After more than two years of counting political crowds daily, we can conclude that protest mobilization in the United States remains a powerful mode of political participation. For instance, we’re still tallying events from the March 14 Climate Strike, which appears to have drawn 1 million to 2 million participants worldwide, including 40,000 to 50,000 people in the United States. But the demonstrations at the impeachment rallies, held June 14 to 16 in at least 139 locations through the United States, seemed relatively modest. We’ve found local news coverage for 20 percent of the protests and crowd size estimates for only about 40 percent. With fewer than 3,000 participants counted, it appears as though the rallies drew much smaller crowds than, say, the Women’s Marches, the Climate Strikes, the March for Our Lives or various other large demonstrations since President Trump’s inauguration.
Below are three possible reasons turnout was relatively modest.
Perhaps the most popular explanation for the modest participation in the events on June 15 is protest fatigue or burnout. After more than two years of protest, many participants grow weary of continual calls to mobilize. As we mentioned in a prior post, a smaller number of events over time is a typical pattern for social movements.
However, it is important not to overstate the degree to which burnout is affecting turnout at pro-impeachment rallies in particular, given that the first nationwide impeachment also drew relatively modest numbers. Pro-impeachment rallies held in July 2017 drew just about 11,000 people across 55 events nationwide – and that was during a month in which more than 100,000 people were observed protesting the GOP’s attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, federal budget cuts and other issues. Impeachment may be too abstract a goal, whereas saving Obamacare, protecting immigrant rights, and initiating climate reform seem more concrete, urgent and attainable for many activists.
The pro-impeachment rallies on June 14-16 were not the only game in town. June is Pride month, which means hundreds of thousands of people throw their energies into events related to LGBTQ pride. For instance, Denver held its PrideFest — one of the largest in the country — on June 14-15. We documented more than 1 million attendees nationwide in LGBTQ pride-related events in 2017 and 2018, and we expect to tally large turnouts in 2019 as well.
Moreover, many organizers have been putting their energies into electoral mobilization for the 2020 elections. There are now 23 Democratic presidential campaigns, all of which organize rallies that tend to draw the attention and energy of those who might otherwise participate in standalone protests.
Finally, protests have been happening consistently in other substantive areas, such as the student-led Climate Strike and pro-immigrant, anti-ICE actions. Those may be drawing activists’ attention instead.
3. Limited support for impeachment overall
The majority of Americans still do not favor impeachment, which may further keep turnout low. A recent Quinnipiac University poll indicated that 61 percent of Americans are against impeachment proceedings, with 33 percent in favor and 6 percent unsure. A Morning Consult/Politico poll, conducted June 14-16, had the split at 50/36/14.
Of course, the majority of Americans still disapprove of Trump, but the 2020 election may be close enough that the majority of Americans intend to convey their disapproval at the polls, rather than in the streets.
Tommy Leung is a software engineer and co-founder of countlove.org, a website that documents local news coverage of U.S. protest activity.
Nathan Perkins is a neuroscientist studying motor learning at Boston University and fellow co-founder of countlove.org.
Jeremy Pressman (@djpressman) is an associate professor of political science and director of Middle East Studies at the University of Connecticut. Pressman’s book, “The Sword Is Not Enough: Arabs, Israelis, and the Limits of Military Force” (Manchester University Press) will be published in early 2020.