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People Protesting Donald Trump. But When Does Protest Actually Work?

Above Photo: Students march against President-elect Donald Trump on the campus of the University of California at Los Angeles on Nov. 10. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images)

The politics of dissent is back in the United States. Since 2011, the country has witnessed the resurgence of popular action — from Occupy Wall Street to Flood Wall Street to Black Lives Matter to Standing Rock. Since Nov. 8, many Americans have participated in protests and marches in nearly every major city in opposition to Donald Trump’s election — or to counterprotest in defense of it.

Recent data from around the world suggest that popular action is here to stay. In particular, civil resistance — where unarmed civilians confront opponents using protests, strikes, boycotts, stay-aways and other forms of nonviolent contention — is the most common form of struggle today.

The United States’ own recent tumult is part of this global resurgence of civil resistance, as Maria Stephan and I argued at the Monkey Cage in January. And yet, this resurgence is commonly misunderstood or misrepresented. Here I offer up 10 established social science insights about unarmed dissent that everyone should know.

  1. Historically speaking, nonviolent struggle is a more effective technique than violent struggle. Among movements aimed at a country’s central leadership, nonviolent resistance has been twice as likely to succeed as armed struggle in the short term. Kathleen Cunningham has also found that nonviolent action is more successful than armed action in self-determination disputes. Moreover, nonviolent resistance campaigns are 10 times more likely to usher in democratic institutions than violent ones. Armed resistance actually tends to weaken democracy in previously democratic countries, while nonviolence resistance has no such effect.
  2. The number and diversity of mass movements matters. The success of mass movements is largely driven by their size. The average nonviolent campaign is about 11 times as large (as a proportion of the population) than the average violent campaign. An increase in the number and diversity of participants may signal the movement’s potential to succeed. This is particularly true if people who are not ordinarily activists begin to participate — and if various classes, ethnicities, ages, genders, geographies and other social categories are represented.
  3. Nonviolent discipline is crucial — especially when the dissidents represent a minority. Every movement that seriously challenges the status quo eventually experiences repression. How the movement responds to repression helps determine its staying power. Movements that respond to repression with rioting or street fighting tend to fizzle out. Those that respond by turning to armed insurgency tend to fail as well — often after long, bloody conflicts that kill many innocent people. But movements that respond to such repression with unity, resolve and discipline often succeed. Nonviolent discipline in the face of repression often requires advance coordination, training, preparation and decentralization.
  4. Mixing violence with nonviolent action rarely leads to change. Adopting or embracing “violent flanks” — where some protesters use violence while the majority of the movement remains nonviolent — does not generally help nonviolent campaigns succeed. Those that do succeed with violent flanks tend to do so despite the violent flanks. (See Omar Wasow’s study of how riots and violent protests altered public opinion and voting behavior in the United States from 1960 to 1975, and Emiliano Huet-Vaughn’s study of the effect of violence on the success of protests in France.) People who argue that violence and property destruction are necessary for success are dangerously misinformed.
  5. Flexible and innovative techniques are key. Movements that rely too much on single methods — such as protests, petitions or rallies — are less likely to win in the end. Nor does “clicktivism” necessarily equate to successful resistance. Kurt Schock’s work tells us that movements need to shift their techniques — particularly between concentrated methods such as demonstrations and dispersed methods such as strikes and stay-aways — to succeed. In particular, movements tend to be likelier to succeed when they shift to lower-risk tactics, such as stay-aways, when repression becomes intense. Or, as in the case of the Nashville lunch-counter sit-ins of 1958, some movements use silent marches as a way to both show tremendous symbolic power while maintaining nonviolent discipline in the face of tragedy.
  6. The aim is to change incentives, not to melt hearts. Notably, dissidents rarely win because of appeals to their opponents’ conscience or attacks on the morality of their adversary. Instead, a key insight from Gene Sharp’s work(and Hannah Arendt’s before him) is that no power holders can maintain the status quo without the support and acquiescence of thousands — or even millions — of people who routinely cooperate with them. This can include economic elites, civil servants, cultural authorities and security forces. Successful movements tend to shift the allegiances of various elites and loyalists within these societal pillars. Defection, desertion or noncooperation by security forces can be especially important. For example, in one well-known episode, Serbian police refused to fire on protesters demanding Slobodan Milosevic’s resignation in October 2000. When asked, those police remarked that they didn’t shoot because they saw familiar faces — including their children — in the crowd.
  7. Success takes time. The average nonviolent campaign takes about three years to run its course (that’s more than three times as short as the average violent campaign, by the way). These things do not unfold overnight.
  8. Planning and staying on the offensive is more effective than improvising on the defensiveIt’s crucial to have a strategy — with a defined end goal — from which tactics flow. For instance, movements with an overarching organization are more likely to succeed despite government crackdowns than are disorganized protests. There are several practical guides to developing strategy, including this one put together by veteran activists or this one put together by War Resisters’ International. Of course, this also means that effective nonviolent action is more about meetings, planning and coordination than it is about the actions themselves. A veteran activist once told me that “95 percent of our time was spent in planning and preparation; 5 percent of our time was spent doing actions.”
  9. The jury is still out regarding the most effective form of movement organization. On the one hand, scholars agree that internal cohesion and a collective vision are necessary for movement success and resilience. On the other hand, concentrating leadership into a single figurehead can be extremely dangerous for movements. Overall, what consensus has emerged suggests that movements need leadership, but diffused or shared leadership is more resilient than elevating a charismatic leader. The key is to have enough coherence to be able to move together and enough decentralization to produce innovation and evade the most severe forms of repression.
  10. People used nonviolent resistance against Hitler — and it saved countless lives. Although it took a world war to conquer Hitler’s rule and end the Holocaust, acts of civil disobedience were crucial to the survival of tens of thousands of people under Nazi occupation — an astonishing feat in the face of a determined, exterminatory regime. The best accounting of these coordinated and uncoordinated acts of civil resistance against the Nazis appears in the work of Jacques Sémelin.

There are numerous resources available for those interested in teaching and learning about nonviolent resistance. I recommend the useful resources available at the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, the Albert Einstein Institution and the Swarthmore Global Nonviolent Action Database. Various other readings are listed here.

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