be published in final form by Columbia University Press after the midterm elections.