Why Civil Resistance Works: Award-Winning Author Dr. Maria J. Stephan Speaks at UW-Madison

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

By Ian Cata

At 7pm on November 15th, the UW Center for Interfaith Dialogue alongside the Interfaith Peace Working Group with help from the Nonviolence Project, hosted Dr. Maria J. Stephan for a talk on the efficacy of nonviolent campaigns.

Dr. Stephan began her talk by finding common ground between the crowd of Wisconsinites before her and herself, a Vermonter. She cheekily connected the two states’ love of dairy products and poked fun at the cheesy rivalry (pun intended) between the two states. She then effortlessly wove in her background and what led her to study nonviolence. Dr. Stephen has quite an impressive resume; She began her career at the State Department before spending time at the Pentagon and eventually working for NATO. Her work took her across the globe and into conflict zones, which ultimately led her to question the efficacy of the armed conflicts she witnessed. This question led her and her co-author, Erica Chenoweth, to write the award-winning book Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict.

The two collected data and analyzed over 330 major violent and nonviolent political campaigns over the past century and their findings were shocking to many. They found that nonviolent campaigns succeeded twice as often as violent campaigns. Additionally, they found that successful nonviolent campaigns tend to produce more peaceful societies whereas successful violent campaigns are almost always accompanied by further atrocities and violence. Nonviolent campaigns have often been posited as rare inspiring moments in history, but finally, there is evidence that not only are they more common than thought, but more successful than violent campaigns.

Dr. Stephan spent the next hour focusing on the handful of key factors that lead to an efficient and successful nonviolent campaign. The first key step to building a successful campaign is mass and diverse participation. An advantage that nonviolent movements have over violent ones is that anyone can participate. Where violent insurgencies may rely on or recruit only young and strong men, anyone regardless of age, gender, and creed, can participate in a nonviolent campaign. With a larger pool to pull from, it is key that a wide diverse array of people participate. Nonviolent campaigns with only youth participation can make it easier for a government to target participants and effectively kill a movement. Yet, when you have a diverse array of ages from a diverse set of backgrounds, the legitimacy of a movement is enhanced and becomes even more powerful. The magical number for participation is 3.5. According to Dr. Stephan, no regime has remained in power when 3.5% or more of the population has engaged in active protest. While 3.5% may seem like a small and attainable number it is much easier said than done and often will require coalitions to be made. You can’t get to 3.5% by mobilizing only your allies with the same ideologies as you. Broad coalitions are key in the face of governments armed with weapons and tactics, finding common ground is critical. It is important to avoid demonizing potential allies when forming a nonviolent campaign; they could make the difference between failure and success.

Another key Dr. Stephan outlined was tactical innovation. When conducting a nonviolent campaign, you will find yourself up against governments armed to the teeth who will stop at nothing to squash your movement. How can you stay nonviolent when faced with bullets, tear gas, curfews, surveillance, and more? You get creative. There are thousands of methods of civil disobedience that have been used over the years, all born out of suppression. Dr. Stephen highlighted some of her favorite and most creative forms she has seen utilized. The first was the use of umbrellas during the Hong Kong protests in 2014. Protestors utilized umbrellas to shield themselves from tear gas and water cannons, and soon the umbrella became the symbol of their movement. In another case in Syria, activists painted hundreds of ping pong balls red and spilled them down hills, filling the streets with “blood”. Another group humorously attached political signs to stray cats and dogs and had them roam the streets.

The next key she highlighted was discipline. Nonviolent movements can last years, even decades, and it is important that the coalitions built remain strong as time passes. Governments know the power of organization and will invest in trying to get movements to turn violent to divide the movement and diminish participation. Movements must stay aware and vigilant surrounding external actors that governments may send in to infiltrate and disrupt their movement. Ultimately it is key that no matter how long a movement is drawn out, participants must stay nonviolent.

Lastly, Dr. Stephan spoke of the importance of external support in creating successful nonviolent campaigns. External support can help a movement stay alive longer and build up stronger, however, it is important to note that where external support goes is key. According to Dr. Stephan and Erica Chenoweth’s research, support for training and peer learning is the most consistently helpful form of external support. Additionally, investment in community care and mutual-aid networks is extremely helpful as well. By helping movements become more self-sufficient, the chance of their longevity and success rises.

Dr. Maria Stephan ended her talk with some interesting and concerning statistics. The number of nonviolent movements globally has exploded, yet, the success rate has plummeted. Her theory for this change is that there has been a rise in authoritarian learning and adaptation. Tools like surveillance have become incredibly advanced and have the power to censor and track those who wish to rise up against regimes. But at the end of the day, there is hope because as we have seen with each new oppressive tactic, a nonviolent one is developed to circumvent it.