Nonviolent Civil Disobedience Effectiveness

We live in tricky times.

The governments of the US and the UK (two of my three citizenships…the third, as I understand it, is Iran which, to be sure, is extremely problematic, to understate) are not in good shape with strong bents toward less democratic to authoritarian behaviors, not to mention wildly reckless and incompetent policies and governance. Along with fair helpings of xenophobic evil. The UK just might have a combination of xenophobic enough electorate and broken opposition that the conservative grip on government is democratically justified, even if they grasp for more and just plain suck. In the US, the Republicans (and Trump administration) clearly have little democratic justification as they have power primarily through anti-democratic mechanisms like the electoral college, voter suppression, gerrymandering etc.

(These really are anti-democratic (not just countermajoritarian) both procedurally and substantively. They go strongly against majorities to enact plutocratic and racist/sexist/etc. policies. The anti-DREAMer bullshit is a great example: Majorities of the electorate want protection for the DREAMers, a majority of Congress wants DREAMer projection, and the nominal position of the so-called president is to protect them. And yet, here we are, on the verge of mass deportation efforts.)

How to resist all this? Elections are a ways off (with the presidential election veryfar off) and have various levels of compromise. One question that I see people ask (and I myself wonder) is at what point violent resistance is justified or, even, required. Resisting the rise of another Nazi like state seems to at least justify violent resistance and compel pretty vigorous resistance. We’re pretty far from that and probably will never hit straightforward Nazi levels of awful. (Let’s assume no Trumped up war, esp no nuclear one or attack on a nuclear state.) But we still have pretty bad, with lives ruined or lost. Turning into a Russia like state would be even worse, but it’s unclear this would be rebellion justifying.

One thing that should weigh in is necessity and efficacy. Violent resistance only makes sense if there aren’t equally (or comparably) effective alternatives. This is esp. true as violent resistance has lots of potential downsides including kicking us in to a far worse state. It could be worth it if the results were a net good (even then, we’d have to weigh the harms created and the risks taken).

We don’t ave to speculate about all this any more! Maria J. Stephan and
Erica Chenoweth have, in a paper and a book, quantified the relative effectiveness of violent and non-violent actions in achieving political goals:

Our findings show that major nonviolent campaigns have achieved success 53 percent of the time, compared with 26 percent for violent resistance campaigns.

There are two reasons for this success. First, a campaign’s commitment to nonviolent methods enhances its domestic and international legitimacy and encourages more broad-based participation in the resistance, which translates into increased pressure being brought to bear on the target. Recognition of the challenge group’s grievances can translate into greater internal and external support for that group and alienation of the target regime, undermining the regime’s main sources of political, economic, and even military power.

Second, whereas governments easily justify violent counterattacks against armed insurgents, regime violence against nonviolent movements is more likely to backfire against the regime. Potentially sympathetic publics perceive violent militants as having maximalist or extremist goals beyond accommodation, but they perceive nonviolent resistance groups as less extreme, thereby enhancing their appeal and facilitating the extraction of concessions through bargaining.

Nonviolent campaigns aretwice as effective as violent campaigns (you are vindicated Dr. King!). And a non-trivial twice! From 26% to 53%! That’s huge! (A big further on in the paper they cite Abrahms as showing that terrorism is effective only 7% of the time. In achieving policy goals, of course. In terms of fucking things up, it seems rather more effective).

This is astounding and really should settle the case for the US and UK.

Some observations:

  1. Even non-violent campaigns fail 47% of the time. Governments are powerful and, esp in largely democratic countries like the US and UK, if you can’t win the elections you are going to have trouble winning otherwise. Governments don’t just have power, they have legitimacy. US and UK governments have a lot of default legitimacy.
    Consider the Democratic battle for the DREAMers. It’s not clear that they can win. They could try to shut down the government for months  and still lose. It’s hard to win against the party which controls three branches of government.
  2. We don’t have any what-ifing, afaict. I.e., how well would alternatives have worked if they had been tried.
  3. They really are looking at campaigns against repressive governments. The UK isn’t engaged in any repression at scale at the moment and the picture in the US is mixed. A lot of repression is distributed and against relatively small subpopulations (or on individuals within subpopulations). Consider ICE…a lot of their actions are “straightforward” (they also go well beyond that) enforcement of current law. Most people think that deportation for people who are not explicitly permitted to stay (e.g., because undocumented, or visa expired) is reasonable. You can cloak it all in “normal” terms.
  4. Two interesting observations from the paper: “Second, the longer the campaign endures, the less likely the resistance is to achieve full success. This is especially true for nonviolent campaigns, although the substantive effects are not sizable. Violent campaigns are more likely to achieve partial success the longer the conflict endures, but duration does not influence their chances of full success.
  5. Third, nonviolent campaigns occurring during the Cold War were less likely to succeed than nonviolent campaigns occurring prior to or after the Cold War. Conversely, violent campaigns have been increasingly effective against their state opponents during and after the Cold War.”
    This suggests that one needs to target a campaign fairly carefully.
  6. They publish and continue to develop their dataset. Which is awesome.

I think it’s safe to say that, in spite of the awfulness, we’re really far from a situation in the US or UK where violent resistance is likely to be effective. Given that, in the US, the current government’s violence tends to backfire  suggests we should be maximising that backlash. Violence would tend to blunt it.

Tip of the blog to djw who turned me on to this work and really should flesh out his LGM author page.


3 thoughts on “Nonviolent Civil Disobedience Effectiveness

  1. A fascinating result!

    I just bought Milton Friedman’s book “Tyranny of the Status Quo,” which just in its title, helps to explain why both forms of protest are likely to fail.

    • Well…does it need much explanation? If you need to protest or revolt, it’s because you don’t have power. Thus, you start off on the back foot.

      Status quo bias is a bit different. Consider the recent attempts to repeal the ACA. Protest certainly helped as did status quo bias, but the worked in somewhat different ways. In the end, it was some idiosyncratic players that blocked ACA repeal (esp. McCain…the exact–or worse!–violations of the regular order held for the tax bill and he voted for that).

      Repealing the mandate as part of the tax reform bill worked (and protesting the bill didn’t).

      (My understanding of the Friedman is that it’s a polemic, not an empirical work.)

  2. Pingback: Non Violent Resistance Follow Up | Mitigated Frenzy

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