Learning to protest with words

Thus far 2017 has been a year of protests, sprouting up in response to shifts in political tides. But, given the rifts in ideological and political viewpoints currently creating divisions within countries, it is notable that these shifts have not developed into widespread civil unrest. One reason for this, which this blog explains, is that the ‘losing’ sides in two of the biggest political upheavals – the 2016 UK referendum and US election – both had education on their sides.

Education: the political divider

As the Guardian newspaper put it “In the year of Trump and Brexit, education has become the greatest divide of all” splitting voters into two very distinct camps. Trends show that individuals with higher education levels voted for the UK to remain in the EU in the referendum last year and were less likely to cast their votes for Trump in the last US election.

Considerable research exists to back this statement up. Pew Research showed that preferences in the presidential election were clearly marked by those who did, and those who did not, have a college degree – much more so than in every presidential election since 1980.


Guardian data, meanwhile, broke down the EU referendum results in the UK by local authority areas, showing that education was the biggest driver against Brexit. The results indicate that the greater the proportion of residents with a higher education, the more likely a local authority was to vote remain. Only Scotland was an exception to the rule, where people voted to remain in the EU no matter their education level. The data was pulled together by analyzing six key demographic measures for each voting area and mapped against the referendum results in each location.


This UK trend was then confirmed by a report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. It showed that among those with no qualifications, 75% voted for Brexit, compared to just 27% of those with the highest level of education.

Use your voice, not your fists

Could this also account for the fact that many of the protests since these votes by those unhappy with the results have been peaceful? The evidence in our latest GEM Report would suggest so.

quote-blockThe protest against Donald Trump’s inauguration may have been the largest and most peaceful day of protest in US history, with  over 4 million marchers across the country. In the five largest protests in Los Angeles, Washington DC, Chicago, Seattle and New York, according to news reports, there was not a single arrest.  Since then, protesters in the US are finding new ways to demonstrate their opposition and displeasure, including the ‘Day without immigrants’ last week, and the women’s strike being planned for International Women’s Day in March. Similarly, a peaceful march on parliament is being planned the weekend before ‘Article 50’ is triggered, which would launch the process of the UK leaving the EU.

While it may seem obvious that an education can lead to more constructive and engaged political participation, it’s comforting when the data backs it up. The PEACE chapter in the GEM Report showed that, in 106 countries, people with higher levels of education were more likely to engage in non-violent protests. It shows that what we’re seeing in the US and the UK should not come as a surprise – the same trend is visible the world over.

pecaeThere are some obvious exceptions to this rule, however, which we would be blithe to gloss over. The Arab Spring was led by educated youths frustrated by not seeing their education levels rewarded in the labour market. According to one study drawing on the World Values Survey from 2005–2007, in many countries in the Middle East marked by the Arab Spring, more educated individuals were more likely to engage in demonstrations, boycotts and strikes; the link between education and political protest was stronger among individuals who had poor outcomes in the labour market.

The 2016 GEM Report might also provide some solace to those currently protesting, and wondering whether it’s having any impact. An analysis of 323 non-violent and violent resistance campaigns for regime change, anti-occupation and secession from 1900 to 2006 showed that non-violent resistance was nearly twice as effective as violent resistance in removing incumbent governments from power. Moreover, countries where authoritarian regimes fall to non-violent uprisings are much more likely to transition to democracy and experience civil peace than if regimes fall to armed uprisings. Indeed, non-violent action was a central component of 50 out of 67 democratic transitions from 1973 to 2005.

These claims stand true both for countries in the Global North and the Global South, where education often falls far down the agenda. They should provide a heavy dose of inspiration about the power of education for bringing about change. They should also encourage countries coping with political upheaval – or foreseeing the potential for unrest – to ramp up their emphasis on civic education programmes, peace education and lessons about the values of tolerance and active citizenship.


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