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Conference Proceeding

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One of the central concepts in the study of social movements is that of the “Protest Cycle” (e.g., Tarrow 1998). The imagery of the Cycle is that of heightened protests, across issue areas and groups. Scholars have connected its rise to openings in the Political Opportunity Structure, which signals to early risers that the time may be ripe for collective action (e.g., Tarrow 1998). We find it striking that this core idea in the social movements literature has not been connected more explicitly to the literature on public opinion. This is especially striking because social movement scholars have begun to explicitly address the role of public opinion in their models (e.g., Soule and Olzak 2004; Soule and King 2006). Suppose that ideological social movements, taken as a whole, rise and fall across time in a predictable fashion. Perhaps the effects of these movements on public opinion and policy are also predictable, as some have argued (e.g., Burstein and Linton 2002). In that case, social movements play a vital role in connecting public opinion to policy. How can this be the case? Public opinion can be summarized as policy mood (e.g. Erikson, MacKuen and Stimson 2002). It turns out that at the national level, people’s preferences regarding the degree to which they think government should be more or less active moves over time in liberal and conservative directions. Policy mood causes national election outcomes, which in turn causes how liberal or conservative the legislation is that Congress passes. Policy mood should matter for social movements, as well . Dynamic policy mood presents social movement organizers with opportunities; when policy mood is liberal, liberal social movements have more of an opportunity to be successful because the issues they care about will receive more support from the American people (Soule and Olzak 2004). Liberal social movements will then rise, leading to greater policy success (the opposite will be true for conservative social movements). However, the activism of these rising social movements leads to an ideological backlash, which in turn moves public mood in the opposite direction in an effort to find balance. We test our hypotheses using a data set of public protest events that records protest events for each day from 1960 to 1995 ( see a data source summary in Soule and Davenport 2009 ). The evidence supports our hypotheses, indicating that social movements play an important role in the macro political system.


Paper delivered at the Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, Washington, D.C.