Reflections from Dr. Maria J. Stephan’s Talk: The Power and Promise of Nonviolent Action

Disclaimer: The following blog post is not a reflection of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s opinion on the below topics.

By Gabe Sanders.

As I walked briskly into Tripp Commons—a massive room with terrazzo floors and wood panel walls, nestled in the northwestern wing of Memorial Union’s second story—I was approached by Jeremiah Cahill, an affable gentleman who was eager to provide information about the Quaker-led climate action coalition to which he belonged. We found a few open seats toward the back and continued exchanging pleasantries. Mr. Cahill seemed to represent the event’s average attendee: a middle-class Midwesterner who was three times my age and ten times more experienced in nonviolent direct action. Nonetheless, instead of sharing the wealth of personal insights and wisdom he undoubtedly possessed, Mr. Cahill immediately turned his focus to the event’s keynote speaker, Dr. Maria J. Stephan—whose book he clutched in his right hand. I am ashamed to say, I was unfamiliar with Dr. Stephan’s work before that evening; within minutes of stepping foot in Tripp Commons, I had become aware of her venerability. Having yet to utter a single word, she commanded the respect and attention of a room filled with experienced community organizers like Mr. Cahill. And any friend of Mr. Cahill’s was a friend of mine.

After a brief icebreaker and an introductory statement by the Director of the Center for Interfaith Dialogue, Dr. Ulrich Rosenhagen, Dr. Stephan took the podium. The accomplished author and political scientist—whose talk was entitled The Power and Promise of Nonviolent Action—began by thanking the event’s coordinators, including Dr. Rosenhagen and The Nonviolence Project’s Director, Dr. Mou Banerjee. Then, demonstrating a keen understanding of her audience, she identified several personal connections with the practice of interfaith advocacy and the state of Wisconsin. She described growing up in Vermont, where she was exposed to the history of civil resistance by a monastic-owned bookstore, the walls of which were lined with the stories of revered Wisconsin activists like Vel Phillips and Lloyd Barbee. She recalled her interactions with the Rutland Dismas House, a Christian-run re-entry program for formerly incarcerated individuals, which promoted the value of restorative justice. She even paralleled the “cheddar cultures” of Vermont and Wisconsin (wisely refraining from articulating a preference), the latter of which was personified by her colleague at the US Embassy in Afghanistan who expressed his Wisconsin roots by donning a foam Cheesehead, despite living out of a shipping container.

In addition to revealing a “profound faith dimension” of past and present nonviolent struggles, Dr. Stephan’s early experiences with civil resistance helped to inspire her endeavor to uncover which forms have historically been most effective. This would become the central objective of the award-winning book she co-authored with fellow political scientist Erica Chenoweth in 2010, Why Civil Resistance Works—a copy of which now rested on Mr. Cahill’s lap. Focusing on the period from 1900 to 2006, the two authors had used statistical analysis and hundreds of case studies to collate the success rates of violent and nonviolent movements. When success was defined as the removal of an incumbent regime or achievement of self-determination within one year, nonviolent campaigns were more than twice as effective as violent struggles—succeeding roughly 53% of the time, compared with 26%. This rather astounding differential, as Dr. Stephan explained, was attributable in large part to the higher rates of participation in nonviolent movements. In fact, she and Dr. Chenoweth found that no regime remained in power when 3.5% of the population (or more) was actively expressing dissent, and every movement that has reached this threshold has been overwhelmingly nonviolent.

Although these findings alone were fascinating, Dr. Stephan opted for a more constructive and engaging approach than merely reciting the numbers. Over the course of her speech, she used numerous personal anecdotes and historical examples to highlight four key variables for a movement’s success: 1) mass participation, 2) strategic planning and training, 3) tactical innovation, and 4) the ability to anticipate violent repression (and remain disciplined in response). Dr. Stephan considered these variables instantiated by the ousters of Augusto Pinochet in Chile and Slobodan Milošević in Serbia, both of which involved significant numbers of people across institutions withdrawing their consent from the state and thereby stripping it of the labor and legitimacy it needs for survival. Withdrawing consent can take many forms, but in Dr. Stephan’s words, “Acts of organized noncooperation [such as boycotts and labor strikes] tend to pack the biggest punch.” These were defining strategies in the Chilean and Serbian resistance movements, which also benefited from the mobilization of youth. According to Dr. Stephan, the most powerful dissidents tend to be students and retired individuals, whose perceived vulnerability and righteousness make them ideal candidates for drawing widespread attention and solidarity (Seated beside Mr. Cahill, I could not help but marvel once again at Dr. Stephan’s knowledge of her audience—an amalgamation of representatives from the “most powerful” demographics, whose potential for comradeship had been emblematized by our initial encounter).

The four success variables were encapsulated by what Dr. Stephan referred to as “militant nonviolence,” which describes the meticulous strategizing needed to reach sufficient levels of popular support, tactical innovation, and preparedness for violent repression. Although it continues to be employed and promoted by groups like the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, militant nonviolent resistance appears to be somewhat of a lost art. On Dr. Stephan’s diagnosis, the past few decades have seen a precipitous drop in the overall success rate of movements seeking regime change, in part due to a decline in militancy. In this era of social media-driven discourse, campaigns for justice are relatively easy to launch but exceedingly difficult to sustain, diluting the power of grassroots organizers to effect structural change. Dr. Stephan did not, however, conclude from this that social media inherently engenders a lack of discipline or inventiveness. On the contrary, she believes that apps like TikTok can (and should) play a critically important role in educating and training the masses in the practice of strategic nonviolence.

What is most concerning to Dr. Stephan is the significant authoritarian adaptation that has taken place, contributing not only to the decline in longevity and militancy of social movements, but also to the subversion of democratic norms and institutions across the globe. This includes the United States, where latent and overt efforts to undermine the will of the people have recently manifested in book banning, the revocation of fundamental rights, and an assault on the integrity of American elections. Overseas, extreme political violence continues to define the realities of people living in the midst of geopolitical conflict. The Russia-Ukraine and Israel-Hamas wars have wreaked havoc on civilian populations and engendered innumerable atrocities. Still, Dr. Stephan emphasized that the prevalence of civil resistance in these regions, both currently and historically, should not be understated. Ukrainians have formed peaceful blockades, sung protest songs, and built mutual aid networks—in turn receiving nonviolent displays of international solidarity, including from courageous Russian citizens. Likewise, as Dr. Stephan learned while working on her dissertation in the West Bank, the civil disobedience employed by Palestinians during the First Intifada was uniquely effective at garnering support from the American government and even mobilizing Israeli Jews. Ultimately, Dr. Stephan imbued her concluding message with a sense of hope regarding the liberation of all who face persecution and a call to nonviolent action for all who oppose tyranny.

The speech received a standing ovation and was followed by a series of audience questions, which received insightful responses. After the Q&A, I bid my good friend Mr. Cahill farewell and made my way to the front of the room, where Dr. Stephan was signing books and engaging in further dialogue with members of the audience. More than two hours had passed since the event commenced, and I was one of the last people in line to speak with her. Nonetheless, she provided thoughtful answers to each of my questions and even invited me to share my own perspectives, treating me as an intellectual equal in spite of the chasmic gap in the impressiveness of our résumés. That Wednesday, at 10 PM, I emerged from Tripp Commons with two things of tremendous value: Dr. Maria J. Stephan’s business card and a renewed faith in The Power and Promise of Nonviolent Action.