THEY REACH OUT TO ERICA CHENOWETH ALMOST DAILY—from Africa, South America, the Middle East, Europe, even the United States. They hail from places where authoritarian officials are tightening their grip, where repression is on the rise, and where citizens are mobilizing against governments they want to unseat. Their inquiries usually boil down to one key question: How can we win without resorting to violence?

Chenoweth’s painstaking research, unprecedented in its scope and historical breadth, has shed new light on the understanding of civil resistance, political change, and the surprising effectiveness of nonviolent action.

Portrait of Erica Chenoweth.

It has made Chenoweth, a professor of public policy at Harvard Kennedy School and a Susan S. and Kenneth L. Wallach Professor at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, one of an elite group of global experts on civil resistance. She is sought out both for her remarkable chronicling of nonviolent movements and for her understanding of what can potentially make or break them.

With authoritarianism and populist nationalism on the rise worldwide, the importance of a carefully constructed empirical foundation has grown each year, she says. “Certainly I didn’t think when I started down the path of this research that that would be the case.”

Chenoweth was a predoctoral fellow at the Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs from 2006 to 2008 when she and fellow researcher Maria Stephan—who had just earned her PhD at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy—started studying the topic. Inspired by other leading civil resistance scholars such as Gene Sharp, Peter Ackerman, and Kurt Schock, they collected data about every violent and nonviolent mass action from 1900 to 2006—323 of them in all—and analyzed them in the context of 160 variables. Chenoweth expected that violent movements would be shown to be more successful in overthrowing the regimes they were opposing. The data proved her wrong.

Countries where resistance campaigns were nonviolent were 10 times as likely to transition to democracy compared to countries where resistance turned violent—regardless of whether the campaign succeeded or failed in the short term. Even when nonviolent campaigns were not immediately successful, Chenoweth and Stephan found, they still tended to empower moderates or reformers within the ruling elites who would gradually initiate changes. Chenoweth points to the Kefaya movement in Egypt in the early 2000s and its likely influence on the organization of the 2011 uprisings against the regime of President Hosni Mubarak. Similarly, the Defiance Campaign in South Africa that was suppressed by mass arrests in the 1950s eventually reemerged in the late 1980s as the movement that ultimately ended apartheid.

Chenoweth and Stephan collected their research in their seminal 2011 book, Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict, which became a touchstone for subsequent conversations and research on resistance movements. Further research showed the surprisingly small critical mass needed for success: movements that were able to mobilize at least 3.5 percent of the population were uniformly successful.

The key ingredients of a successful nonviolent resistance movement, the researchers found, are:

  1. A large and diverse population of participants that can be sustained over time.
  2. The ability to create loyalty shifts among key regime-supporting groups such as business elites, state media, and—most important—security elites such as the police and the military.
  3. A creative and imaginative variation in methods of resistance beyond mass protest.
  4. The organizational discipline to face direct repression without having the movement fall apart or opt for violence.

Chenoweth says that the third and fourth attributes may be both the most important and the least understood, particularly the need for creativity and imagination. Street protests often lead to violent repression, and it is the protesters' actions taken after authorities try to take back the streets that can make or break a resistance movement.

Creative responses have included stay-at-home strikes in which protesters have banged pots and pans while remaining indoors. In Morocco in 2011, organizers planned a day to display the colors of the national flag, but instead of carrying banners into streets lined with security forces, the protesters released scores of Marrakesh’s infamous stray cats—whose fur had been dyed in patriotic colors.

“Injecting humor into places where the government has complete control is essential in breaking down, in people’s minds, the invincibility of the regime,” she says.

Smart Repression

Chenoweth says success also means thinking beyond social media, particularly for young activists who are accustomed to instant and easy mass communication. Social media can organize large numbers of people in a short time, but authoritarians have also learned how to use it to their own advantage, to the point where, she says, the world is now in an “age of smart repression.”

“My sense is that regimes have basically caught up to whatever advantage there was to the internet for activists,” she says. “The internet provides lots of opportunity for more narrow, discriminating repression that’s more effective than the blunt, brute force that would take place in the streets.”

In one case in Sudan during 2011’s Arab Spring, the regime of then-President Omar al-Bashir feared that it might face an uprising, so its security services created a fake event on Facebook designed to look like a protest organized by young activists. As many as 17,000 people responded, and the would-be protesters who showed up were rounded up by security forces. Interrogations and authorities’ subsequent access to the protesters’ Facebook contacts led to even more arrests.

“It requires imagination and creativity. It requires organization. And it requires courage and discipline.”

Erica Chenoweth

Organization is another key element of successful nonviolent movements that is underappreciated and not fully understood, Chenoweth says. Solid organizational structures are important not only for weathering repression when things get tough but also for helping pave the way for sustained success when repressive regimes actually do give up power.

“That is so much of what Gandhi talked about: having a constructive program, creating alternative institutions, and actually building the society you are trying to achieve,” she says. “In Poland, the Solidarity movement built its own newspaper, its own schools, and even its own self-governing coalition in areas of resistance.”

One challenge to organization, especially in the Western world, Chenoweth says, is that progressive movements full of freethinkers tend to be fragmented and often internally contentious. Participants in right-wing movements, meanwhile, are easier to organize because they tend to be more ideologically oriented to following authority.

“In emergencies, people in left-leaning or progressive movements can agree on the problem, so progressive movements tend to rally around a key moment or an emergency,” she says. “But this means they are often reacting to crises rather than taking the initiative or proposing a consensus-based solution to the problem.”

Complicating things further, she says, there is often less agreement in democracies about what exactly constitutes a crisis, and the energy around mobilization for change gets pushed into election cycles.

“People tend to think the way we create change is through elections, and the result is an overconfidence in elections,” she says. “During election cycles, people divert their energies away from community organization and mobilization in a way that makes it hard to sustain a mode of extra-institutional struggle.”

Accessible Insights

Chenoweth says she’s gratified that her research has become a resource for nonviolent resisters, but she says she’s circumspect when they reach out to her directly for help.

“I feel a responsibility to communicate this information effectively but also to communicate the limits of our knowledge—and there is a real tension between being an observer and being a participant,” she says. “I get a lot of emails or correspondence, multiple times a week. I don’t provide direct advice, but I suggest resources for people.”

Collage of images showing, the Women’s March in Washington, D.C. (2017), the Arab Awakenings (2010–2011), Latin American Democracy Campaigns (1944), and the South African Anti-Apartheid movement (1954–1994).

Many autocratic regimes accuse nonviolent dissidents of engaging in foreign-backed conspiracies against them. So, for both her own sake and the sake of the people who reach out to her for help, Chenoweth says, she must avoid any perception that her research, the University, and/or the United States are pulling the strings of a nonviolent conflict from afar. This can be difficult for someone who has become so closely aligned with an idea—successful nonviolent resistance—that is so important to so many people.

“She wants her research to matter. She truly is a public intellectual, I deeply admire that about her,” says her co-author Stephan, who is now the director of the Program on Nonviolent Action at the United States Institute of Peace, an independent, nonpartisan agency funded directly by Congress. “We have both prioritized making our research available to a broad audience and making it our life’s work.”

“The line that we don’t cross is offering strategic and tactical advice to activists. We can offer the research as generalizable findings on the efficacy of civil resistance and offer key takeaways from the research that are relevant and examples across cases,” Stephan says. “Offering cross-case comparisons and analysis I think is really helpful to activists in different environments. But the line-crossing is suggesting or prescribing a course of action. That’s a huge risk.”

What Chenoweth does instead is point people to her research and other sources that spell out best practices for successful nonviolent resistance. Although some people may think that passion, principle, and a robust social media strategy are enough to launch a resistance movement, she says, actual success requires much more.

“It’s hard,” Chenoweth says. “And it requires imagination and creativity. It requires organization. And it requires courage and discipline.”

Looking to the future, Chenoweth is currently collecting data on nonviolent actions in the United States with Jeremy Pressman, an associate professor at the University of Connecticut. Their project, called the Crowd Counting Consortium, has catalogued more than 8,700 protests dating back to the Women’s March in January 2017. So far, their data shows that from six to nine million Americans protested in 2017—between 1.8 and 2.8 percent of the U.S. population—and that 89 percent of those people were rallying against the Trump administration and its agenda.

Chenoweth is also continuing her outreach to activists everywhere through a new book, Civil Resistance: What Everyone Needs to Know, due out in early 2020. The book will contain updates on her previous research on effective nonviolent resistance, including new charts to help readers visualize the data, and new knowledge that other researchers have produced.

“I hope it’s something that reflects the incredible insight that researchers have gained over the years about nonviolent resistance,” she says. “I’m just trying to make it as accessible as possible.”

Banner images by Getty and Reuters; Portrait by Raychel Casey

Get smart & reliable public policy insights right in your inbox.