How Important Are Nonviolent Protests and Media Criticism in Preserving Democracy? Depends Which Party You Belong to!

Striking findings from Pew Research


Pax Ahimsa Gethen / Wikimedia Commons

A recent Pew Research report looked into what characteristics Americans feel are essential for a strong democracy to flourish. The survey asked 1,503 American adults how important things such as fair and open national elections are in preserving democracy.

Of those surveyed, 89 percent believed that open and fair national elections were essential for a strong democracy, while 83 percent saw having a system of checks and balances as critical. Seventy-nine percent thought that people having the right to nonviolently protest was important, and 74 percent favored protecting the rights of people who hold unpopular views. Only 64 percent thought that news organizations being free to criticize political leaders was essential.

Breaking the data down along party lines shows little difference between Republicans and Democrats—except on a two key points.

Sixty-eight percent of Republicans viewed nonviolent protests as important, compared to 88 percent of Democrats.

Republicans' lower propensity to see this right as essential is reflected in a recent push to crack down on the practice. GOP lawmakers in at least 18 states have introduced some form of anti-protesting legislation, according to The Washington Post.

Inspired by the North Dakota pipeline protests, state Rep. Keith Kempenich introduced a bill that would make motorists not liable for unintentionally hitting protesters who are blocking a roadway. A bill sponsored by Iowa state Sen. Jake Chapman would make intentionally blocking traffic on a highway a felony punishable by up to five years in prison. Missouri Rep. Don Phillips introduced legislation to penalize anyone wearing a mask or disguise during an unlawful protest.

Civil liberties groups like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) have called the anti-protesting legislation unconstitutional and an "unlawful infringements on our right to speak." As the ACLU notes, some of the bills have stalled (including the one in North Dakota) or been dropped altogether (including ones in Michigan and Virginia).

A 20-percentage-point difference is nothing to sneeze at, but it pales in comparison to the current partisan divide over the importance of the right of the press to criticize political officials. While 76 percent of Democrats believed a free press was essential, only 49 percent of Republicans felt the same way.

Trust in the media has been declining, as noted by Gallup, so it's no wonder both Democrats and Republicans feel journalists' role in preserving democracy is less vital than the role of things like checks and balances. But you still have to wonder at the extent to which President Trump's ongoing feud with the media and the anti-Trump protests of recent months seem to be shaping the views of GOP supporters. It's also hard not to think the results might be flipped if Democrats were still in power.