by Daniel Q. Gillion. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013. 205pp. Hardcover $85.00 ISBN 978-1107031142. Paperback: $27.99 ISBN: 9781107657410.

Reviewed by Jonathan Goldberg-Hiller, Professor of Political Science, University of Hawai‘i


Daniel Q. Gillion’s book argues that racial and ethnic protest actions influence federal politicians and policies, and it offers an innovative quantitative methodology to bring protest back into the viewfinder of political behaviorists. While behaviorists have long been debating the significance of protest, many other sociolegal scholars and historians, few of which are acknowledged in this book, have looked toward protest events as rich sources of political meaning, tracking the discursive transformations and rhetorical innovations that such events have caused (McCann 1994; Frymer 2008; Epp 1998), and examining the broad international contexts in which American governmental elites have operated (Skrentny 2002; Dudziak 2000). Gillion situates his research in between the study of protest mechanics and elite theories of response to social movements in order to explain the linkage mechanisms by which protests make a measurable difference. It is here that his book brilliantly expands upon the behaviorist tradition, marshaling evidence for the causal importance of protest. But it is also in this liminal theoretical space that the book fails to sharpen a critical edge that might demonstrate not only how protest creates progressive politics, but also how it often fails to bring about justice (Piven and Cloward 1978).

Gillion develops a theory of the “continuum of information” to explain how protest provokes government response. Information is expressed by protest movements in several ways: the levels of contention, organizational structures of protest movements, the “signals of ideological preference” (p.20), and political framing. While a number of these aspects involve expressive politics, Gillion aggregates them as the continuum of information responsible for “cueing” government actors into the concerns of ethnic and racial communities. What drops out in this amalgam of “information” are the rhetorical lifeworlds of protests. It is telling, for instance, that while Gillion notes that Rep. Maxine Waters called the 1991 Los Angeles protest following the Rodney King beating a “rebellion” (p.62) he retains the common moniker “riot” for such protests throughout the book. Information, for Gillion, reflects a cybernetic concern for the self-maintenance of social order, and protest events are quantified in sophisticated ways that model a neural network where sufficient stimulation of various sorts provokes a synaptic response. My analogies here are designed to highlight the tradeoffs of such an approach: on the one hand, the book casts a wide net that can assess the various modes in which disruptive protest politics matters. Gillion even accounts for the effects of counter-protests (which have been [*74] shown elsewhere to be a significant dynamic of contemporary minority-rights politics (Dudas 2008; Goldberg-Hiller 2004)) as though they are inhibitions on the signals sent to officials; only when minority protests surpass the intensity of anti-minority -rights signals do they come to matter. On the other hand, the interior of the “black box” opened by such an approach remains rather gray: we don’t learn much about how rights language or other rhetoric involved in minority protests, for instance, matter to government response, nor can we see the manner that government responses recursively condition protest environments.

In the central chapters of the book, Gillion examines the significance of protest in Congress, the Presidency and the Supreme Court, demonstrating statistical models of impact derived from interesting, spatialized and temporalized measures of protest events (Chapter 2: “Measuring Information in Minority Protest” is one of the best of the book.) Gillion demonstrates that protests make a difference at the congressional district level, even where collective responses are weak. One example of his findings: 50 or more racial or ethnic protest events in a representative’s district translates to a 5% greater likelihood of a liberal vote favoring minority issues, and protests matter even for encouraging minority representatives to take pro-minority positions. It is hard to know, absent detailed historical analyses, how substantively significant these finding are, but his study offers statistical support to other scholars wishing to bring more light to these relationships.

Like congressional representatives, the president is also “learning on the job” (p.86) in Gillion’s model, and can respond to protest information in numerous ways, including the issuing of presidential memoranda, public statements, press conferences, presidential letters, executive orders and official addresses. Gillion finds that protest mostly galvanizes public perceptions through press conferences, public statements and executive orders within several months of dissenting activity. His chapter on the presidency provides short synopses of Kennedy through Clinton, demonstrating their responses to minority protest. Even Reagan, who vetoed some civil rights legislation, responded to protests supporting South African sanctions with executive orders limiting some trade with that country, demonstrating for Gillion that protests made a difference.

Gillion shows that the Supreme Court is also responsive to the information delivered by protests, altering its agenda to include cases pertinent to minorities when protests are significant. Theorists of the Court may find most interesting Gillion’s robust findings that in years with a high number of minority protests, on average 90 percent (and sometimes as much as 100 percent) of minority cases received a favorable judgment. Liberal justices were most clearly influenced in this manner by protests; conservatives and moderates not at all. Here, perhaps, the findings are not surprising: as with congressional representatives, liberal proclivities are energized by protests, and in the Court this stimulation has made a difference.

The test of the continuum of information on the three branches of government shows that protests do have consequences, however small and [*75] localized these may be. Gillion’s broader point is a significant one: political scientists’ absorbed attention to electoral politics should be widened to look at protest anew. Knowing that protest makes a causal difference may turn some eyes in this direction, and this is a positive contribution of this research.

Nonetheless, something feels missing to me when the work of sociolegal scholars is not integrated into political behavior scholarship. The study of political behavior without grounded attention to the symbolic worlds of contentious politics and without a healthy skepticism of the progressive tenets of democratic theory loses something vital about politics. To my mind, the problem with information theory deployed in the fashion of this book is that it assumes a consistent code to create political meaning, whereas contentious politics is often all about that code. What will bring justice? Will rights or other legislation be advantageous to more struggle? In what frames will social movements best seek recognition? These questions are summarily flattened when it is the noise and not the meaning that is most appreciated. There is, of course, something valuable about disruption itself, especially for those who have few resources and who demand alternatives to the status quo (Piven and Cloward 1978, p.27ff.; Rancière 1999). Yet, as some scholars have shown, the voids cleared by disruption are often immediately filled in with new modes of white supremacy (Alexander 2010, p.39 and ff.) and other forms of hierarchy and control by elites in government and by some social movements. Many if not most protests are quickly regularized and agitators encouraged to accept symbolic rather than instrumental gains (Edelman 1964; Lipsky 1968). Noise and disruption remain evanescent.

Integrating symbolic, strategic and discursive histories into our studies of political behavior is long overdue, and I hope that Gillion’s fine analysis of disruption will spur such studies and allow us to refine what it may take to further racial justice. Gillion has shown us that protest matters at the aggregate level, and that we can find its influence throughout the branches of American government. As Gilliom notes in his conclusion, we still desperately need to understand what will best bring critical attention to the growing hegemony of the colorblind society. This urgent task requires a wide and more integrated inquiry.



Dudas, Jeffrey R. 2008. THE CULTIVATION OF RESENTMENT: TREATY RIGHTS AND THE NEW RIGHT. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Dudziak, Mary L. 2000. COLD WAR CIVIL RIGHTS : RACE AND THE IMAGE OF AMERICAN DEMOCRACY. Politics and Society in Twentieth-Century America. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Edelman, Murray J. 1964. THE SYMBOLIC USES OF POLITICS. Urbana,: University of Illinois Press.



Goldberg-Hiller, Jonathan. 2004. THE LIMITS TO UNION: SAME-SEX MARRIAGE AND THE POLITICS OF CIVIL RIGHTS. 1st Pbk. Ed. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Lipsky, Michael. 1968. “Protest as a Political Resource.” THE AMERICAN POLITICAL SCIENCE REVIEW 62 (4) (December 1): 1144–1158. doi:10.2307/1953909.

McCann, Michael. 1994. RIGHTS AT WORK: PAY EQUITY REFORM AND THE POLITICS OF LEGAL MOBILIZATION. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Piven, Frances Fox, and Richard Cloward. 1978. POOR PEOPLE’S MOVEMENTS: WHY THEY SUCCEED, HOW THEY FAIL. Vintage.

Rancière, Jacques. 1999. DISAGREEMENT: POLITICS AND PHILOSOPHY. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Skrentny, John. 2002. THE MINORITY RIGHTS REVOLUTION. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University.

Copyright 2014 by the Author, Jonathan Goldberg-Hiller.