If you’ve seen a surge in protest movements around the world lately, you are not alone. David Clark, Professor of Political Science and Assistant Dean of Studies at Harpur College, noticed it too – and he has the data to back it up.
“In the past five or six years there has been a huge trend towards protests demanding the ousting of governments,” says Clark. “Four of the greatest years in our data have happened since 2015.”
The data Clark is referring to is part of the Mass Mobilization (MM) Project, a huge database that tracks events in 162 countries where citizens have publicly protested the government. With data on more than 15,000 events since 1990, it also catalogs information about protesters’ demands and government reactions.
The project is funded by the Political Instability Task Force, a CIA-funded research group interested in the causes of state failure. Clark started working on the MM project in 2013.
âWe wanted to understand a few basic questions about what drives citizens to mobilize against the government and what the government is giving them back,â says Clark. “There was very little data on that at the time, so we had a pretty ambitious framework.”
Although he’s always had an interest in political science, Clark says his real passion is puzzle solving, which makes him particularly well suited to a project of this size.
âPolitics offers a lot of puzzles,â he says. “This puzzle and problem-solving orientation particularly appeals to me.”
With the help of PhD students, researchers began uncovering events involving 50 or more public demonstrators. Smaller events – for example a handful of people protesting on a street corner – are numerous and barely attract the government’s attention, they noted.
As more data was gathered, Clark began to discover trends and patterns. One result is that protests that followed an organizational structure, even if they were informal, tended to be more effective and less violent than unorganized protests. Clark identified three reasons for this:
- Organized movements tend to have more focused goals, demands and methods and are often able to contain or exclude violent members.
- Government forces have a harder time justifying violent reactions to protesters who are less violent themselves.
- Governments are less likely to react violently when organized demonstrators can more effectively get their stories out into the open.
Following up on these incidents can affect the researchers’ mental health, Clark admits. Protesters typically face difficult and sometimes tragic circumstances and reading hundreds of articles on the subject takes its toll. However, Clark says he is moved by many of the stories.
âProtesters often take incredible risks, and it’s inspiring that people are still ready to get out and claim that they can live their lives in some kind of security,â he says.
While the MM project does not take into account the events in the United States, according to Clark, it is important that Americans understand the implications of the results.
“Over the past decade there have been broad trends towards populist governments and movements, and they are becoming increasingly successful in taking office around the world,” he says. “Understanding protests in this contemporary environment is important to understand where we stand and what it means for American democracy.”
As an example, Clark cites the January 6th uprising in the US Capitol: âIf you look at the course of American history, it may seem like an outlier for sure, but it is in relation to what we see around the world it’s not really an outlier. It fits a pattern. “