Economic recessions have often led to stronger citizen activism. This article assesses the relationship between the economy and protest in 2014, 6 years after the global financial crisis took place, a long-enough period for countries to have improved their economic situation and for people’s interpretations of the economy to be more optimistic. Does the economy still matter to explain protest if it is not as salient any longer? This research employs data for available European Union member states from the 2006, 2008, and 2014 European Social Survey to test the importance of national-level objective economic indicators as well as individual-level evaluations of financial well-being. Findings from the research suggest that objective economic predictors are more relevant to understand protest in 2014 than before the crisis. Economic resources remain more important for the prediction of protest than deprivation views, with the exception of unemployment. Even at times of partial economic recovery, the state of the economy helps explain increased levels of political protest across Europe well after 2008. The link between the economy and confrontational activism before and after the economic recession looks in the end very similar and a full economic recovery in the future can lead to even more protest activism in Europe.
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Kern et al. (2015) employ European Social Survey data from 2002 to 2010, whereas Vassallo and Ding (2016) use European Social Survey data from 2008 to 2012. Both of them opted for a multilevel analysis at the individual and country level. Quaranta (2016) focuses only on the macro-level (countries) with data from 2000 to 2014.
On this point, with regard to the new protest wave after 2008, Della Porta (2015) remarked that ‘protests have socialized into politics a new generation’ (p. 219), underlining the relevance of the global recession’s link to stronger activism levels in general.
See (Vassallo 2018) for a longer presentation on the evolution of protest measures.
‘Government by petition’ seems also to have become particularly relevant over the last few years as movements embrace it to force governments on the defense. See the UK government’s decision to postpone American President Donald Trump’s visit after almost three millions residents signed a petition against his official visit to the UK.
The ‘www.grabyourwallet.org’ Web site was started in November 2016 and has since become a powerful reminder of how consumers can use their wallets for political pressure. An equally successful movement is ‘Sleeping Giants,’ active on Facebook and Twitter.
Among the EU member states studied in this article, only Finland, the Netherlands, and Slovenia recorded a lower GDP per capita in Purchasing Power Standards in 2014 (Eurostat). France, and Ireland, in particular, had growing a GDP per capita after 2012, when the economic crisis peaked according to Eurostat data. Among the better cases, Germany did not suffer any decline in GDP per capita over the same period, and Sweden recorded a stable value for the same economic measure.
Among the worst cases for unemployment, Spain registered an improvement in unemployment numbers in 2014 (24.5%), after a peak of 24.8% in 2012. By 2016, the same number had decreased to 19.6%.
EU countries included in the analysis for 2014 are the only ones released so far from Round 7 (May 2016): Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and the UK. For the 2006 and 2008 data analysis (Round 3 and 4) the EU countries included are, respectively, 21 and 24 (see Table 2 for the full list).
The Principal Components Analysis function in SPSS extracted only one component for each EU country and for the EU at large when the three specific actions were considered (demonstration, petition and boycott). For instance, for the 2014 data, the reliability analysis for the scale returned Cronbach’ α values from a minimum of 0.341 (the Netherlands) to a maximum of 0.612 (Ireland). The corresponding reliability value for the EU at large was 0.501.
The use of this type of scale is not always endorsed (see Quaranta 2013), but it is frequently used in the study of unconventional political activism (Dalton et al. 2010; Solt 2015; Kern et al. 2015; Vassallo and Ding 2016) as it is a good representation of different preferences for unconventionality among citizens, especially from a diverse group of countries.
This finding confirms the interpretation that participation in a legal demonstration may simply be more challenging and demanding than signing a petition or boycotting a certain product. The equivalence across the diverse protest activities also affects possible evaluations concerning unconventional behavior intensity across countries.
It is important to also mention the ranking of the six Eastern European countries (Hungary, Lithuania, Poland, Slovenia, Estonia and the Czech Republic) in the 2014 sample: all of them at the very bottom. This is not unusual, especially when compared to the position of the ten Eastern European countries (Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia) in the larger sample of cases for 2008. The situation on unconventional political behavior in EU members from the former Eastern European area needs a paper in itself to be discussed properly.
Individuals are grouped within countries and the estimate of the variance component of the country effect in 2014 is 0.249 (sig .012), with an overall prediction accuracy of 62.6%. The same regression for 2008 has an estimate of the variance component of the country effect of 0.230 (sig .003), with an overall prediction accuracy of 70.3%, whereas the estimate of the variance components of the country effect for the 2006 model is 0.308 (sig .005), with a prediction accuracy of 68.6%.
Germany’s GDP per capita in PPS grew progressively from 116 in 2006 to 126 in 2014 (Eurostat).
Spain’s GDP per capita in PPS decreased from 103 in 2006 to 90 in 2014 (Eurostat).
The data collected demonstrated an overall increase in protest activism, with a stronger or weaker connection to economic indicators depending on the country observed. The primary focus of this article is on the EU level relationship between economic variables and protest activism.
Lindvall (2014) refers to the Great Depression and the Great Recession as ‘the two greatest global economic crises of the past one hundred years’ (p. 750). The timing, development, and expansion patterns make them comparable case studies.
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Vassallo, F. After the crisis: political protest in the aftermath of the economic recession. Comp Eur Polit 18, 45–72 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41295-019-00156-7
- Contentious politics
- Economic recession
- European public opinion
- Protest activism