fbpx Nonviolent Resistance in the Age of Authoritarians | Harvard Kennedy School
Douglas A. Johnson Photo

Douglas A. Johnson

Lecturer in Public Policy


The rise of democratically elected authoritarians presents a new challenge to movements for social change and justice. Over the past two decades, a new type of repressive state has developed, what Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán calls the “non-liberal democracy.” These authoritarian, populist leaders have come into power through elections, then used their parliamentary majorities to alter the rules and processes of governance to guarantee their hold on power, undermining the independence of judiciaries and election systems, using fear of minorities to stimulate internal conflict and hatred, and criminalizing civil society.

This course will combine the study of historical non-violent struggles for social justice with a look at the conditions current resistance faces from today’s elected authoritarian systems and personalities. Using the processes of design thinking, students will workshop alternative approaches to challenge authoritarian projects from  Hungary, Poland, and Turkey, to Nicaragua and Venezuela, to The Philippines and elsewhere, using the principles of effective civil resistance to defend democracy., Learning methods will include case-studies, discussion of insights and frameworks from the rich literature on social movements and non-violent action, debate exercises, simulation and role-play, peer-to-peer consulting and in class discussion of student projects. Students will work in small groups on a particular challenge and will present their strategic nonviolent approach in class. There will be several guest lectures by inspiring current activists. This class will benefit both experienced and aspiring social justice leaders, as well as anyone with an interest in thinking and acting strategically to uphold the values of liberal democracy. 

Students with a strong interest in organizing social change are urged to take this course in conjunction with MLD 377: Organizing: People, Power, and Change.