Americans are more likely to accept most protest tactics when the protest is for a cause they like

January 25, 2024, 1:39 AM GMT+0

A September 2023 YouGov poll found that majorities of Americans find several kinds of protest tactics to be acceptable, including handing out fliers (85%) and marching for long distances (79%). Majorities of Americans find certain other tactics to be unacceptable, including rioting (85%) and defacing property (81%).

To understand whether Americans’ support for a given form of protest depends on what the protest is advocating for, YouGov conducted a new poll in October 2023 that asked Americans about the acceptability of eight protest tactics: handing out flyers, marching for long distances, boycotting products, picketing, disrupting public events, defacing property, blocking traffic, and rioting. The survey asked respondents if each tactic was acceptable when used to advocate for the social or political cause they support most — from a list of 16 causes — and also if it would be acceptable when used to advocate for the cause they oppose most.

Americans are more likely to find each of the eight forms of protest acceptable when the protest is advocating for their most supported cause and more likely to find each tactic unacceptable when it is used to advocate for their most opposed cause. The differences are subtle but in a consistent direction. For example, while most Americans find marching for long distances always or usually acceptable, they are twice as likely to find it always or usually unacceptable when the protest is about their most opposed cause (22%) than when it is for their most supported cause (10%). Majorities of Americans also find handing out flyers, boycotting products, and picketing acceptable but are about twice as likely to find each tactic unacceptable when it is used in support of their most opposed cause.

Americans are most likely to find unacceptable rioting, blocking traffic, and defacing property. But for all three forms of protest, Americans are more likely to find the tactic acceptable when it is used to advocate for their most supported cause.

Which causes do Americans most support and most oppose? To find out, the poll first asked Americans whether they support or oppose 16 social or political causes. Among these 16 causes, Americans are most likely to support free speech (65%), religious freedom (56%), and racial equality (53%). They are most likely to oppose defunding the police (49%), abortion restrictions (30%), and wealth redistribution (24%). About 4% of Americans support none of the 16 causes included in the poll, while 12% oppose none of the causes. (The support and oppose questions both allowed respondents to select any of the 16 causes, which means respondents could choose not to put a given cause in either category and neither support nor oppose it.)

Democrats and Republicans are divided on many of these causes. Most Republicans support border security (72%) and gun rights (67%), while Democrats are much less likely to support each cause (27% and 13%, respectively). On the other hand, Democrats are more likely than Republicans to support racial equality (69% vs. 34%) and abortion rights (63% vs. 18%). Few members of either party oppose free speech, religious freedom, racial equality, or animal rights.

The poll then asked respondents which of their supported causes they most support and which of their opposed causes they most oppose. Free speech (10%), traditional values (10%), racial equality (10%), religious freedom (9%), environmentalism (9%), and border security (9%) are each the most supported cause of about one in ten Americans. Americans are least likely to say defunding the police (1%), states rights (2%), or fiscal conservatism (2%) is their most supported cause. Defunding the police is the most opposed cause of about one in four Americans (22%), while another 17% most oppose abortion restrictions, and 12% most oppose gay, lesbian, and transgender rights.

Men’s most supported causes include free speech (14%) and racial equality (11%), while women are likeliest to most support traditional values (12%), abortion rights (12%), and religious freedom (11%). Of the 16 causes asked about in the poll, men (19%) and women (25%) are most likely to most oppose defunding the police. 17% of men most oppose gay, lesbian, and transgender rights, compared to only 8% of women. 23% of women most oppose abortion restrictions, while only 11% of men do.

— Taylor Orth contributed to this article

See the results for this YouGov poll

Methodology: This poll was conducted online on October 5 - 10, 2023 among 1,000 U.S. adult citizens. Respondents were selected from YouGov’s opt-in panel using sample matching. A random sample (stratified by gender, age, race, education, geographic region, and voter registration) was selected from the 2019 American Community Survey. The sample was weighted according to gender, age, race, education, 2020 election turnout and presidential vote, baseline party identification, and current voter registration status. Demographic weighting targets come from the 2019 American Community Survey. Baseline party identification is the respondent’s most recent answer given prior to November 1, 2022, and is weighted to the estimated distribution at that time (33% Democratic, 31% Republican). The margin of error for the overall sample is approximately 4%.

Image: Getty (Drew Angerer)

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