Protest Themes in Biden’s First 100 Days

On April 29, 2021—today—President Biden has held office for 100 days. While the president plans to mark the date by headlining a rally in Atlanta, we decided to use the occasion to look back at the major themes in U.S. protest activity in the first few months of the Biden Administration.

So far, the Crowd Counting Consortium has logged just over 5,300 events since Biden’s inauguration on January 20, 2021. Of those, roughly 60 percent (3,202) have been ostensibly left wing in their political orientation; 31 percent (1,664) nonpartisan or other; and only about 8 percent (441) right wing.

One hallmark of contentious politics under the Biden administration so far is that left– and right-wing activists are mostly talking past each other. When they gather in public spaces to voice political grievances, they are mostly emphasizing different issues and speaking in different terms.

Here, we’ll use two types of charts to show this pattern: tree maps and word clouds.

  • Tree maps use visual area to represent the relative frequency of categorical data. In the compiled version of the CCC dataset, we use natural language processing to attach tags to each event identifying the recurrent political issues raised by its participants. In the tree maps in this blog post, the size of each rectangle represents the relative frequency with which each of the three dozen recurrent issues we track were raised, where frequency is measured by counting the number of times each tag appears in the ‘issues’ field in the data.
  • Word clouds do something similar with words, only here it’s text instead of rectangles that represent each element (word) in the summary data, and the size of the text indicates relative frequency. The larger the text, the more frequent the word. The word clouds below are derived from the text coders use to summarize protesters’ grievances (the ‘claims’ column in the data). All that text gets dumped into one big pool; each unique word in that pool (minus words like “the” and “a”) gets identified and then counted; and then the word cloud visualizes the relative size of those counts.

As the tree map below shows, the dominant themes in left-wing protests over the first 100 days of the Biden presidency have been racism and policing. These two issues have figured in nearly three-quarters of the thousands of events we’ve observed so far. Other leading themes have included migration (e.g., calls to shut down ICE detention facilities, or to offer a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants); labor (including nationwide support for the unionization drive at an Amazon facility in Bessemer, Alabama, which many activists also cast as a push against racism); the economy, and the environment (led by calls for urgent action on climate change and opposition to the Line 3 pipeline project). The coronavirus pandemic (covid) makes the top 10, but not by a lot, and is similar in frequency to concerns about democracy, education, and native peoples’ rights (which, in recent months, often co-occurs with ‘environment’).

The word cloud below visualizes the relative frequency of individual words in coders’ summarizations of protesters’ grievances. Here, we can see more clearly what any regular news reader would already know: when left-wing protesters are raising concerns about racism and policing, they are mostly demanding an end to police violence directed at Black people; calling for police who perpetrate that violence to be held accountable; and, often, calling for defunding or abolishing police departments. The past several weeks also saw a surge in activism rejecting racist violence and hate targeting Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and a spate of events in response to the killing of Daunte Wright by a police officer in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota.

The dominant themes of right-wing protest in Biden’s first 100 days look very different. As the tree map below shows, racism has been only a tertiary issue, and policing is just one of a host of quaternary concerns. (And, it should be noted, these counts include events endorsing racism and some events expressing support for law enforcement.) On the right, the coronavirus pandemic (covid) has been the leading concern, followed by reproductive rights (mostly annual anti-abortion events around the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision), executive (a tag that gets attached to events expressing support for Donald Trump or opposition to President Biden), and civil rights (including concerns about censorship and freedom of speech).

The word cloud below helps clarify what, exactly, those right-wing COVID-related protests have emphasized: opposition to state– or county-mandated public-health measures meant to control the virus’ spread, including mask mandates and vaccinations. As captured in the word cloud, right-wing protesters often describe these mandates as a form of tyranny and cast themselves as agents of freedom and patriotism in their opposition to them. Donald Trump has been invoked at some of these events (76 of 441), but—somewhat surprising to me, anyway—he has not been a focal point of most right-wing rallies and demonstrations in Biden’s first 100 days. (That may change soon, however.)

Finally, we can also take an early look at patterns in the more than 1,600 events—some 31 percent of the total so far—that CCC identifies as neither left-wing nor right-wing. This set includes actions over most local and workplace issues, along with actions about wider concerns that aren’t particularly partisan (say, local criminal violence, or sexual assault). Here, the dominant theme is clearly the covid pandemic and its effects on schools (education), hospitals and nursing homes (healthcare), and access to housing. This is also where most strikes and other local worker actions show up (labor), along with recent flurries of events opposing the military coup in Myanmar or the war and purported genocide in Ethiopia’s Tigray region (foreign affairs).

A word cloud of claim summaries at local and nonpartisan events mostly reinforces what the tree map showed: in the first 100 days of the Biden Administration, the coronavirus pandemic has spurred a lot of protests over school closures and worker safety in hospitals and other places of business.

We’ll try to revisit this analysis later in the Biden presidency to see how these patterns change.  Meanwhile, If you’re interested in replicating or tweaking this analysis, you can find the R script used to generate these figures and stats on the Nonviolent Action Lab’s GitHub repository. The compiled CCC dataset is posted there as well, but please note that it changes with each weekly update, so you can expect to get slightly different results if you rerun this analysis after early May 2021.

Published by Jay Ulfelder

Jay Ulfelder has worked for more than two decades at the intersection of social science and data science, with particular interests in contentious politics, democracy, and forecasting.

%d bloggers like this: