A Theory of Protest Escalation

Based on 18 months of extensive field-work, I engage in an in-depth comparison of two major episodes of mass contentious action - the Brazilian and Turkish street protests that took place in 2013, the largest ever recorded in either country up to that time - to investigate their origins and derive a general theory of protest escalation in democratic regimes. I then test and refine my theoretical hypotheses with a survey experiment, large-N statistical evidence, and a further set of qualitative case studies.
I demonstrate that the process of protest escalation results from the layering of three key causal factors: the availability of a politically salient macro-group that is activated by elite polarization dynamics [the layer of identity], the group’s chronic inability to influence the political process due to the acute weakness of opposition parties and the lack of other institutional leverages [the layer of representation], and government inconsistencies in its approach to containing or counter-framing an incipient protest movement [the protest trigger]. The social psychology of group identification and Michel Foucault’s work on power-knowledge and governmentality provide me with the theoretical scaffolding required for integrating these layers into a cohesive approach, which bridges the analysis of the individual with that of her social context.
I find that cycles of escalation occur in response to two distinct types of crises of political representation: either a crisis characterized by either extreme polarization, when representation comes under strain as a result of a perceived majoritarian tyranny, or a crisis characterized by extreme depolarization, when representation suffers from the collapse of already weak party-voter linkages. Yet regardless of their origins, the crises of representation responsible for episodes of protest escalation are encapsulated by a single definition: “the acute and widespread perception of democratic representation as systematically hurting rather than protecting fundamental group interests.” The direct causal relationship between crises of democratic representation and episodes of protest escalation highlights the importance of this study for understanding the dynamics of democratic consolidation and deconsolidation.

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