On April 22, 2017, nearly 1 million people across the United States participated in the March for Science. This was true even though the weather was sometimes uncooperative. Marchers in Philadelphia donned ponchos and rain gear but turned out in droves nonetheless. Some even braved snowstorms, such as the 15,000-to-20,000 protesters who showed up in Denver. Since then, scientists and the pro-science public have resisted budget cuts to federal scientific agencies, demanded that the United States maintain its obligations under the Paris Accords to combat climate change, and conveyed the message that a commitment to scientific inquiry and innovation is a fundamental characteristic of democratic life.
Of course, after months of sustained mass protests, it is natural for people to question the effectiveness of such actions. After all, the United States withdrew from the Paris Accords. The Trump White House appears both characteristically unstable and stubbornly intransigent. Congress appears to be headed for a long-term collision with the White House over the federal budget, the debt ceiling, and the continued inability to produce a replacement for Obamacare. White supremacist groups have not appeared to decline in their power or popular appeal. And Trump’s base has stood by their man, maintaining steady and loyal approval for his presidency.
So, what has been the effect of the March for Science—and the other movements like it? What does the evidence actually show? Although there are no formulas for effective civil resistance, there are patterns and trends that emerge from data analyses conducted by social scientists over the past few decades.
In fact, the effective practice of civil resistance is, itself, something of a science. Civil resistance is a method of struggle where people confront and disrupt the status quo through a series of coordinated techniques—protests, demonstrations, sit-ins, strikes, boycotts, and other forms of noncooperation—to produce political and social change. The research of social scientists shows that successful movements have some remarkably consistent characteristics. And the emerging resistance against Trump’s agenda possesses all of them.
The four habits of highly effective movements. First, movements that tend to draw in and sustain large numbers of committed participants from diverse backgrounds are much more likely to succeed. In fact, between 1900 and 2006, no mass movement to topple a government failed after mobilizing 3.5 percent or more of the country’s population. This is why the Women’s March on Washington and its affiliated sister marches on January 21 were such important events. According to the Crowd Counting Consortium, on that day marchers numbered well over 4 million people, which is about 1 percent of the United States population—a staggeringly high proportion. In fact, participants in the Women’s March outnumbered erstwhile record numbers of protesters against the Vietnam War, the first Earth Day celebrations in 1970, and the mobilization against the Iraq War in 2003, making January 21 likely to be the largest single-day demonstration in recorded United States history. The Women’s March therefore demonstrated the capacity of people in the United States to mobilize “bigly”—a capacity that the Science March again demonstrated, with its own mass participation base.
Second, movements that rely on nonviolent methods of contention—strikes, boycotts, protests, various forms of noncooperation, demonstrations, sit-ins, and other nonviolent interventions—are more likely to succeed than those that rely on street fighting, riots, and other violent forms of resistance. In a project with Maria J. Stephan, she and I collected existing protest datasets, pored over old newspaper accounts, oral histories, and interviews with protestors about the nature of a resistance movement, and compiled a data set of mass nonviolent and violent campaigns to compare their success rates. From 1900-2006, nonviolent mass movements around the world aiming to topple dictators or achieve territorial self-determination succeeded twice as often as their violent counterparts.
This finding bears repeating: Nonviolent mass movements succeeded twice as often as their violent counterparts.
Within the United States, a seminal study by Boston College sociologist William Gamson demonstrated that political organizations were far more likely to achieve concessions and win their demands when they used forms of protest that stopped short of violence—especially disruptive forms of protest. And more recently, Princeton University political scientist Omar Wasow’s research showed that during the Civil Rights Movement, nonviolent black protesters tended to elicit sympathy from white observers, who subsequently were more inclined to vote for candidates favoring civil rights reforms. In contrast, where protestors used violence or riots, these actions tended to repel white observers, leading them to vote for candidates who promised to restore “law and order.” Notably, both nonviolent and violent protestors during the Civil Rights movement were brutalized by police and white supremacist groups, regardless of whether the protesters remained nonviolent or not. In other words, history tells us that dissidents demanding radical change have experienced repression no matter how they dissent. But when they respond to acts of brutality with nonviolent civil resistance, it’s likelier that the repression against them backfires. Nonviolent action tends to yield sympathy from bystanders and the public.
A third insight from existing scholarship is that movements are more likely to succeed when they are able to remain resilient when repression escalates against them. One way to remain resilient is to rely on a variety of different nonviolent methods—more than just protests and marches—that allow people to participate without exposing them to unnecessary risks. For example, general strikes, where people remain in their homes, are often highly disruptive techniques that do not require a great deal of physical risk. General strikes played major roles in the ousting of the communist regime in Poland during the Solidarity movement, the overthrow of the Shah of Iran during the Iranian Revolution, and the People Power revolution in the Philippines in 1986. This is also why movements that rely on a single method of contention—like marches or protests—rarely succeed. We saw this in movements as varied as Occupy Wall Street (which tended to involve occupations and tent cities), the first few months of the Syrian Uprising (which was overwhelmingly reliant on Friday demonstrations), and the Muslim Brotherhood’s resistance against General al-Sisi’s rise in Egypt (which was over-reliant on sit-ins).
Fourth, movements that win tend to create meaningful defections within the opponent’s pillars of support. Every government possess a series of pillars—civilian workers, media elites, police and military, elected officials, business and economic elites, cultural authorities, etcetera—that allow it to maintain power. But these pillars are not monolithic; inside each of them are true believers, opportunists, and others that the government relies upon for their continual cooperation and help. Movements that succeed tend to create divisions within some of these pillars, dislocating the powerholder from his sources of support. It’s notable, for instance, that many officials within the energy and environmental sectors have resigned in protest of Trump’s policies. Mayors nationwide have committed to upholding their obligations under the Paris Accord, with or without the cooperation of the White House. Mass movements essentially give such defectors a nudge, encouraging them to engage in noncooperation or pull away entirely from the powerholder.
A few observations. By poring through the record, social scientists have found some other common factors in the success of a given movement. Notably, the average nonviolent movement takes about three years to succeed, indicating that hard-nosed assessments of this emerging movement’s outcomes are premature. In the interim, mass mobilizations like the March for Science can set agendas, demonstrate a willingness and a capacity to resist, and obtain media attention. Of course, the March for Science was part of a broader set of mobilizations challenging the Trump administration’s agenda. The Inauguration Day protests and the Women’s March on Washington kicked off a particularly rocky start for the Trump White House. A Day Without an Immigrant and the Women’s Strike followed in February and March. On April 29, hundreds of thousands participated in a nationwide Climate March. And nearly every weekend since has featured some large-scale mobilization—including the March for Truth, demonstrations against federal budget cuts to environmental and scientific agencies, LGBTQ Pride, protests against the repeal of Obamacare, rallies against white supremacy, and vigils for peace. With the exception of Charlottesville, Virginia—where a 20-year-old neo-Nazi drove a car into a crowd of counter-protestors, killing one and injuring 19 others—remarkably few of these incidents have produced any major violence. The key for this emergent resistance now is to coordinate these disparate groups and leverage the clear capacity for sustained mobilization into a coherent “movement of movements” with concrete demands.
This creates, of course, a tension for scientists, who tend to want to remain apolitical and impartial as part of their commitment to scientific objectivity, as a previous Bulletin author noted in the Voices essay “Speaking up for science.” In truth, it’s a hard time for scientists to be neutral even if they wanted to be. If you are a believer in fact, objectivity, intellectual freedom, scientific progress, or designing sustainable systems in any technical field, then the current administration has demonstrated open hostility on your values. This is especially true for scientists who also belong to marginalized communities, such as black, indigenous, and people of color, LGBTQ people, and people with disabilities.
Ultimately, those involved in organizing the March for Science and its affiliated actions have to decide whether they are in it for the long haul with the other various groups and organizations that have been mobilizing, or whether the March for Science was largely a one-off symbolic gesture. But if historical data provide any guide, the movement to resist Trump’s agenda will make its own destiny if it meets all four critical tasks: expanding and diversifying its base of supporters; maintaining nonviolent discipline; remaining resilient in the face of repression; and generating noncooperation and loyalty shifts within key pillars. And in fact, if recent events provide a gauge, all of the elements are already in place for such a movement to succeed.
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