Editors' Foreword

The Editors' Foreword appears in Vol. 73, No. 2, "Politics of Protest" (Spring/Summer 2020).

The world faced a global wave of protest in 2019 that defied easy explanation. This wave—consisting of demonstrations in 40–50 different countries—spanned geographies, political divides, and regime types, with movements rising up against the likes of authoritarianism, corruption, inequality, poverty, and suppression of identity. Some commentators drew the analogy to the most famous protest wave in the Western imaginary, 1968, which included the U.S. civil rights movement, the Vietnam conflict, and anti-U.S.S.R. rebellion. But this wave outstripped 1968 in volume and breadth, while appearing to feature lower overall conflict intensity.

While a number of protests subsided after achieving concrete objectives, others simmered, with echoes throughout 2020. Later movements arose against the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and resultant economic shocks, authoritarian leaders, corruption, and inequality across race and class.

In its 73-year history, the Journal has sought to examine defining issues of global concern. Recent treatments reflect this, including the action-oriented issue on climate change in this volume, as well as examinations of threats to democracy, ungoverned spaces, global feminism. In 2014, the Journal covered the outlook of protest in the 21st century in light of movements around the global financial crisis and the Arab Spring. Beginning in the early 2010s, many observed a shift in the nature of social movements, which incorporated developments in social media and communications technology—the networked world—as well as the advent of “leaderless” protest. Had the nature of power changed? Were social movements changing in mechanics, goals, and organizational structure? And had governments gotten that much worse? Experts on protests, social movements, revolutions, and civil conflict weighed in, noting that primary causes included social media, the persistence of a non-hierarchy norm in youth protest movements, the rise in authoritarianism, and the increasing visibility of corruption.

At that time, the Journal called it a “breaking point.” What was galling to groups then is even more so now, by virtue of both the individual’s tolerance and the state’s brazenness. The old order may have given way, but we do not know what is in front of us. Since 2014, borders and political systems remain largely intact, but the world has seen a new phase of great power competition, the acceleration of climate change, and a pandemic. In the breach, the world witnesses the essentiality of the politics of protest. We aim to help the reader understand it.

The Inquiry

To make sense of the protest wave, one can begin broadly by asking: does it exist, what causes it, what does it do, how does it work, and how will it matter—what are the politics of protest today? Political science situates protest within the landscape of action leading to change in electoral outcomes or political institutions—protest is about the nature of political power and political order. Bearing in mind these high-level questions, this issue addresses that which has emerged from the particularity of this wave: How can we conceptualize and model protest dynamics? What are the advantages and disadvantages of leaderless protest? What has been the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on protest activity? Are there novel dimensions of social movement or protest activity emerging? Have the dynamics of “people power” fundamentally changed?


This issue is designed for the reader to develop powerful questions and emergent insights. We invite the reader to draw from and synthesize information across the different kinds of contributions represented. But it need not be the essays that form the backbone of the reader’s interpretation—the most telling remark may appear in the third page of a Feature.

This issue features academic essays that touch on a cross-section of geography, subject matter, and history. Two essays examine the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on the phenomenon of protest—Paolo Gerbaudo sees the pandemic as a novel scenario for protest action, while Jonathan Pinckney and Miranda Rivers use an original cross-national survey to show the effects of the pandemic on protest activity. Thanassis Cambanis and Sarah Mokh ambitiously suggest an effective idea of transformational reform based on the cases of Lebanon and Iraq, where protest appears endemic. Priyanka Sethy takes a look at history, studying ethnolinguistic nationalist incidences in historical South Asia to explore what causes ethnic protest to progress to violence. Moises Arce and Riley Moran study the mechanisms of social movements in the context of natural resource extraction in Peru and South Africa. Finally, Rowena He offers a scholarly narrative of the recent Water Movement in Hong Kong, with ominous and hopeful notes for the protesters as well as observers.

In addition to academic essays, the Journal includes Arguments, which are mid-length analytical pieces covering a narrow or contemporary topic. For these pieces, there is an emphasis on informed insight rather than original research. Each focuses on a single country, and asks: “How did we get here?” and “Why is this time different?” Roberta Rice studies Chile; Saeed Ghasseminejad, Behnam Ben Taleblu, and Eliora Katz analyze Iran; Pavin Chachavalpongpun writes on Thailand; Duncan Wheeler opines on Spain; Mohammed Soliman comments on Egypt; and Michael T. Heaney covers the United States.

In the Features section, the Journal showcases interviews with practitioners—that is, activist leaders—on the genesis and meaning of their protests. These leaders hail from Lebanon, Sudan, Xinjiang, Zimbabwe, and the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. This issue contains interviews with Rushan Abbas on the Uyghur plight, Mayada Hassanain on Sudan, Evan Mawarire on Zimbabwe, David Archambault II on Standing Rock and Indigenous rights, and Assaad Thebian on Lebanon.

An innovation for this issue is a space reserved for the showcase of the practice of protest and international affairs. The Journal features perspectives from Marco Rubio and Joshua Wong on a global contest between democracy and authoritarianism, and the role of an international coalition in the preservation of individual rights and freedom.

Winners of student essay contests offer yet another distinct vantage point on the subject. Rhe-Anne Tan, a dual BA student from Columbia College and Sciences Po, argues that there is a hazard, despite protest, for the Papuans against the project of the unitary Indonesian state; and Jasmine Ong, from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, examines the details of the Hong Kong protesters’ communications to identify effective and ineffective approaches. Casey Buckley, from Columbia Business School and the School of International and Public Affairs, reveals in photographs the lament of a seemingly fruitless protest in the United States.

We regret the perspectives left undiscussed in this issue. As this issue goes to print, Belarus is raging, and pro-feminist protests have emerged in Namibia and Bangladesh. Recent demonstrations in India and Russia, as well as perspectives on climate justice and labor rights movements, deserve the reader’s independent examination.

We are fortunate that this issue will be alive after publication, with the discussions reflected in these pages stimulating and catalyzing bodies of knowledge. The Journal’s online edition will complement this issue, in light of both the pandemic and the pace of developments in the realm of protests and social movements. Essays, Arguments, and correspondence on this topic are welcome and encouraged.

—The Editors