Agenda Seeding: How 1960s Black Protests Moved Elites, Public Opinion and Voting

Agenda Seeding: How 1960s Black Protests Moved Elites, Public Opinion and Voting

By Omar Wasow, Princeton University

How do stigmatized minorities advance agendas when confronted with hostile majorities? Elite theories of influence posit marginal groups exert little power. I propose the concept of agenda seeding to describe how activists use methods like disruption to capture the attention of media and overcome political asymmetries. Further, I hypothesize protest tactics influence how news organizations frame demands. Evaluating black-led protests between 1960 and 1972, I find nonviolent activism, particularly when met with state or vigilante repression, drove media coverage, framing, congressional speech, and public opinion on civil rights. Counties proximate to nonviolent protests saw presidential Democratic vote share increase 1.6–2.5%. Protester-initiated violence, by contrast, helped move news agendas, frames, elite discourse, and public concern toward “social control.” In 1968, using rainfall as an instrument, I find violent protests likely caused a 1.5–7.9% shift among whites toward Republicans and tipped the election. Elites may dominate political communication but hold no monopoly.