The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why is the world protesting so much? A new study claims to have some answers.

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Are we in a historic age of protest? A new study released Thursday that looked at demonstrations between 2006 and 2020 found that the number of protest movements around the world had more than tripled in less than 15 years. Every region saw an increase, the study found, with some of the largest protest movements ever recorded — including the farmers’ protests that began in 2020 in India, the 2019 protests against President Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and ongoing Black Lives Matter protests since 2013.

Titled “World Protests: A Study of Key Protest Issues in the 21st Century,” the study comes from a team of researchers with German think tank Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) and the Initiative for Policy Dialogue, a nonprofit organization based at Columbia University and adds to a growing body of literature about our era of increasing protests. Looking closely at more than 900 protest movements or episodes across 101 countries and territories, the authors came to the conclusion that we are living through a period of history like the years around 1848, 1917 or 1968 “when large numbers of people rebelled against the way things were, demanding change.”

But why? Here, the authors highlight one particular problem: democratic failure. Their research found that a majority of the protest events they recorded — 54 percent — were prompted by a perceived failure of political systems or representation. Roughly 28 percent included demands for what the authors described as “real democracy,” the most of any demand found by the researchers. Other themes included inequality, corruption and the lack of action over climate change. But the study’s authors say policymakers do not respond adequately.

“Too many leaders in government and business are not listening. The vast majority of protests around the world advance reasonable demands already agreed upon by most governments. People protest for good jobs, a clean planet for future generations, and a meaningful say in the decisions that affect their quality of life,” said Sara Burke, senior expert on global economic policy at the FES and an author on the study.

Protests mean different things to different people. The study was released the same week that The Washington Post released a massive, three-part investigation into the Jan. 6 insurrection that began, in part, as a protest about some participants’ concerns, stoked by conspiracy theories, about democratic representation. There will also be significant climate change protests later this week — but some European leaders are concerned that the costs of shifting away from fossil fuels could spark a backlash like the “yellow vest” protest movement in France.

In the United States alone, recent years have seen huge protests from Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter to the Tea Party and Stop the Steal campaigns. But tracking the scale of global protests is a mammoth task. Other projects, such as the Google-backed Global Database of Events, Language, and Tone, have scraped news articles for data about protests. Burke, along with co-authors Isabel Ortiz, Mohamed Berrada and Hernán Saenz Cortés, instead took a more time-consuming method. Researchers worked across news mediums in seven languages to identify protests and protest movements — finding articles “by hand” as Burke put it in response to questions from Today’s WorldView.

The collection alone represented more than a thousand hours of work before any analysis had even started. But the trends were clear. In 2006, just 73 protest movements were recorded by the study. In 2020, there were 251 — higher even then after the 2008 financial crisis or the Arab Spring revolts of 2011. Europe and Central Asia had seen the largest increase in the number of protest movements and there were more protests in high-income countries than in countries in other income brackets, but a rise in protests was found across all regions and income levels.

(The authors kept records of protest movements across different years, marking them as separate “protest events” when they spanned more than one year for a grand total of 2,809. This does not mean that only 2,809 individual protests occurred; other studies have put the number of Black Lives Matter protests at nearly 12,000 in 2020 alone.)

Other than issues with democracy and political representation, the report identifies rising inequality as another broad theme of protests around the world, contributing to nearly 53 percent of the protests studied. Individual issues raised by protesters included corruption, labor conditions, and reform of public services followed “real democracy” as the most widely cited.

There was also a significant increase in demands for racial or ethnic justice, such as with the Black Lives Matter protests, but there was a small — but growing — number of protests focused on denying the rights of others during the period, with the authors pointing toward Germany’s far-right “Pegida” movement, anti-Chinese movements in Kyrgyzstan and the “yellow vest” movement among them.

The study’s authors acknowledge that their work is inherently political. “There are no neutral numbers in protests,” Burke said, admitting that the vagueness of some numbers, such as crowd size estimates, left items open for interpretation. An Internet-based study is also limited by what is reported. “We can only study what we can see and what we can see is increasingly impacted by where and who we are,” Burke added.

Asked what defines “real democracy,” Burke admitted it was somewhat subjective: “One person’s democracy is another person’s autocracy.” But the study tried to take protesters at their word. In the case of Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington D.C. (which was not included in the study as it was outside of its time frame), Burke said that, too, would have been classified as a demonstration for “real democracy” but also a protest designed to deny rights, among other designations.

Most protests aren’t violent like the Capitol insurrection, the study found, but there has been a slow but steady increase in violence between 2006 and 2020, with just over one-fifth of recorded protests involving some kind of crowd violence, vandalism or looting. In almost half of the protests studied, there were reports of arrests; a little over a quarter saw reports of some form of violence from the police.

Perhaps the key argument from the study is that as protests increase, leaders should take them more seriously. Roughly 42 percent of protests in the study were judged as successful, though that varied significantly by region and the type of protests and included partial successes — a higher figure than some other studies. If our era of protests continues, that suggests many more protesters are going to get at least some of what they want.

“Protests around the world have been getting a dubious reputation lately,” said Michael Bröning, director of the FES New York office. “We need to understand that protests are not a verboten behavior but a core tenet of democracy. What we need is nothing short of a global rehabilitation of protest.”

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