A huge swath of the Tunisian population—available survey data suggest almost 20 percent—participated in the surprising and successful revolution that culminated in the ouster of the authoritarian Ben Ali regime in 2011. The collective efforts of the protesters yielded results of historic proportions and were followed by the country’s first truly free and fair elections in which an array of viable parties participated and the new Assembly would be charged with writing a new constitution. In short, Tunisians had an opportunity for a “fresh start” politically.
In a new article in Politics, we take advantage of this unique set of circumstances to answer a simple, but critical question: were individuals who were swept up in the revolutionary protests more likely to turnout to express themselves politically in the elections that followed? We leverage data from an original survey we fielded in Tunisia in the summer of 2012 that asked respondents about their protest participation as well as whether they voted in the Constituent Assembly elections that followed Ben Ali’s ouster.
We find surprisingly paltry evidence that protesters were more likely to turn out than non-protesters. A simple bivariate comparison shows that protesters were only about 5 percentage points more likely to say they voted than their non-protesting counterparts—almost 30 percent of those who reported engaging in the costly act of protesting against an authoritarian regime reported that they did not participate in the election the protests yielded. Once we control for a handful of stable demographic characteristics, the estimated difference in turnout between protesters and non-protesters dwindles to 2.5 percentage points and falls short of conventional thresholds of statistical significance.
Existing work suggests that younger people are more socially and psychologically impressionable and, thus, may be more susceptible to the socializing effects of an experience like participating in revolutionary protests. However, we find that the relationship between protest participation is weaker among younger Tunisians—a group that played a critical role in the revolution.
We explore several potential explanations for these surprising findings. First, we replicate our analysis using data from the Third Wave of the Arab Barometer and find similar patterns. Second, we consider the possibility that young protesters systematically differed from their non-protesting counterparts in their political attitudes in ways that cut against the socializing effects of participation. However we find little evidence that differences in attitudes about the major political parties that emerged in Tunisia, support for democracy, interest in politics, or attitudes about separation of church and state can explain why we find no relationship between protest participation and turnout among young Tunisians.
The only suggestive evidence we find that the revolutionary protests politically socialized participants is that these protesters were far more likely to report participating in protests that followed the elections than those who did not participate in the revolution. Our data do not allow us to sort out whether this relationship stems from a pattern where those who participated in both types of protests simply had pre-existing dispositions that made protesting attractive or if the experience of participation in the revolutionary protests fostered a narrower “protest-focused” political identity.
Overall, our efforts to take advantage of a unique historical situation to investigate the potential for major events to politically socialize participants cast doubt on the notion that dramatic and successful political efforts necessarily “activate” participants and promote broader patterns of political participation.
All work at Loyola University Chicago’s Department of Political Science