Protests and the presidency
The author is the Washington bureau chiefof the JoongAng Ilbo.
On the west side of Tidal Basin, an artificial lake famous for its cherry blossoms in Washington, stands a 9.1-meter (30-foot) tall granite statue. It is a statue of Martin Luther King Jr. — the symbol of the civil rights movement inheriting Thomas Jefferson’s promise that all men are created equal and Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation — that faces a statue of Thomas Jefferson across the lake and with the seated statue of Abraham Lincoln behind it.
Fifty-seven years ago on Aug. 28, King launched the ideal of equality and coexistence with “I Have a Dream” speech. This time, his granddaughter took the podium. Addressing the audience, 12-year-old Yolanda Renee King said, “My grandfather predicted this moment. He said that we were moving into a new phase of the struggle. The first phase was the civil rights, and the new phase is genuine equality.”
Calls for equality are spreading. It is hard to predict the climax of the protests ignited by the death of George Floyd, suffocated to death by a white cop. The public is enraged as Jacob Blake was shot seven times by cops and Daniel Prude’s face was covered with a spit hood until he suffocated. The protests emerged as the detonator for the Nov. 3 U.S. presidential election.
What is the correlation between protests and presidential elections? Princeton University Prof. Omar Wasow makes an interesting point in his paper titled “Agenda Seeding: How 1960s Black Protests Moved Elites, Public Opinion and Voting” published in May 2020. He argued that in the three presidential elections in 1964, 1968 and 1972, counties with nonviolent protests saw as much as a 1.6 percent increase in white votes for the Democratic candidate while 7.9 percent of white voters moved to the Republican candidate in the counties with violence.
He argued that non-violence sets a bridge between different groups and creates a potential for empathy. But violence brings about the opposite effect thanks to the “circle-the-wagons mentality.” When protests become violent, white voters tend to seek safety, as if they had created a circle with wagons to block Indian attacks in the Western frontier era.
On Sept. 1, resident Trump visited Kenosha, Wisconsin, where the shooting of Jacob Black took place. Trump ignored the victim and backed the police for doing “an incredible job,” framing the protestors as anarchists and mobs while highlighting the vice of violence — a key tactic in Trump’s re-election campaign.
When Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated by a white supremacist in 1968, the Democratic Party lost the presidential election as violent protests spread that year. The winner was Republican Richard Nixon. Is the situation half a century ago still valid today? If so, are protests violent or not? It will determine the destination of the presidential election as a month and half remains in the journey.