In America’s popular imagination, street protests — raised fists and colorful signs, marches and megaphone-led chants — are a distinctly left-wing phenomenon. From union strikes to Saul Alinsky–style “direct actions,” mass movements seem to carry far more romantic appeal for the Left than for the Right. Progressivism has traditionally understood itself as the politics of picket lines and sit-ins; conservatism tends to find its political center of gravity at Rotary Clubs, church meetings, and dinner tables in sleepy bedroom communities.
This presents an issue for conservatives. Protests — so long as they remain nonviolent — can be enormously effective. Even as support for the Black Lives Matter movement has fallen sharply from its peak in June 2020, last summer’s demonstrations precipitated a sea change in American institutions that went well above and beyond the hundreds of millions of dollars that flooded in to support left-wing causes in the months following George Floyd’s death. The political salience of such movements is not limited to the Left: The Tea Party drove up the GOP’s vote count in the 2010 midterms and pushed Republican incumbents rightward on policy. In fact, there is some evidencethat conservative protest movements may even be better at driving up votes than their progressive counterparts.
But that’s only if conservatives decide to protest in the first place. There is a long tradition of right-wing protest movements, from the 1970s citizen tax revolts to Phyllis Schlafly’s campaign against the ERA to decades of pro-life demonstrations across the country. (The annual March for Life brings hundreds of thousands of protesters to Washington, D.C., every year.) But conservative constituencies, often clustered in rural and exurban areas, are typically composed of parents, middle-class Christians, and noncollege-educated small-business owners — a far cry from the “younger, male, educated, politically interested and trade-unionized” individuals that political-science research shows are “more likely to engage in protest activities.” Even as protests from across the political spectrum surged in 2020, the number and size of left-wing demonstrations far outnumbered their right-wing counterparts: Princeton’s Bridging Divides Initiative estimates that slightly more than 2,350 total protests associated with right-wing causes occurred in 2020, whereas Black Lives Matter alone topped out at more than 10,330.