US politics26 May 2020

Coronavirus and protest: How COVID-19 has changed the face of American activism

Protest is a defining characteristic of American society. The Boston Tea Party, the subsequent Revolutionary War and the splintering Civil War all bear the hallmarks of a national spirit of protest. The First Amendment of the United States Constitution clearly enshrines freedom of assembly, expression and the right to petition as three of the first five freedoms.
Report by

Elliott Brennan

Security analyst

Key points

  • The COVID-19 pandemic has coincided with an historic era of protest in the United States.
  • The number of individual protests in the United States significantly diminished at the beginning of the lockdown, increased in mid-April and accelerated following President Trump’s LIBERATE tweets on April 17.
  • The biggest increase in protests has been mostly in states that went to Donald Trump in the 2016 election, but that have Democratic governors.
  • The pandemic and its economic fallout have created new protest movements and stand to embolden already simmering progressive and conservative movements.
  • The lockdown policies across the United States set the conservative priority of individual liberty against the progressive priority of the common good, exacerbating an already entrenched partisan divide in the United States.
  • At this point, only small numbers of conservatives are protesting, yet movements of all stripes are taking the time to digitally re-tool and prepare to mobilise when restrictions are lifted.
  • Prominent US progressive groups have shifted their focus to recognise the immediate challenges of household relief, health support for the most vulnerable and gearing the economic recovery in the direction of a Green New Deal.
  • With younger generations of Americans bearing a heavy social, educational and economic burden while facing the lowest health risk during the pandemic, this crisis could activate this otherwise famously politically lethargic demographic.
DownloadCoronavirus and protest: How COVID-19 has changed the face of American activism

Months of lockdown after years of protest

Protest is a defining characteristic of American society. The Boston Tea Party, the subsequent Revolutionary War and the splintering Civil War all bear the hallmarks of a national spirit of protest. The First Amendment of the United States Constitution clearly enshrines freedom of assembly, expression and the right to petition as three of the first five freedoms.1

The last half century has been punctuated by episodes of great American protest. These mass acts of expression, assembly and petition emanate from the civil rights and anti-war movements in the 1960s and 70s, continued through anti-nuclear and gay and lesbian rights campaigns in the 80s and 90s, came back to the fore at the turn of the century with the anti-globalisation “Battle of Seattle” and surged during the Iraq War. In the 12 years since the Global Financial Crisis (GFC), protests in the United States again increased with the Tea Party and Occupy movements and accelerated in many directions following the election of President Donald Trump in 2016.2

This report considers how such a devastating economic downturn and incredible use of government power could expand the scale, urgency, and boldness of conservative and progressive movements both during and after the pandemic.

In 2019, American movements like March For Our Lives, Black Lives Matter, #MeToo and the Women’s March, as well as the international School Strike For Climate, were important players in the global sweep of protests, although they fell well short of scale and impact of the Hong Kong protests and the government-breaking movements that took place in countries like Lebanon, Algeria, Bolivia, Iraq and Sudan.3

But now the loudest protests in the United States are pro-Trump and anti-lockdown.

Physical protest in the time of a pandemic is a dangerous and broken tool of civil resistance. Experts, including those in the White House, acknowledge that restrictive measures will need to be maintained in some form for months to stop the spread of the coronavirus and to prevent a “second wave” of cases.4

This report places recent American protest movements in historical perspective. It outlines why conservatives are particularly aggrieved by the lockdowns in many states and examines the conservative players agitating for the easing of COVID-19 restrictions, including the president. By using state-level data of the protests, this report maps the number and trend of protests in the United States in response to the pandemic restrictions.

It also considers how such a devastating economic downturn and incredible use of government power could expand the scale, urgency, and boldness of conservative and progressive movements both during and after the pandemic.

The United States is now an immensely divided nation tackling a high-stakes health crisis and headed towards a high-stakes presidential election.

Protestors circle Philadelphia City Hall in vehicles to demand the reopening of Pennsylvania, 8 May 2020
Protestors circle Philadelphia City Hall in vehicles to demand the reopening of Pennsylvania, 8 May 2020Source: Getty

Conservative protests

What motivates conservative protesters?

In recent weeks, much attention has been paid to groups of conservative protesters demanding that their states reopen and they be given the freedom to work. Personal freedom is a well-known value in American society. In a 2019 United States Studies Centre (USSC) survey of Americans and Australians, 74 per cent of Australians nominated it as a favourable aspect compared with 87 per cent of Americans.5 The perception of the United States as the land of the free is a longstanding one but is also one that is fundamentally disjointed with the COVID-19 pandemic.

These protesters and their often-flagrant disregard for social distancing, as well as a visible minority proudly carrying heavy firearms, have dominated press coverage.

The central role of liberty in conservative American thought extends to a perception of an individual’s role in determining their own success. This is historical,6 but it continues to this day, albeit in a more politically charged manner. In the same USSC survey, 80 per cent of Americans who voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 election said that “hard work and ability determine how well off a person becomes in your country”. Only 43 per cent of those who voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 said the same. This 37-point gap between progressive and conservative-voting Americans provides a snapshot of the deep partisan divide in the country.7

Similar partisan divisions were on display in a variety of areas but were largest on issues of government intervention, where conservatives were considerably more sceptical of the government’s involvement in questions of support for the unemployed, a minimum wage set above the poverty line and universal healthcare.8

How is COVID-19 playing into this?

The stay-at-home and lockdown measures enforced by many states do not sit well with the primacy of individual liberty. During March and April, all but five US states paused their local economies to varying degrees and issued stay-at-home-orders.9 The most severe closed all schools and only kept businesses and operations open that were deemed absolutely essential. Given the scepticism of government intervention in the United States, it is no surprise that the state’s role in curtailing this liberty and the ability to move about freely has provoked, among a small fraction of conservatives, a compulsion to exercise their constitutional right to assembly. State governor’s residences and state capitols have been subject to groups of protesters demanding that the economy be opened. These protesters and their often-flagrant disregard for social distancing, as well as a visible minority proudly carrying heavy firearms, have dominated press coverage.

The number of protests in the United States has surged, but the number of protesters hasn’t

It is possible to ascertain the broad impact the lockdown has had on protests in the United States using data from the Global Database of Events, Language and Tone Project (GDELT), an open-source academic resource providing information on various “events” stretching back to 1979.10 It can be observed in Figure 1 that the number of protests in the United States diminished significantly in early March 2020, as the pandemic became apparent in the United States. Protests began increasing in mid-March as many states began to impose stay-at-home and lockdown orders and surged in mid-April. These data only represent the number of protest events and not the number of protesters, they show the broad trend of protest against authorities. The dataset overwhelmingly represents anti-lockdown protests but includes less-frequent protest actions like those taken by activists seeking the release of prisoners at risk to COVID-19.11 It does not include counter-protests, like those conducted by healthcare workers in Colorado,12 as it is coded for protests against government (local, state and federal) and not civil groups.

Figure 1. The number of nation-wide protests in mid-April 2020 eclipsed all 2019 protest movements: GDELT data showing the five-day rolling average of national protests between 1 Jan 2019 and 4 May 2020

The five-day rolling average of protests in mid-April 2020 shown in Figure 1 is on par with the peak level of national protests following revelations about the prison-like conditions children were kept in at immigration border camps in July 2019. Protest action began trending upward in mid-March 2020 when states began imposing stay-at-home orders. The surge in mid-April encompasses and then accelerates after President Trump’s tweets on Friday 17 April issuing a vague call to “LIBERATE” Virginia, Michigan, and Minnesota.13 The number of protests peaked at more than 400 events on Monday 20 April.14

Figure 2 shows that following the peak on 20 April, protest action levelled out before a second smaller peak between 1 and 2 May. This peak follows a high-profile protest in Lansing, Michigan on 30 April when militia groups joined with 600-700 protesters and staged a high-profile armed occupation of the state Capitol as the legislature debated extending the stay-at-home order.15 President Trump weighed in on this action as well, tweeting early in the morning of 1 May that the protesters in Michigan were “very good people” and that Governor Gretchen Whitmer should negotiate with them.16

Figure 2. Increase in national protests following LIBERATE tweets: GDELT data for the number of national protests between 1 April and 12 May 2020

Since President Trump’s first encouraging tweets, the number of daily protests in the United States remained at a baseline significantly higher than most of 2019 — the so-called “year of global protest” — with more than 100 actions per day. The two occasions that President Trump most notoriously weighed in on the protests correlate with the two largest spikes in protest action, moments when other presidents would likely have acted to quell actions. Governors like Washington state’s Jay Inslee blasted the president’s interventions as attempts at “fomenting domestic rebellion”.17 These data do not demonstrate that the president’s interventions caused the protest action. Rather, it shows that as can often be the case with Donald Trump, he identified an existing grievance and amplified it.

Although the number of protests is high, the number of overall protesters presents a different picture. Preliminary data from the Crowd Counting Consortium seems to indicate that these protests have been significantly smaller in scale than many of those that took place throughout 2019.18 For example, there were an estimated 313,000 protesters in July 2019, compared to a preliminary estimate of 43,000 throughout April 2020, including repeat protesters. Many individual protests during 2019 eclipsed this number many times over. Indeed, the wave of Tea Party protests a decade earlier on 15 April 2009 mobilised more than 300,000 people in more than 500 distinct protests across the United States.19

Armed protesters at the “Michiganders Against Excessive Quarantine” rally in Lansing, Michigan, 15 April 2020
Armed protesters at the “Michiganders Against Excessive Quarantine” rally in Lansing, Michigan, 15 April 2020Source: Getty

But none of these actions occurred during a pandemic like COVID-19. Protesting at this time is a dangerous political act. After 1,500 people attended a 24 April rally in Madison, Wisconsin, more than 70 people tested positive for the virus who indicated to health officials that they had “attended a large event”.20 As these actions have centred on state capitols, anonymous cell phone data has shown that protesters have often travelled hundreds of miles and even across state lines to attend, before returning home.21 For some of these protesters, home can be more rural parts of the United States which often lack the necessary health infrastructure to deal with any outbreak, let alone one as aggressive as the novel coronavirus.

The increase in the number of individual protest events, however small the gatherings and especially considering the health risks, points to a genuine agitation across the country that correlates with the imposition of stay-at-home orders and the president’s high-profile interventions.

AstroTurf versus grassroots: The reopen movement is being pushed from the top down

This widespread phenomenon of protest is important. These national measures mask the fact that each state is experiencing the pandemic differently. Looking at the ten states that had the largest per cent increase in protests between March and April 2020 shows the sharpest increase in protest action in Democratic-governed, split or marginal states coming into the 2020 presidential election (Table 1).

Table 1. Per cent increase in state protests between March and April 2020



Increase in protests March-April 2020 (%)

Governor and party affiliation

Electoral college 2016 and margin

COVID-19 cases(as at 30 April)[^22]

Partial reopening plan announced




Andy Beshear (Democrat)

Trump (29.8%)


29 April




Tony Evers (Democrat)

Trump (0.7%)


11 May




Jared Polis (Democrat)

Clinton (4.9%)


22 April




Larry Hogan (Republican)

Clinton (26.4%)


14 May




Gretchen Whitmer (Democrat)

Trump (0.3%)


6 May


Washington state


Jay Inslee (Democrat)

Clinton (15.7%)


30 April




John Bel Edwards (Democrat)

Trump (19.7%)


11 May




Ralph Northam (Democrat)

Clinton (5.4%)


11 May




Brian Kemp (Republican)

Trump (5.1%)


20 April




Mike DeWine (Republican)

Trump (8.1%)


27 April

Many of these states listed in Table 1 are Democratic-governed but have Republican-controlled or split state congresses. Several, particularly Wisconsin and Michigan are crucial swing states in the 2020 presidential election. On the broadest sweep, these states are either very conservative, moderate or conservative-leaning (though excluding Maryland and Washington state) with governors who have clashed with President Trump over lockdown policy.23

The combination of a Democratic governor and a broadly moderate or conservative constituency can make the governors genuinely appear as a “tyrant” dressed in colours at odds with a constituent’s personal politics.

The conservative protests represent genuine and well-founded concerns about the freedom to provide and maintain a standard of living, but many of the early and high-profile gatherings were organised and funded by truly far-right groups.24 These groups plug into the ideological leanings of conservative Americans where and when it suits them. They are able to mobilise conspiracy theorists ranging from anti-vaxxers to anti-deep state online movements like QAnon. Protest organisers have requested that disparate private militia groups “provide security” and uphold the constitutional right of assembly they are exercising.25 But as they sweep up these extremists, they embolden them. For many of these militia groups, truthers and government sceptics, this is the moment of crisis they have been preparing to exploit. The fact that Michigan cancelled a sitting of the legislature on 14 May in the face of an organised armed protest demonstrates the power they are being afforded to wield.26 It is a wicked problem. Ceding to armed intimidation validates its utility, clamping down on it risks violence.

But so long as the protests remain largely non-violent, their organisation by maleficent forces will serve to normalise the act of protest for more mainstream conservatives feeling the same sharp sense of limitation and loss.

President Trump has forgone the opportunity to be a national unifier and has subsequently shrouded the fight against the virus in a dangerous political cloaking.

There is a large degree of politics at play. President Trump’s clearest interventions in state politics have been in Virginia, Michigan, and Minnesota — all states with a large increase in the number of protests in April and all-important Electoral College states in the November election. The president has clashed with governors by political convenience. He has most vigorously called for the reopening of Democratic-governed states, but Republican governors have not been immune. Maryland’s governor Larry Hogan drew the ire of the president when he circumvented the federal government to import personal protective equipment from South Korea.27 Georgia’s governor Brian Kemp initially had the support of the president for one of the earliest and most aggressive reopening policies, but President Trump later publicly said he “strongly disagreed” with the move.28 Ohio’s Republican governor Mike DeWine has repeatedly contradicted the words of the president in his implementation of one of the strongest lockdowns in the country. All three have had to contend with protesters, a large contingent of which are visibly Trump supporters. In his ad hoc handling of the politics of this crisis, President Trump has pitted states against the federal government, governors against each other, and protesters against politicians. He has forgone the opportunity to be a national unifier and has subsequently shrouded the fight against the virus in a dangerous political cloaking.

This opens the way for lobbyists to exploit the political divide. A group of conservative leaders, including some with links to the Tea Party Movement of 2009, banded together in late April to form the ‘Save Our Country Taskforce’ which is pushing for eased restrictions.29 Senior members of this taskforce have admitted that they have been providing technical support to protest organisers and have helped to promote the anti-lockdown demonstrations.30

Conservative opinion leaders in the media, too, have begun to lionise the protesters. Rush Limbaugh told his listeners that “hunkering down in total fear is not a hallmark of American history, or American culture”.31 Affiliates of the alt-right conspiracy bastion Info Wars organised an early protest in Texas and its founder, Alex Jones, addressed the crowd shouting “you can’t close America”.32 Fox News host Laura Ingraham, who has been meeting with Trump in the Oval Office during the pandemic, retweeted a video of protesters on 16 April with the message “time to get your freedom back”.33

Partisan media and alternate COVID-19 facts

Cable news viewership in the United States has skyrocketed to all-time highs during the lockdown, particularly in April.34

The partisan nature of cable news in the United States was already having an impact on how Americans viewed basic information about the pandemic in early April. For example, according to Pew Research, 56 per cent of Fox News viewers said the effects of the virus had been greatly exaggerated, while only 12 per cent of MSNBC viewers said the same.35 While ratings have surged, these cable channels still largely preach to the choir. Ninety-three per cent of Fox News viewers in the poll identified as Republican or Republican-leaning, while a mirror 93 per cent of MSNBC viewers identified as Democrat or Democrat-leaning.36

Online media consumption in the United States has surged as well, but it has disproportionately been directed to less-overtly partisan sources. Traditional bastions of right-wing sentiment like Fox News have seen only small increases, and these messages are not reaching a rapidly expanding base.37

Should the general message of conservative media continue to change in favour of prying open the economy, it will not necessarily mobilise people in the middle or on the left in the same direction, though other factors may. However, existing right-wing partisans may continue to shift their views with the message of discontent emerging in these channels.

Staggered opening will exacerbate the politics of the pandemic

States began announcing plans to reopen at varying rates in mid-April, with many coming into effect in mid-May. Republican governors in states like Texas, Georgia and Florida expressed deep concern about the economic consequences of perpetual lockdown and have moved quickly and early to substantially reopen their economies, despite the advice of experts and increasing rates of infection.38 Democratic governors generally have been more cautious, but have announced plans for gradual reopening, some of which include county-based approaches.39 This creates a picture of the United States where some states and counties have “more freedom” than others. As such, the disparate policy responses across the country and intractable nature of a pandemic could serve to further embolden protesters. This exacerbates the trend for state-led policy responses to the pandemic to be strongly tied to the partisanship of the state’s governors and legislatures and less to rates of infection and public health considerations.

Conservative media support for the protests will entrench the anger of those already protesting and will normalise the act itself for others. President Trump has already seen protest movements as moments of political advantage to seize upon and amplify and not as opportunities to instil a sense of national unity. All these factors will play out as the November presidential election nears, as infections and deaths rise, and as the disastrous economic consequences of the pandemic escalate.

Progressive protests

What motivates progressive protesters?

At the broadest stroke, progressive protesters in the United States are motivated by the notion of equality — like liberty, another key principle present in early American history.40 Unlike conservatives, progressives tend to prioritise the common good over individual freedoms. The government’s role is thus to safeguard the common good, rather than stay out of the way.41 President Trump’s perceived violations of these values and the unapologetic manner in which he governs have clearly motivated forces on the left.

Definitions of what constitutes the common good can vary between (and even within) progressive protest movements and civil rights groups depending on historical circumstance.42 Employment rights movements, for example, have tended to extend this notion to the common good of members and utilise strike action as a stick for collective bargaining agreements. By contrast, civil rights movements in the 20th century like the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) take a universal view of the common good and advocate the inclusion of marginalised people, relying on legal fights, legislative pushes, marches and protest.

Protesters are seen in New York City’s Battery Park as activist Greta Thunberg leads the Youth Climate Strike, 20 September 2019
Protesters are seen in New York City’s Battery Park as activist Greta Thunberg leads the Youth Climate Strike, 20 September 2019Source: Getty

The influence of these sways on the politics of the left in the United States can be readily observed in USSC’s 2019 polling. A majority of Clinton 2016 voters overwhelmingly supported government intervention to preserve matters of perceived common good, such as free tertiary education (56 per cent), a minimum wage that ensures no family with a full-time worker falls below the poverty line (82 per cent), a decent standard of living for the unemployed (61 per cent) and funding for hospital visits for emergencies and operations to lower the costs for patients (74 per cent).43 Trump voters, by contrast, registered between 14 and 28 per cent support across all of these measures.

Linking progressive politics and progressive movements ignores the significant lag between the two. Activists are wont to point out that it can take decades of struggle for their goals to be absorbed by progressive politicians. But crises can expedite this process.

COVID-19 has cleared the streets of massive progressive protests

The COVID-19 pandemic has hit during a significant moment in progressive protest. Protests in the United States markedly increased in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis and accelerated after the 2016 election. President Trump’s election itself spawned several protest movements and lit the fire under others more longstanding. According to GDELT data compiled by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, between January 2017 and January 2020, almost 11.5 million Americans participated in more than 16,000 protests — a scale of dissent likely eclipsing that of the civil rights movement when adjusted for population growth.44 In fact, in the first three months of the Trump administration, American protests — including those against the Muslim ban and more broadly associated with the #Resistance movement — accounted for roughly 40 per cent of the global total.45

Unlike conservatives, progressives tend to see freedom as a commitment to the common good rather than the individual good and the government’s role as being to safeguard that rather than stay out of the way.

In 2019, the American left was a visible presence in the “year of global protest”, though notably not at the scale of dissent following the inauguration of President Trump in 2017.46 The Women’s March had its third iteration,47 thousands marched with Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg in New York,48 Americans across the country were outraged by reports of children in prison-like conditions at immigration border camps,49 and various groups agitated for the impeachment of President Trump and for the release of the full Mueller report.50 Rallies were carried out around the country in opposition to a spate of state-level anti-abortion laws,51 protests for stricter gun control measures followed a deadly series of mass shootings and El Paso residents protested in the thousands against a visit from Donald Trump following one such shooting where the perpetrator drew on the rhetoric of the president in his manifesto.52

Many of the progressive groups prominent during the first years of the Trump administration have had to withdraw from the streets. It is abundantly clear that protests and marches now fall outside the scope of the common good. As such, these causes have suffered an attention deficit as the media pivots towards COVID-19 coverage and the spectacle of gun-toting conservative protesters.

But in moments of economic calamity, many of the goals of progressives of all stripes can quickly converge. The Great Depression gave rise to the FDR’s New Deal and massive strike actions, and the Global Financial Crisis birthed the disarrayed but powerful Occupy Movement, the echoes of which accelerated the fortunes of politicians like Bernie Sanders who have since stamped their credentials on Democratic politics.53

Through the progressive lens, local, state and federal government’s role in a crisis like COVID-19 is to take the necessary steps to protect the health of the community first, and then protect their economic wellbeing. Recognising this, the most prominent progressive groups in the United States have shifted their focus to prioritise the immediate challenges of relief and recovery presented by COVID-19.

How prominent progressive groups have responded to COVID-19

Black Lives Matter

Black Lives Matter has pivoted to more urgently advocating policy shifts to support prison populations, homeless populations and the unemployed — all groups in which African Americans are significantly overrepresented and which face increased exposure to the fallout of COVID-19.

The organisation likewise successfully petitioned the Centers for Disease Control to aggregate racial data about the spread of the virus, to inform the increased help black communities need going forward. These policy areas are not new to the movement but have taken on a heightened importance during the pandemic.

March For Our Lives

The closure of schools in many states has ceased school shootings and neuters the prospect of nationwide school walkouts. But the group had already begun to move away from walkouts and marches since its first in 2018. While 2019 was a big year for gun legislation protests in the United States following several high-profile mass shootings, the March For Our Lives organisation used the year to pivot towards lobbying for legislative reform and campaigned for increased voter registration. Similarly, although the group was born out of a physical tragedy and led by those impacted by the Marjory Stoneman Douglass shooting, it grew most quickly online.

A pandemic does little to stop this kind of activism, but it has influenced the immediate goals of the group. Since the beginning of the pandemic, March For Our Lives leaders have focused their attention increasingly on the use of firearms in domestic violence and suicides. At the beginning of the pandemic in the United States sales of guns and ammunition soared.54 The group argues these sales and the lockdown measures increase the risk of accidental shootings, armed domestic violence and the use of firearms in suicides. The group has also broadened its focus beyond guns to encompass youth issues generally and joined with Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren and Democratic Congresswoman Lucy McBath to launch a digital initiative called “Our Power” in March 2020.

Women’s rights

Movements like #MeToo and The Women’s March have likewise emphasised the increased risk many women face during lockdown. Women are more likely to be frontline and essential workers,55 more likely to have been made unemployed,56 and many more women than usual will not be able to avoid partners who present a direct threat to their lives.57 Additionally, several states deemed abortions “non-essential” medical treatments during the pandemic, essentially banning them.58

Motivated by these broad impacts, dozens of the most prominent women’s rights organisations have banded together to form the “We Demand More Coalition”. The collective is pushing Congress for increased relief, more consideration and protection of women at risk of domestic violence, stronger state powers, more protections for abortion and more expansive voting rights.59

Historic accusations of sexual assault against the presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden have surfaced in recent months threatening to split many in the movement from political champions in the Democratic Party and Congress.60

Climate change

Climate activists have had significant difficulty cutting through. What has planned to be some of the largest ever in-person marches on Earth Day in April ended up being broadcast as an underwhelming webinar.61 Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg’s weekly protests have likewise been moved online with diminished patronage.

School Strike for Climate efforts are ineffective when there is no school. Activists in this space are intensely concerned that climate change will be forgotten or deemed unnecessary spending. The leading climate groups in the United States like the Sunrise Movement and the Extinction Rebellion are arguing that the incredible economic fallout from the pandemic demands that the economy be rebuilt and geared green. Affiliated experts have advocated what is being termed the Green stimulus deal. This variation of the Green New Deal is a detailed set of plans, infrastructure investments, labour reform, housing initiatives and foreign policy positions.62

The Biden campaign has invited climate champions to the table by way of what have been dubbed ‘unity task forces’. Each has two chairs, one put forward by the Bernie Sanders campaign and one put forward by the Biden campaign. New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a champion of the Green New Deal, is a co-chair of the climate taskforce, and its panel includes Varshini Prakash, the co-founder of the Sunrise Movement.

The unequal impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare and activated structural problems in American society, demonstrating clearly as Brown University’s Brandon Ogbunu writes, that “social distancing is social justice”.63

An historic surge in unemployment caused by a pandemic in a nation where healthcare is contingent on employment for most will likely send the progressive pushes for Medicare For All and green economic reform into hyperdrive. As such, while Washington weighs the best options to pull itself out of this crisis, the positions of several movements, particularly those with a focus on healthcare, equal access to voting and economic equality, are getting more mainstream airplay through vector politicians than ever.

The left is mobilising, but not alone

Where possible, activists are also finding new ways to protest despite the restrictions. The Crowd Counting Consortium has reported more than 100 novel methods of mobilisation ranging from acts of solidarity like balcony applause for healthcare workers to acts of resistance like car and boat rallies.64 But these lack the effectiveness of traditional marches that many organisers are used to. As such both progressive and conservative activists are viewing the pandemic as a time for aggressive organisation.

The positions of several movements, particularly those with a focus on healthcare, equal access to voting and economic equality, are getting more mainstream airplay through vector politicians than ever.

For marches, protests, strikes, lobbying and legal action, organisation is the crucial aspect. As the developed world moves online, activists’ groups will be throwing their resources into reinforcing their mailing lists, digital strategies and flexibility.

Traditionally, such online activity might quickly flow into echo chambers, but the nature of this crisis has pushed people into the digital space.65 For activists of any persuasion, increased digital literacy across the board will make organising efforts in the future significantly more efficient with larger payoffs.

COVID-19 could politically activate young Americans

This report has shown that as it stands, there has been mobilisation on a small scale on the right across the country. But beyond the pandemic, there is likely to be an appetite for larger-scale social activism. Particularly since the civil rights movement, social movements in the United States have predominantly been comprised of the so-called “next generation”, who have the most stake in what future movements are pushing for. These are formative years for these demographics, they’re being offered a picture of the future that strikes many as unfair.

Millennials and younger generations are bearing a heavy social, educational and economic burden while facing the lowest health risk during the pandemic. Disproportionate numbers of young people work in the informal economy, making them more likely to be the first to be made redundant or have hours cut and less likely to have protections in place. In fact, in early April, Americans 49 years of age and younger represented 2.9 per cent of hospitalisations due to COVID-19,66 while 52 per cent of working-age Americans younger than 45 reported a loss of income directly linked to it.67

As The Atlantic’s Anne Lowrey points out, many millennials (between the age of 22 and 38) entered the workforce during a ‘once in a 100 year recession’ and have been slammed by another just as they were finding their feet.68 Additionally, these are the generations that will be tasked with paying off the vast majority of government debt.

It is a common assumption that young people naturally lean towards progressive views. GenForward polling from the University of Chicago tracks the views of Americans 18-36 on a bi-monthly basis, and its results consistently support this claim. The polling released in February, as the pandemic was taking hold, showed that majorities of young people across racial lines in the United States strongly or somewhat support a universal basic income, that the government should guarantee jobs, and that the super-wealthy should be taxed more.69 As a whole, American millennials and younger generations are more receptive to arguments about inequality in society and as such, the progressive causes detailed in the section above could be seen to have been validated by the pandemic and their urgency increased.

For many in these younger generations, this is the shortest policy pipeline they have been exposed to. With an increased capacity to “feel” the direct and immediate impact of policy, many will start to think about their lot in new ways.

But the progressive idea of the common good can fall apart when it is as painful to uphold as it currently seems to be. As such, there are conservative pathways for developing movements as well. The same polling shows that there was already an impending sense of political loss and streak of conservatism among young white Americans before COVID-19. Nearly half of this demographic in February 2020 said that discrimination against white people has become “as big a problem” as discrimination against other races.70 It is pertinent to remember that the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia was overwhelming attended by young white men.

An unequal financial burden, an anti-globalisation stance and racially motivated arguments about the virus’ origin are already finding a strong conservative audience and show the directions that conservative movements might take that could attract young Americans heavily impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. There is historical precedent, too, for increased receptiveness to right-wing movements in the wake of severe economic hardship. The growth of the Tea Party movement after the GFC is an obvious example, but one working paper by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York on the historical impact of a global pandemic has also found a direct correlation in the regional impact that influenza had in Germany in 1918, municipal spending as a result and then regional voting rates for the National Socialist Workers Party (Nazi Party) in the 1932 and 1933 Reichstag elections.71

While they may not be taking to the streets in large numbers, for many in these younger generations, this is the shortest policy pipeline they have been exposed to. With an increased capacity to “feel” the direct and immediate impact of policy, many will start to think about their lot in new ways. In concert with the increased focus on structural notions of the economy like “essential” and “non-essential” workers, stratification in society by age, as well as record levels of news consumption, this crisis could politically activate an otherwise famously politically lethargic demographic.


The COVID-19 pandemic will leave an indelible mark on the United States. While physical marches may be out of the question for many, the COVID-19 pandemic has already done much more to animate protest movements than it has to kill them.

President Trump has amplified the volatility of conservative protests on several occasions. He has directed them at his political enemies and has leveraged them to defer responsibility for the grievances of Americans during this crisis.

The implications of such activation on either side of the political spectrum could have grave consequences for the already fractured state of the American union headed towards a high-stakes presidential election.

For progressives, these economic consequences and their unequal distribution demonstrates the need for extensive, economy-wide reform. The president’s actions and the very presence of protesters during a pandemic quickens the view that he is endangering the most vulnerable people in society. While they do not see it fit to protest on the street, progressive groups are aggressively organising and innovating during this pandemic.

Protesting at its heart is a political act. Many people are now experiencing the immediate impacts of policy at the point at which they feel most hopeless about their ability to provide for themselves and their families. The president has done nothing to assuage those who are agitated and to posit the health necessity of the actions. By failing to offer this political cover, President Trump has laid the blame of any consequences at the doorsteps of state governor’s mansions. With vested interests and high-profile media personalities lionising the bravery of these protesters, the actions could continue despite eased restrictions in the future.

The implications of such activation on either side of the political spectrum could have grave consequences for the already fractured state of the American union headed towards a high-stakes presidential election.