For Germany’s Left, the Bigger the Protest, the Bigger the Party

In the APSA Public Scholarship Program, graduate students in political science produce summaries of new research in the American Political Science Review. This piece, written by Frank Wyer, covers the new article by Anselm Hager, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Lukas Hensel, Peking University , Johannes Hermle, University of California, Berkeley, and Christopher Roth, University of Cologne, “Group Size and Protest Mobilization across Movements and Countermovements.

In the United States, protesters mobilizing against police violence under the banner of the “Black Lives Matter” movement clashed with counterprotesters chanting “blue lives matter”. In Europe, far-right anti-immigrant movements faced counterprotests by centrist and leftist groups promoting tolerance and diversity. In recent years, the emergence of mass protest movements around the world has drawn renewed attention to the power of this form of political participation, yet as these examples illustrate, many movements that organize demonstrations face countermovements seeking to disrupt them. In a new article in the APSR, Anselm Hager, Lukas Hensel, Johannes Hermle, and Christopher Roth study how the size of protests and counterprotests affect a person’s decision to participate. Their results from Germany yield insight not only on the degree to which counterprotests matter, but also on differences in the motivations for participation among protesters from the left and right.

Social scientists offer mixed predictions on how the sizes of protests and counterprotests might affect a person’s incentive to participate. On the one hand, if a potential activist expects their own movement’s turnout to be larger than the countermovement, they may be tempted to stay home and “free ride” on the participation of others. On the other hand, larger protests may yield greater social benefits for participants. For instance, the authors note that protests on the left in particular often include cultural activities that generate a sense of solidarity or belonging for participants. How do these predictions play out in the real world? And, how does the presence of a counterprotest factor in to this calculus?

To answer these questions, the authors implemented a field experiment during large protests in two German cities: Berlin in 2018 and Erfurt in 2019. Both protests were organized by a far-right, anti-immigrant party Alternative for Germany (AfD), and both saw large counterprotests mobilized by left-leaning parties and civil society groups. Because these protests were publicized well in advance, the authors of the study were able to use targeted social media advertisements in the preceding weeks to identify and survey a total of 1464 potential activists from the left and right who lived in or near these cities. Survey participants were presented with a randomly assigned combination of a low or high expert prediction of the number of right-leaning protesters, and a low or high prediction for the number of counterprotesters. To assess the outcome of interest, the authors asked participants to rate how likely they were to participate in the protest, and, as a behavioral measure, asked respondents to later send photos of themselves at the protests.

“Their study’s innovative design, which seeks to identify potential protesters before a protest takes place offers a path forward for research on a topic where experiments can be logistically and ethically difficult.” Two striking findings emerge from this study. First, among potential protesters from both left and right, the predicted size of the opposing protest had no effect on their intention to participate. In other words, when deciding to participate in a protest, potential activists do not seem to care whether their own protest will be smaller or larger than a counter-protest. Second, potential protesters did care about the predicted size of their own protest, but the effects were different for protesters from the left and right. When they received predictions that their own protest was large, potential activists on the right became less likely to participate, while potential activists from the left became more likely to protest. Why the difference? The authors offer evidence for several plausible mechanisms, perhaps most intriguingly of which is that large protests on the left in Germany tended to have a fun, party-like atmosphere generally lacking on the right, making larger protests more attractive to potential activists from the left than the right.

Hager et al. not only bring attention to the important and understudied issue of counterprotests, but also open exciting avenues for further research on protests more generally. Their study’s innovative design, which seeks to identify potential protesters before a protest takes place offers a path forward for research on a topic where experiments can be logistically and ethically difficult. Moreover, the differences they identify between protests on the left and right in Germany call for similar studies to be conducted in other countries and continents to further explore how a movement’s characteristics interact with the broader social or political context to affect a person’s decision to participate in a protest.