Launch a Movement With Only 3.5% of the Population

Erica Chenoweth is a political scientist from Harvard University who has proven that compelling social change through nonviolence is not only credible but far more effective.

Erica Chenoweth is a political scientist from Harvard University who has proven that compelling social change through nonviolence is not only credible but far more effective. Chenoweth’s research couldn’t come at a better time in human history. Her research gives credence to the non-violence philosophies of activists like Gandhi and MLK. It also creates a workable model for groups like the Extinction Rebellion who's mission is to push governments to act in planet-saving efforts against climate change. 

In this article, we will explore why non-violent protests prevail. We’ll also discuss the steps that passionate activists can take to organize a protest.


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Non-Violent Campaigns are Twice as Likely to Win

Over the last hundred years, non-violent campaigns have proven twice as likely to succeed as armed resistance. Erica researched various conflicts around the world and found it to be true the world over. Americans believe the old proverb “speak softly and carry a big stick.” This is an understandable if misguided mentality for the folks with the largest stick budget in the world. According to Chenoweth’s research, sticks aren’t required. All you need to breathe life into a resistance campaign is organized civil disobedience involving 3.5% of the population. 

Think about a war for a moment. When militaries march in to compel change, their primary objective is occupation. They want to instill their own rules, leaders, and political advantages. That means a certain level of destruction. The destruction hampers any kind of government intervention to change their ways themselves. The occupied government can’t negotiate, concede, or relent if they can’t control their own power structure. (Not to mention that military incursion disrupts if not outright destroys the day-to-day lives of citizens). Chenoweth researched 323 violent and non-violent conflicts alike from 1900 to 2006. Her research revealed that non-violent forms of protest are much more effective (and faster) because they disrupt the lives of people in power. 

The success of this distinction is simple. Strength in numbers, the same concept that has kept humanity adapting for thousands of years. People who hide behind oppression are few. The people affected by their decisions are many. Non-violent campaigns are 53% more likely to achieve their objectives within one year of the height of their engagement.  

Violent Protest Fails Because Most People Aren’t Violent

Think back to the Women’s March of 2017. How many of those women would have shown up to march on Washington if they had been given AK-47s to brandish instead of pink cat hats? The bottom line is that people generally wouldn’t consider hurting another person, even if that was the only way to get their point across. Violence is an excluding force. It’s also illegal, so any campaign that has chosen to employ violence has crossed the line into terrorism. Once that happens, all their activities have to remain secret. This, in turn, limits their ability to recruit new supporters. The extra expense to get weapons and supplies also uses up resources. These resources could have been used to attract new supporters. Violent protests depend on participants willing to carry out harm and destruction.

The beauty of a non-violent movement is that anyone can participate. Non-violent movements only require a supporter to show up. There are no physical requirements for them. No weapons to fire, no physical fitness benchmarks to meet. A disabled man can easily walk out of his office to participate in a strike against unfair wages. He would have a far more difficult time trying to ransack that same establishment. 

Though non-violent movements or protests of any kind might be illegal in certain areas of the world, none are considered immoral. This fact allows leaders to spread their message farther and wider. They can gain more support the more people learn about their campaign. Holding this moral high ground means that law enforcement and military groups are more likely to stand in support of the masses. After all, these are their neighbors, after all, their friends, family, and teachers. This makes it unlikely they will respond with brute force. This response is even less likely when they don’t have the strength of numbers on their side. 

The Importance of Numbers

Many non-violent campaigns still fail to achieve their goals, even with overwhelming support. Chenoweth’s 3.5% rule shows the level of satisfaction the people have with their government leadership. The number of people participating in a non-violent demonstration shows that more people support them. Perhaps this new indicator will become the standard for government powers to commit to positive change. 


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Check out more of Chenoweth’s research to discover why non-violent protests win most often. Need help with your organization? Try NationBuilder. We help advocacy organizations just like yours learn how to campaign for change. We also offer a digital fundraising course if you’re interested in growing your donor base. Contact NationBuilder to learn more!

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