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The '3.5% rule': How a small minority can change the world

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The '3.5% rule': How a small minority can change the world

Nonviolent protests are twice as likely to succeed as armed conflicts -
and those engaging a threshold of 3.5% of the population have never
failed to bring about change.
By David Robson

14 May 2019

In 1986, millions of Filipinos took to the streets of Manila in peaceful
protest and prayer in the People Power movement. The Marcos regime
folded on the fourth day.

In 2003, the people of Georgia ousted Eduard Shevardnadze through the
bloodless Rose Revolution, in which protestors stormed the parliament
building holding the flowers in their hands.

Earlier this year, the presidents of Sudan and Algeria both announced
they would step aside after decades in office, thanks to peaceful
campaigns of resistance.

In each case, civil resistance by ordinary members of the public trumped
the political elite to achieve radical change.

There are, of course, many ethical reasons to use nonviolent strategies.
But compelling research by Erica Chenoweth, a political scientist at
Harvard University, confirms that civil disobedience is not only the
moral choice; it is also the most powerful way of shaping world politics
- by a long way.

Looking at hundreds of campaigns over the last century, Chenoweth found
that nonviolent campaigns are twice as likely to achieve their goals as
violent campaigns. And although the exact dynamics will depend on many
factors, she has shown it takes around 3.5% of the population actively
participating in the protests to ensure serious political change.

Chenoweth's influence can be seen in the recent Extinction Rebellion
protests, whose founders say they have been directly inspired by her
findings. So just how did she come to these conclusions?

Needless to say, Chenoweth's research builds on the philosophies of many
influential figures throughout history. The African-American
abolitionist Sojourner Truth, the suffrage campaigner Susan B Anthony,
the Indian independence activist Mahatma Gandhi and the US civil rights
campaigner Martin Luther King have all convincingly argued for the power
of peaceful protest.

Yet Chenoweth admits that when she first began her research in the
mid-2000s, she was initially rather cynical of the idea that nonviolent
actions could be more powerful than armed conflict in most situations.
As a PhD student at the University of Colorado, she had spent years
studying the factors contributing to the rise of terrorism when she was
asked to attend an academic workshop organised by the International
Center of Nonviolent Conflict (ICNC), a non-profit organisation based in
Washington DC. The workshop presented many compelling examples of
peaceful protests bringing about lasting political change - including,
for instance, the People Power protests in the Philippines.

But Chenoweth was surprised to find that no-one had comprehensively
compared the success rates of nonviolent versus violent protests;
perhaps the case studies were simply chosen through some kind of
confirmation bias. "I was really motivated by some scepticism that
nonviolent resistance could be an effective method for achieving major
transformations in society," she says.

Working with Maria Stephan, a researcher at the ICNC, Chenoweth
performed an extensive review of the literature on civil resistance and
social movements from 1900 to 2006 - a data set then corroborated with
other experts in the field. They primarily considered attempts to bring
about regime change. A movement was considered a success if it fully
achieved its goals both within a year of its peak engagement and as a
direct result of its activities. A regime change resulting from foreign
military intervention would not be considered a success, for instance. A
campaign was considered violent, meanwhile, if it involved bombings,
kidnappings, the destruction of infrastructure - or any other physical
harm to people or property.

"We were trying to apply a pretty hard test to nonviolent resistance as
a strategy," Chenoweth says. (The criteria were so strict that India's
independence movement was not considered as evidence in favour of
nonviolent protest in Chenoweth and Stephan's analysis - since Britain's
dwindling military resources were considered to have been a deciding
factor, even if the protests themselves were also a huge influence.)

By the end of this process, they had collected data from 323 violent and
nonviolent campaigns. And their results - which were published in their
book Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent
Conflict - were striking.

Strength in numbers

Overall, nonviolent campaigns were twice as likely to succeed as violent
campaigns: they led to political change 53% of the time compared to 26%
for the violent protests.

This was partly the result of strength in numbers. Chenoweth argues that
nonviolent campaigns are more likely to succeed because they can recruit
many more participants from a much broader demographic, which can cause
severe disruption that paralyses normal urban life and the functioning
of society.

In fact, of the 25 largest campaigns that they studied, 20 were
nonviolent, and 14 of these were outright successes. Overall, the
nonviolent campaigns attracted around four times as many participants
(200,000) as the average violent campaign (50,000).

The People Power campaign against the Marcos regime in the Philippines,
for instance, attracted two million participants at its height, while
the Brazilian uprising in 1984 and 1985 attracted one million, and the
Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia in 1989 attracted 500,000
participants. (Credit: Getty Images)

"Numbers really matter for building power in ways that can really pose a
serious challenge or threat to entrenched authorities or occupations,"
Chenoweth says - and nonviolent protest seems to be the best way to get
that widespread support.

Once around 3.5% of the whole population has begun to participate
actively, success appears to be inevitable.

Besides the People Power movement, the Singing Revolution in Estonia and
the Rose Revolution in Georgia all reached the 3.5% threshold

"There weren't any campaigns that had failed after they had achieved
3.5% participation during a peak event," says Chenoweth - a phenomenon
she has called the "3.5% rule". Besides the People Power movement, that
included the Singing Revolution in Estonia in the late 1980s and the
Rose Revolution in Georgia in the early 2003.

Chenoweth admits that she was initially surprised by her results. But
she now cites many reasons that nonviolent protests can garner such high
levels of support. Perhaps most obviously, violent protests necessarily
exclude people who abhor and fear bloodshed, whereas peaceful protesters
maintain the moral high ground.

Chenoweth points out that nonviolent protests also have fewer physical
barriers to participation. You do not need to be fit and healthy to
engage in a strike, whereas violent campaigns tend to lean on the
support of physically fit young men. And while many forms of nonviolent
protests also carry serious risks - just think of China's response in
Tiananmen Square in 1989 - Chenoweth argues that nonviolent campaigns
are generally easier to discuss openly, which means that news of their
occurrence can reach a wider audience. Violent movements, on the other
hand, require a supply of weapons, and tend to rely on more secretive
underground operations that might struggle to reach the general population.

By engaging broad support across the population, nonviolent campaigns
are also more likely to win support among the police and the military -
the very groups that the government should be leaning on to bring about

During a peaceful street protest of millions of people, the members of
the security forces may also be more likely to fear that their family
members or friends are in the crowd - meaning that they fail to crack
down on the movement. "Or when they're looking at the [sheer] numbers of
people involved, they may just come to the conclusion the ship has
sailed, and they don't want to go down with the ship," Chenoweth says.

In terms of the specific strategies that are used, general strikes "are
probably one of the most powerful, if not the most powerful, single
method of nonviolent resistance", Chenoweth says. But they do come at a
personal cost, whereas other forms of protest can be completely
anonymous. She points to the consumer boycotts in apartheid-era South
Africa, in which many black citizens refused to buy products from
companies with white owners. The result was an economic crisis among the
country's white elite that contributed to the end of segregation in the
early 1990s.

"There are more options for engaging and nonviolent resistance that
don't place people in as much physical danger, particularly as the
numbers grow, compared to armed activity," Chenoweth says. "And the
techniques of nonviolent resistance are often more visible, so that it's
easier for people to find out how to participate directly, and how to
coordinate their activities for maximum disruption."

A magic number?

These are very general patterns, of course, and despite being twice as
successful as the violent conflicts, peaceful resistance still failed
47% of the time. As Chenoweth and Stephan pointed out in their book,
that's sometimes because they never really gained enough support or
momentum to "erode the power base of the adversary and maintain
resilience in the face of repression". But some relatively large
nonviolent protests also failed, such as the protests against the
communist party in East Germany in the 1950s, which attracted 400,000
members (around 2% of the population) at their peak, but still failed to
bring about change.

In Chenoweth's data set, it was only once the nonviolent protests had
achieved that 3.5% threshold of active engagement that success seemed to
be guaranteed - and raising even that level of support is no mean feat.
In the UK it would amount to 2.3 million people actively engaging in a
movement (roughly twice the size of Birmingham, the UK's second largest
city); in the US, it would involve 11 million citizens - more than the
total population of New York City.

The fact remains, however, that nonviolent campaigns are the only
reliable way of maintaining that kind of engagement.

Chenoweth and Stephan's initial study was first published in 2011 and
their findings have attracted a lot of attention since. "It's hard to
overstate how influential they have been to this body of research," says
Matthew Chandler, who researches civil resistance at the University of
Notre Dame in Indiana.

Isabel Bramsen, who studies international conflict at the University of
Copenhagen agrees that Chenoweth and Stephan's results are compelling.
"It's [now] an established truth within the field that the nonviolent
approaches are much more likely to succeed than violent ones," she says.

Regarding the "3.5% rule", she points out that while 3.5% is a small
minority, such a level of active participation probably means many more
people tacitly agree with the cause.

These researchers are now looking to further untangle the factors that
may lead to a movement's success or failure. Bramsen and Chandler, for
instance, both emphasise the importance of unity among demonstrators.

As an example, Bramsen points to the failed uprising in Bahrain in 2011.
The campaign initially engaged many protestors, but quickly split into
competing factions. The resulting loss of cohesion, Bramsen thinks,
ultimately prevented the movement from gaining enough momentum to bring
about change.

Chenoweth's interest has recently focused on protests closer to home -
like the Black Lives Matter movement and the Women's March in 2017. She
is also interested in Extinction Rebellion, recently popularised by the
involvement of the Swedish activist Greta Thunberg. "They are up against
a lot of inertia," she says. "But I think that they have an incredibly
thoughtful and strategic core. And they seem to have all the right
instincts about how to develop and teach through a nonviolent resistance

Ultimately, she would like our history books to pay greater attention to
nonviolent campaigns rather than concentrating so heavily on warfare.
"So many of the histories that we tell one another focus on violence -
and even if it is a total disaster, we still find a way to find
victories within it," she says. Yet we tend to ignore the success of
peaceful protest, she says.

"Ordinary people, all the time, are engaging in pretty heroic activities
that are actually changing the way the world - and those deserve some
notice and celebration as well."

----- The end of the citation -----

Bye, all!
Alexander Koryagin

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