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Social Protest and Democracy 101: Democracy in the Context of Contemporary Politics


The issue of Social Protest and Democracy plays a central role in Political Science. This specific topic is a backbone of contemporary politics, as political and socio-economic aspects of the life of every nation revolve around the idea of the establishment of a democratic form of governance. Democracy, for the majority of people, is an end goal where prosperity and peace are guaranteed. Although the effectiveness and core idea of democracy in the contemporary politics is open to critical analyses, willigness to achieve prosperity and peace remains the priority for everyone. Therefore, it becomes necessary to challenge those who abuse their power and take an advantage of being the heads of the decision-making process. One of the most crucial set of continuous actions that serves as a mechanism of scrutiny for the legislators is resistance implemented through social protests. The following 101 series will attempt to identify if social protests are, indeed, a key towards the establishment of prosperity. The series will analyze the concept of social protest, its core meaning and significance, different forms and motives that shape social movements and the special link between democracy and social insurgence. These articles will critically assess the role of social protests and their true purposefulness in the contemporary world.

This 101 series is divided into seven articles including:

2. Social Protest and Democracy 101:Social Movement Theory and Democratization

3. Social Protest and Democracy 101:Motives behind the social protests - case studies

4. Social Protest and Democracy 101: Social Resistance through violence or peace

5. Social Protest and Democracy 101:Social Protests in the age of social media

6. Social Protest and Democracy 101:The impediments to a successful social resistance

7. Social Protest and Democracy 101:Is Social Protest an answer?

Social Protest and Democracy 101: Social Movement Theory and Democratization

Social protests play a significant role in democratically structured societies. According to Oliver & Cadena-Roa & Strawn, beginning in the 1960s, social insurgences have been regarded as a crucial adjunct to “democratic polities” (Oliver & Cadena-Roa & Strawn, 2002, p.2). It is undoubtedly true that in the contemporary period the emergence of social movements around the globe has always been related to the wave of democratization. The main assumed purpose behind the uprisings is to reach the inclusion of the citizens in the decision-making processes and challenge the existing institutions of governance led by the political and economic elites. Through the means of social insurgences, the protests configure their shared grievances into spontaneous or organized collective actions by which they demonstrate their disapproval or total rejection of certain socio-political enactments. The right to be able to express a rejection or demonstrate a denial of certain changes, or demand certain reforms, is in itself democratic. Only within the true democratically structured society, people do have the full right of expressing themselves through mass mobilizations. According to Arce and Rice, in the article The Political Consequences of Protest, the notion of a movement society that involves social insurgency is a characteristic of democratic politics (Arce&Rice, 2019). A true democratically organized society permits individuals to use their political autonomy, which is the opportunity for socio-political manifestation. Social protest carries a symbolic feature, as through the social resistance, it becomes valid and appropriate to assess and evaluate the level of democracy in a country.

Here arises the question of freedom of expression, as the core element of a true democracy is the absence of impediments and restrictions imposed on the individuals in order to retrain the right to express the demand or denial through the form of social mobilization. Through the means of social mobilization, the people possess the ability to directly exercise their freedom of expression and speech for the purpose of having a direct impact on the socio-political institutions of governance. It becomes possible only if the country is constructed on democracy-based rulership where individuals’ freedom is not restrained. Rodolfo Dumas, a fellow of Inter American Press Association, highlighted in his article Freedom of Expression and Democracy that the source of development of the society involves the autonomy of “thought and conscience” (2022, p.2). Hence, an individual's ability of expression is a fundamental criteria of freedom and an indicator of a democratically structured society. The individualistic ideas and perceptions of certain issues are reshaped into a shared communal thought, according to which a society is constructed and the government's apparatuses function. Moreover, a democracy-based society ensures a safe setting for the individuals who are involved in a movement to express their concerns, denial or demand. A safe environment refers to the absence of restraints that serve as an impediment to the protesters. The most common indicator of an accessible setting for the social movement is the minimal degree of involvement from the side of law enforcement. In the countries of Western democracies, the tendencies of social movements are on the rise. Barkan S,. in the chapter Collective Behaviour and Social Movements, explains this notion by underlining that social uprisings are common in democratic societies since the population is able to express an opinion in a peaceful environment without anticipating repressive actions from the government (2011). In fact, harsh consequences of cases involving police brutality against the protesters are a sign of democratization of the state, especially when the state laws are directed towards the investigation and punishment of “the arbitrary use of force by law enforcement officers” (Lanza, 2019, p.117).

Figure 1: Street protest, Myanmar 2021 (Pyae Sone Htun, 2021)

Social protests are purpose-driven strategies that are aimed at achieving a set goal, and Charles Tilly, in his work Social Movements as Historically Specific Clusters of Political Performances, characterized the social movement as a standard strategy of “collective action” (1993, p.10). Social movements are considered to be a step toward the process of democratization. The term democratization itself is a complicated phraseology, and according to Oliver & Cadena-Roa & Strawn, for instance, the main indicator of the society and the system of governance becoming democratized is the tendency of power transfer that develops the mutual understanding between the individuals and the state apparatus (2002). A social protest involves in itself a goal of denial of certain enactments because individuals’ determination revolves around the strong sense of being obliged to “defend the democracy”(Lanza, 2015, p.5). However, in other cases, social movements are driven towards the implementation of necessary reforms in order to reshape the government into a more democracy-based one. In both cases, democracy plays a core role in social movements. The term democratization remains the central topic in the studies related to social protests. Once there is a sudden eruption of societal insurgency where the individuals are challenging the power-holders, the first assumed reason for the social movements is people’s determination in achieving democratization. However, what does the term democracy mean, or what does it represent? Charles Tilly, a prominent sociologist and political scientist, argued that despite many forms of conceptualization of the term democracy, there are common features that democracy offers in general, such as the guarantee of equality among the citizens, protection by the state jurisdiction and provision for binding consultation of citizens (1993, p.20). Hence, in Charles Tilly’s understanding, the process of democratization is a crucial move towards “broad equal citizenship with binding consultation and extensive protection” (1993, p.20). In the contemporary world, the democratic principles that ought to be followed by all the entities are mostly concentrated in one country that withholds the power of promoting a democracy interpreted in its own way. The primary purpose of this article is not to argue in defense of democracy as the best form of governance, neither it is to criticize it. This paper aims to investigate the main principles that connect the social movement theory and democracy.

What is a democracy?

The main motive behind social uprisings is the ultimate achievement or preservation of democratic principles in that country. What are these principles? The conceptualization of democracy is challenging as there are various interpretations of it. Leo Rogers, in the chapter Is democracy The best form of government, argued that even though democracy is undoubtedly flawed, it is the most efficient form of governance since there is no better alternative type of regime that would offer the rights and freedoms of the majority (Rogers, n.a). What do these rights and freedoms involve? Does democracy in this context refer to the western interpretation of it as one understanding of democracy compare to another understanding dramatically varies ? Why conceptualization of the term plays a crucial role in relation to social movements?

Figure 2: Webster dictionary definition: What is a democracy? (n.a.,2019)

In the contemporary world, the frequency of social movements has dramatically risen, especially in the countries of the global South or so-called Third World countries. According to Carothers and Youngs, the frequency of social movements is jumping year by year, and if 2006 experienced around 60 impactful demonstrations, in 2013 that number doubled (Carothers&Youngs, 2015). The spike of significant uprisings takes place in the regions of so-called Third World Countries where people collectively challenge the political elites and desire the removal of the regime. Most often, people’s determination is directed towards the establishment of democracy where every citizen of the country would be equal under the law and inclusiveness in a decision-making process is guaranteed, whether directly or indirectly. Under the understanding of democracy, individuals presume an existence within the society without any arbitrary and unjustifiable direct or indirect repressions. However, the question of democracy took a central role in the countries that consider themselves as already established democracies. Limited freedom of speech and expression (especially if the raised concern goes against the mainstream perception) inequality as a cause of the hierarchical structure of the society, failure in adherence to the promised agenda by the representatives, the clash between different ideas, beliefs and morals, etc. have been a major concern in the North American and Western European sides of the globe. The constant social movements within particular societies trigger the efficiency of western democracy. The important and distinguished feature between democracy and social movements is that social movements do not necessarily emerge in countries with prevailing authoritarian regimes. In reality, social uprisings are phenomena that occur in so-called democratically structured societies. Carothers and Youngs highlighted in the article The Complexities of Global Protests that social mobilizations, in the contemporary period, compared to decades ago also materialized in western societies that are considered to be democratic (Carothers&Youngs, 2015). Events, such as Occupy Wall Street or Canada Convoy Protest are examples of the social resistance that the Western part of the world experienced. What is significant about this notion is that the social protests that occur in the West question the legitimacy of western democracy. This leads to a crucial issue that has to be examined - what is the ultimate democracy that people desire? If the West’s democratic principles are highly questioned by its citizens, then what does it mean for those where the West actively attempts in promoting those values to other countries?

Figure 3: Crumbling US democracy. (Rui, 2021)
Democracy and Heterogeneous Society

Establishment of a democratically functioning polity remains the main objective behind social protests. However, the central issue is the question of how is the process of democratization and democracy-based government is perceived. What type of democracy is the ultimate purpose? It is crucial to identify what democracy truly represents and if today’s western democracy is in reality a government for the people. For instance, Andreas Kalyvas, a prominent political theorist, identifies democracy as a politics of poor or plebeians where the population that is at the bottom of the hierarchically structured society by emancipation or revolutionary movements are able to free themselves and possess the ability to legislate, rule and have direct participation in the decision-making policies (2019, p. 544). His understanding of a democratically structured polity refers to the direct inclusiveness of the poor in governance. In an ideal democracy, according to Kalyvas, there is no exclusion of people from the political, economic or social realms of governance, rather, the democratically structured society creates room for the full participation of the plebs, poor or working-class in the institutions of governance. Therefore, it is crucial to realize that the clear democratic imagery “rejects the socioeconomic differences in status that would, de jure, be both permanent and inaccessible to the poor” (Kalyvas, 2019, p. 544). The type of democracy described by Andreas Kalyvas resembles the idea of direct democracy. However, it is essential to note that the practicality of direct or plebeian democracy, which involves full participation of the population in the decision-making realm, is highly complex. The contemporary world, based upon the tight interconnectedness of different entities, leads to complexities that question the essential ideas of democracy and its applicability. To be more precise, there are various reasons that serve as barriers to the applicability of direct democracy that, different from the one practised in Ancient Greece, involves a characteristic of full inclusiveness. One of the proposed rationals behind the implementation of electoral-representative system is the rapid growth of population.

Moreover, the diversification of the society as a result of the growth of population with the individuals with different cultural, religious and ideological backgrounds is one of the significant factors that question the applicability of democracy. The heterogeneity, for example, that is a prevailing phenomenon in the contemporary globalized world, questions the reliability and competence of democracy. Wolfgang Merkel and Brigitte Weiffen, in the article Does Heterogeneity Hinder Democracy?, underlined that there is an established perception that heterogeneity remains a challenge to democracy in advanced and developing countries (2012). Various cleavages, such as identity-based or ideological-based, undermine the applicability of democratic governance. Although some of the variables that differentiate people from each other overlap and coincide, Merkel and Weiffen, argued that ethnic cleavage, for instance, questions “the success of democratic consolidation” (2012, p. 412). A similar issue may be applied to ideological heterogeneity where people with different belief systems may find themselves is a state of disagreement and confrontation with each other. If the actions of one group are directed towards the adoption of one set of laws through social protest, it may trigger another group of individuals who would oppose those views. The majoritarian democracy that is exercised in the contemporary world is under question as the implemented enactments in favour of the majority trigger the minority with opposite views.

Figure 4: A demonstrator at the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, led by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to fight for black suffrage (Bruce Davidson, 1965)

Electoral-Representative Democracy

In the contemporary period, the participation of individuals in the decision-making process, which is the core idea of democracy, is processed through the voting process. This type of democracy is a democracy that is widely exercised in the western hemisphere - the electoral representative system.

The electoral-representative system has been an issue of debate. Even though in an ideal democratic society, individuals remain the guardian of their freedom, the representative form of democracy is highly arguable compared to an ideal democracy. In a direct or plebeian democracy, for instance, individuals are not obliged to be dependent on a specific representative in order to be heard. Peoples' direct involvement in the decision-making process allows them to make up their own fates and break from the chains of marginalization. A representative system, in contrast, further widens the gap between the population and the institutions of governance limiting the individuals' access to the apparatus of governance. In contemporary democracy, every human being is connected to a representative, and only through that particular representative, a person can express their demands. The representative system makes a person to be bound to another individual with the hope that he is capable of materializing his needs and demands. Jean Jacques Rousseau, in The Social Contract or Principles of Political Right, highlighted that once individuals allow themselves to be represented, they no longer exercise freedom as freedom is taken from their hands (Rousseau, 1913). However, it is also crucial to understand that the electoral-representative system, popular in the USA and other western democracies, came into existence as an alternative to direct democracy due to a large population. If the representative form of polity is seen as the only solution even though it proves that the democracy is a crumbling system, does it mean it should completely be replaced? If the disadvantages of today's democracy are prevailing over the benefits, it does not mean that the populous is obliged to conform to it.

Figure 5: Lies and Elections. (Piotr Szyhalski, 2021)

The electoral-representative system is a crucial issue that is necessary to examine especially with regard to social movements and politics. Because of the inability of citizens to directly influence the decision-making process, it becomes necessary to leave their demands to those who are entitled to represent them. Representative democracy hinders the idea of social protests. If the main motive behind the social protest is a form of a direct expression of shared collective views regarding socio-political issues, the representation takes it away from the individuals. People understand that they reside within the representative system therefore their demands will be expressed through the ballots in the voting process, and the issue that arose during social movements can be fixed through the elections. However, this has lost credibility as the role of representatives raises concerns regarding “accountability and interest realization” (Alkan, 2021, p.445). When social uprisings are taking place in authoritarian countries, people’s protests ultimately cause a change in the regime. In the representative system, people’s concerns vanish once the elections come up and the people put their trust in the representative. Therefore, the electoral representative system could be an impediment towards social movements. People’s freedom is indirectly restricted. Jean Jacques Rousseau noticed that the people enjoy their liberty for the short time and as soon as they vote, they once again become slaves (Rousseau, 1913). The cause of democratization in the west does not necessarily mean that it was achieved through social protests. Rather it becomes apparent that the electoral-representative system is formed to intentionally impede the social protesters from advancing their politics.

It becomes complicated on a global level. The established model of the electoral representative system in the west is considered to be irreplaceable and the only working form of governance. Therefore, any social protest that is directed toward the acquisition of democracy is the desire to establish one in the west. The western societies themselves endorse those attempts in creating an image of western electoral representative democracy in being the best form of governance that needs to be applied globally.

Figure 6: Rousseau’s “The Social Contract,” 1762. Pastel portrait of Jean-Jacques Rousseau.Rousseau’s “Discourse on Inequality.”
Critical Side of Democracy and Social Protest

The association of the role of social protests with the process of democratization has a threatening nature which is highly ignored in the studies of social protests. Popularization and promotion of the Western understanding of democracy as an ideal form of governance that has no alternatives and which can be established through the population insurgency is a hegemonic tool that serves as a mechanism for political and economic gains. This notion is one of the objectives of the foreign policies of certain countries that have economic or geopolitical interests abroad. In order to grasp this specific critical side of social protest theory, it is necessary to examine particular historical events involving a regime change through arranged social uprisings. Certain historical events serve as unique examples. Thoroughly analyzing the historical cases, it becomes evident that the interventionist policies of the international actors are driven towards the the domestic politics of a victim country with economic and political ambitions hidden behind the slogan of advancing or promoting democracy. Thomas Carothers, a leading authority on the international support for democracy, human rights, governance, the rule of law, and civil society, in his article U.S. Democracy Promotion During and After Bush, highlighted various examples demonstrating the US’s foreign policy to be a semi-realist venture rather than a reality (2007). Iraq remains a prominent example of how manipulative slogans, such as the advancement or establishment of democracy can lead to the complete destruction of a whole country. George Bush’s endorsement of imposing democracy worldwide was on the frontline of his foreign policy; however, as time showed, his rhetoric substantially differed from reality. The removal of Saddam Hussein and the establishment of democracy was one of the main objectives of Bush’s administration yet the aftermath the Iraqi invasion proved that the USA had little interest if Iraq would be functioning as a democracy as long as it was “led by a pro-US government” (Carothers, 2007, p. 6).

The event that occurred in the mid-50s of the 20th century in Iran is a unique set of historical examples that reveals the truth about the fact that democracy remains the first front priority as long as it does not hinder the political, geopolitical and economic interests of the country. Daniel Goldsmith, in his article Confronting Threats Before They Materialize: The United States and the Overthrow of the Iranian Government, described the overthrow of the Iranian regime as a consequence of the CIA’s interventionist policy in 1953 as a victorious attempt to liquidate Iran’s newborn democracy (Goldsmith, 2005, p.92).

Figure 7: Anti Iraq War protest, Sydney, 2003 (n.a., 2003)

The 1950s, the Cold War period, was a timeline of global power confrontation between two ideologies: democracy and capitalism promoted by the Western alignment against the USSR’s attempt in establishing communism. The world became the battlefield of two opposing forces, and the hunt for geopolitical influence was the main objective of the foreign policies of the two superpowers. Iran at that time was a major economic partner to Britain as the British government held privileged rights to exploiting the country’s petroleum (Zahrani, 2002). As a result of democratic elections, the Iranian population had decided to appoint Mohammed Mossadegh as the new prime minister, which consequently triggered the British administration as a newly elected prime minister reconstructed the national politics in the recourse of nationalization of petroleum. The sudden change in domestic politics put Britain in a vulnerable position and as the result, the British intimated cooperation with the USA in solving the problem. The USA, as described by Zahrani, feared a "possible Soviet takeover”, therefore, their intentions behind the interventionist policy was to oppose the communist integration into Iran’s society (Zahrani, 2002, p. 93). However, it becomes apparent, during the process of elimination of the prime minister from his post, that the preservation of democracy wasn’t the predominant target. The main motive behind the interventionist policies in domestic politics of Iran and the overthrowing of a the democratically elected prime minister Mossadegh were embedded in strictly politico-economic gain. The explanation of the Western powers’ presence in the Middle East region varies, such as the reason behind the coup is the tactic of the US administration in challenging the USSR’s expansionist policies (Zahrani, 2002). In any case, whether it is strictly a self-interest or an attempt of saving the world from communism, the US’s politics demonstrated the negligence and abandonment of its democratic principles and values. Penetrating in the Iranian public minds in order to erupt the anti-Mossadegh riots in favour of the dismissal of the prime minister, the US eliminated the newly emerging democracy through “…unethical, and undemocratic means” (Goldsmith, 2005, p. 93).

Although social resistance represents the attempt of individuals of constructing a more representative and inclusive society and is endorsed by many so-called democratic states, in order to demonstrate the existence of the mechanism of scrutiny, in the contemporary period, the true meaning of social mobilization is misused for political aspirations. Mohammed Mossadegh, because of the policies of nationalization of domestic petroleum, became an enemy to the British and US administration in the 1950s. It would have shown the USA to be uncommitted to its democratic values, if it decided to take actions of direct intervention, therefore, it became crucial to change the strategy. Poisoning public opinion became the most efficient strategic manoeuvre. The overthrow of a regime in Iran was mainly facilitated through the mass riots that were intimated by external actors. Daniel Goldsmith outlined various ways in which the CIA infiltrated the people of Iran by running newspapers with fake news and manipulative messages as well as recruiting the protesters by financially funding them (2005, p.89-90).

Figure 8: Massive protests broke out across Iran, leaving almost 300 dead in firefights in the streets of Tehran. (n.a., 1953).

The case of the coup in Iran and the dismissal of the national leader Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953 is one of the main illustrations that signify the importance of social protests in politics and the multiplicity of motives that the social insurgence can be implemented.

Social protests, indeed, serve as a signal of continuous struggle between individuals and power-holders. The ultimate goal of continuous battle involves a drastic impact on the existing socio-economic and political institutions of governance whose primary objective is to construct an environment of equality, justice and safety and as Carothers and Youngs argue “to challenge fundamental policies or structures of power" (2015, p. 3). This article demonstrated that the linkage between social movements and democracy is complex. It involves various topics through study and examination. The ability to express a point of view through social mobilization is in nature a democratic feature. The ability of reels to express one's point of the stand without an arbitrary barrier imposed by a state is a characteristic of a democratically structured society. However, there are different issues that ought to be deeply examined, such as the fact that the rising movements in the West question the democracy of the west as a regime. This leads to questions about the concept of democracy. What does democracy represent? How do people and states perceive democracy? Moreover, is democracy a solution in a heterogeneous society? What is the solution when two opposing ideological stands clash with each other? What is the solution to the fact that the protest of one group and its common goal is in contrast with another group and its ideological stand? These questions are the essence of the study between social protests and democracy. Moreover, the paper highlighted how the idea of democratization can be highly manipulated. It became a major image in world politics through which certain countries pursue their foreign agendas by implementing social movements. The examples of Iran in the 1950s and Iraq in 2002 demonstrated how the idea of democratization causes the eruption of mass mobilizations that serve the politics of hegemonic countries. The main issue with democracy is the persuasive established image that equality and justice for all are only embedded only in western democracy. The western type of electoral-representative democracy is in reality a hierarchical system that is meant to chain the people and take away their liberty of being able to fully protest with the purpose of achieving major reformations. Perhaps, it becomes necessary to put aside democracy and try to find an inclusive, just and equal society with a different form of governance.

Bibliographical References

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Alkan, Y.S. (2021). Representative Democracy and the Concept of Representation: Do They Have A Legitimizing or Checking Function?, Stratejik ve Sosyal Araştırmalar Dergisi, 5(3), 441- 453. Retrieved from

Barkan, S. (2011). Collective Behaviour and Social Movements. Sociology: Comprehensive Edition. Creative Commons, 861-892. Retrieved from

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Dumas, R. (2022). Freedom of Expression and Democracy. Friedrich Naumann Foundation, 1-5. Retrieved from

Goldsmith, D. (2005-2006). Confronting Threats Before They Materialize: The United States and the Overthrow of the Iranian Government. McGill Journal of Middle East Studies, 81-99. Retrieved from

Kalyvas, A. (2019). Democracy and the Poor: Prolegomena to a Radical Theory of Democracy, Constellations, 26(4), 538–553.

Lanza, E. (2019). Protest and Human Rights Standards on the rights involved in social protest and the obligations to guide the response of the State. Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, 3-111. Retrieved from

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Oliver, P., & Cadena-Roa, J., & Strawn, K. (2002). Emerging Trends in the Study of Protest and Social Movements. Research in Political Sociology. 11(1), 1-28.

Rogers. L. (n.a.). Is democracy the best form of government? Retrieved from government-28829.pdf

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Zahrani, M.T. (2002). The Coup That Changed the Middle East: Mossadeq v. The CIA in Retrospect. World Policy Journal. Duke University Press, 19(2), 93-99. Retrieved from

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