Can widespread protests bring lasting change?

Amidst the current protests decrying the killings of Black people by police and demand for reforms, Penn Today speaks to political scientist Daniel Gillion about his new book, ‘The Loud Minority: Why Protests Matter in American Democracy.’

Crowd of people march in street, one person in the center holding sign reading "Justice for George Floyd"
Demonstrators march to protest George Floyd’s killing by a police officer.


or more than two weeks, protesters have streamed through the streets of America and in cities around the globe to decry the killings of Black people by police and to demand reforms. Can widespread demonstrations bring lasting change? Penn Today spoke to political scientist Daniel Gillion about his new book, “The Loud Minority: Why Protests Matter in American Democracy,” and what lessons it holds for the current state of affairs.

You wrote about the political power of protest in your first book. What’s the premise of your new book, and what are some of the ideas you present?

This book is actually in response to the previous book, and I see it as a continuation of ‘The Political Power of Protests.’ That book focused on how protests can influence politicians. This time, I wanted to say something about how voters see protests and how they respond to those protest actions. I focus a lot on racial and ethnic minority protests like Black Lives Matter protests, but I also look at the Women’s March, protests about guns in schools, like the March for Our Lives, and protests about immigration. 

It’s called ‘The Loud Minority’ because I reminisce about Richard Nixon making an appeal to the American people on why he should keep troops in Vietnam. He said we shouldn’t listen to protesters, but rather he wanted those who weren’t protesting to stand with him, calling them ‘the silent majority.’ However, the term the silent majority had a racial bent to it, because a disproportionate number of African Americans and Latinos were returning home from the war in body bags. 

The term fell out of use, but it has resurfaced with the election of Trump and even with these protests. The idea is that there is a group of society who is not protesting, who sees the issues completely differently, that there is a line drawn in the sand. In my book, I show that that line drawn in the sand is a fallacy. It is the boogeyman underneath the bed that does not exist. These individuals are not seeing things in different perspectives, but rather the loud minority is speaking to the silent majority, informing individuals of what's transpiring in America. 

Donald Trump tweeted this recently, asking for the silent majority to stand with him. However, that is a strategy that will fall on deaf ears because many individuals in American society today are being persuaded by protesters in the street pushing for racial and ethnic progress.

Daniel Q. Gillion
Daniel Gillion, Julie Beren Platt and Marc E. Platt Presidential Distinguished Professor of Political Science

How do political protests and activism influence voter and candidate behavior?

I view protests as being informative to politicians and voters. Protests send a signal of what’s happening in America. Politicians do not have a complete understanding of everything that’s occurring in America; it’s impossible. 

Protest is the way in which racial minorities, African Americans particular, put their voices on the policy agenda. Protests not only tell us what people are saying and which side is putting forth their concerns, but it also informs us of the intensity of the issue, and oftentimes we see it along the lines of contention occurring in the streets. 

What protest does is it brings voters to the discussion table, if you will. Martin Luther King once said that protest is able to create a crisis situation that forces people to talk about what’s going on in America. And he did this through nonviolent direct action, knowing that it was going to cause a crisis situation. 

Looking at the protests today, we see this crisis situation. Now everyone’s talking about protest activity. They’re trying to understand it and classify it, but they’re engaging in the discussion. 

Now that we see the protest, how does it influence individuals’ behavior? It does so through coalition formation through a linking of issues. When you look at protests today, we don’t see protests in their own box. You don’t look at protests and say, ‘That’s just Black people protesting,’ or, ‘Those are just women protesting.’ We use our ideological lens in this polarized society in America to assess them. So, when you see women protesting, individuals often say those are liberal protests. If you see anti-abortion protests, then those are assumed to be conservative protests. 

When voters hit the voting booth, they think about how these protests are related to one another. This has happened over time, like after the Tea Party protests, we saw a major change in Congress. During the Civil Rights Movement in the early 1960s, we saw a change in congressional leaders. Protests also influence how we donate money. They can influence who decides to run for office. So, protest, once it takes place, it has a rippling effect on our electoral process.

Book cover reading "The Loud Minority: Why Protests Matter in American Democracy" By Daniel Q. Gillion
Daniel Gillion’s new book “The Loud Minority: Why Protests Matter in American Democracy.”

What lessons can people take from your book and put to use in this current time of unrest?

The point of these protests is to bring about change. I think that’s one of the most important aspects of what we’re seeing right now; we’re seeing the beginning stages of change in America. And that is a hopeful notion. One thing that the book is able to indicate is that protests are instruments of democratic change. They are the beginning stages of how the government pays attention and how citizens come to the table. 

When individuals put forth their strife, that anguish, that pain, those raw emotions displayed in the streets are not ignored. The average American sympathizes with them, and they reflect their sympathies in the electoral process, through donating campaign dollars and turning out to vote and putting their voice out there. 

That is the beautiful thing about our democracy is that all voices are able to be heard from aspects of protests, especially when protest is combined with more institutional forms of political engagement, like elections.

People are demanding change. Can they achieve it through these protests? 

These protests are the beginning stages for massive change, and Americans should take this moment to ask for it. I know that it’s tough to get the next Civil Rights bill passed. However, when you have a moment like this, this is the moment to ask for that next bill. This is the moment to throw it all in and say, ‘Hey, I want massive change to take place in America.’ If not now, then when?

Daniel Gillion is the Julie Beren Platt and Marc E. Platt Presidential Distinguished Professor of Political Science in the School of Arts & Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania.