Does Protest Turnout Affect Regulatory Policy?: Anti-Nuclear Energy Protests During the 1970s-90s

By James Sanders, Christopher Dann, Irene Kyoung, Rafae Qazi, Jintao Zhu, and Yihan Zhu, London School of Economics and Bowdoin College

Our research aims to quantify the impact of protest turnout on legislative change. Specifically, we formulate a two-period model to explain the behaviour of legislators when faced with a variety of protest turnouts and preferences of the median voter. We theorise that legislator payoffs are non-linearly affected by (1) the size of protests; (2) what they then infer about the preferences of the median voter; and (3) the legislator’s own preferences towards the policy. Instead of being purely office-seeking, a legislator’s payoff is negatively impacted by civil unrest which allows turnouts that represent a lower proportion of the electorate to still have large impacts on behaviour. To test the implications of our model, we conduct an empirical study within the context of anti-nuclear energy protests in the United States throughout the 1970s to early 1990s. Legislative change is operationalised via changes in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) budget, which is debated and voted upon in the House and Senate. We use a lagged time series model to estimate the impact of protests on the proceeding year’s NRC budget. We hypothesise that nuclear disasters can be used as a tool of legitimacy for protestors—it provides evidence that the motivations for their actions are justified. The results suggest that, in expectation, every additional anti-nuclear energy protestor increased the Nuclear Regulatory Committee’s annual budget by around $220 over two years, holding other covariates constant.

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