Chapter Two: How do movements work?


The challenge remains. On the other side are formidable forces: money, political power, the major media. On our side are the people of the world and a power greater than money or weapons: the truth.

Truth has a power of its own. Art has a power of its own. That age-old lesson – that everything we do matters – is the meaning of the people’s struggle here in the United States and everywhere. A poem can inspire a movement. A pamphlet can spark a revolution. Civil disobedience can arouse people and provoke us to think, when we organize with one another, when we get involved, when we stand up and speak out together, we can create a power no government can suppress. We live in a beautiful country. But people who have no respect for human life, freedom, or justice have taken it over. It is now up to all of us to take it back.

—Howard Zinn, A Power Governments Cannot Suppress

When enough people join in, social movements become unstoppable

Social movements work by getting enough people engaged, involved and activated in a variety of methods of protest, including public actions, actions directed at decision-makers and electoral work.

This raises an obvious question: How many is enough?

Surprisingly, the research suggests that this question can be answered. In Why Civil Resistance Works, Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan argue that no political revolution since 1900 has failed after gaining the active and sustained participation of 3.5% of the population. Some have won with lower participation—but beyond that threshold, not one has lost.


Whether or not there’s a magic number for participation, once we understand just how much numbers matter in general, the most important questions about any action become clear: Is this action winning more people to our cause? Is it helping our movement grow in scale and over time? Are people more likely to sustain their participation in the resistance because of it?

In the United States, hitting the 3.5% mark would require the participation of 11 million people. That’s a steep goal. But consider that as many as 4.6 million people showed up to the Women’s Marches.

It isn’t out of reach.

Winning support means reaching people where they’re at—and moving them



Figure 2: Protest can shift the spectrum of support

Public actions change minds. They dramatize unjust laws and decisions, make visible moral crises that have gone unseen. They energize people who feel they haven’t had a voice and demonstrate that they are not alone.

Actions don’t move people all at once, however. We won’t succeed because a clear message causes a lightbulb moment across the country, or because one great march inspires everyone to flood into the streets. People move across a spectrum of support.

Not everyone starts in the same place. Some are neutral. Some are passive supporters. Some are against us. As the above diagram shows, a good action will push people across this spectrum. Those who are neutral may be moved to educate themselves on the issues and ultimately become passively supportive. Passive supporters may be led to get involved. Active supporters might find themselves bringing others in and becoming more fully involved as strong advocates.

Movement across this spectrum isn’t always the result of conscious decision making. Often, people shift because an effective action reframes the basic moral issues behind an issue that is otherwise seen as too abstract or complex. It makes people emotionally connect to the issue and choose sides. We call this process polarization.

Protest creates polarization

For social movements, protest is the most effective means of polarizing an issue. Research shows that perceptions of protest as violent or destructive of property tend to discourage participation and make a movement less effective. Confrontation, however, is not the same as violence. Confrontational tactics can draw people to a cause, even when the protesters are criticized as too abrasive.

You wouldn’t always know it. The message that protest doesn’t work is deeply ingrained in our political and popular culture. Anyone who tries to join a demonstration will hear the same refrain: No one is listening to you. No one cares. You’re just preaching to the choir. You’re too disruptive. You’re too angry. You’re making a lot of noise and accomplishing nothing.

This message is wrong. Dangerously wrong.

How do we know?

In recent decades, scholars have pushed back against the monolithic myth with numerous accounts of how protests changed public opinion, shaped policy, and altered the course of history. There’s even quantitative evidence: A study by Daniel Gillion at the University of Pennsylvania analyzed civil rights legislation from the 1960s through the 1990s and found that every 10 protests in a representative’s district made that representative one percent more likely to vote in favor of civil rights issues—a minor but nonetheless demonstrable effect on legislative progress.

Our society is adept at shutting out the voices of ordinary people. Corporations spend millions on advertising. Celebrities colonize airtime. Wealthy constituents have the attention of elected officials. In a democracy, protest is the most effective way to seize the microphone in the absence of either money or fame.

Protests capture the attention of the media and the broader public. They shine a spotlight on issues that those in power would otherwise ignore. And after heightening awareness, protests force people to take a position. Protest asks, “Which side are you on?”


The message that protest doesn’t work can be so easy to believe because we rarely see change from any one protest. To move issues on a national scale, protest requires participation from tens or even hundreds of thousands of people. It requires both big and small actions, from movements that persist and adapt over time.

Protest is a vital tool for social movements. It can shape public opinion, transform political discussion, and bring new people into a movement, resulting in important long-term developments even as short-term goals like specific legislative changes prove elusive. Occupy, Black Lives Matter and the Keystone Pipeline protests are not considered to have racked up many concrete victories. But each brought thousands upon thousands of people into their respective movements, reshaping political discussion around economic inequality, racial injustice and climate change.


How protest polarizes

Even though confrontational tactics may cause discomfort, they force people to make a choice, to view an issue in terms of right and wrong. The actions demand that onlookers take a side.

Think of your own experience. Have you found yourself thinking about an issue with newfound urgency because of the way you’ve seen it framed by such an action? Have you found yourself moving across this spectrum in your own activism?

Martin Luther King Jr. presented a powerful explanation of this process in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Responding to criticism of disruptive protests that had culminated in violence, King wrote, “We who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with.”

King’s analysis proved correct. In Birmingham, activists protested knowing they would likely be attacked by police—and knowing that images of the violence broadcast in Americans’ living rooms would force the nation to confront the horrors of segregation. Those images galvanized support for civil rights protections, even though many Americans believed that the protesters’ tactics went too far.

This is the response to offer those who say that protest is too disruptive. Protest polarizes, and successful polarization moves people from neutral to taking a stand. Even those who say they disapprove of the protesters can come around to supporting the cause.

It may take several protests to make someone aware of an issue. It may take several more to make him feel he must pick a side. It takes time. That’s why sustained participation is so important.


Not everyone has to like us

There’s an enduring paradox of social movements: Many of their greatest achievements have come in the face of vocal majority opposition.

We don’t need to change the minds of angry Trump supporters to win. We don’t need everyone to like our movement or approve of our tactics. A large majority of the public opposed the Tea Party, yet they captured the agenda of the Republican Party. The Civil Rights Movement achieved huge legislative victories because the public came to support the need for concerted action on civil rights even as they disapproved of the movement’s tactics.


At the same time, many issues claim majority support from the general public and yet seem permanently stalled. Take background checks for gun sales. According to polls, approximately 90 percent of Americans support background checks for private gun sales. Knowing that, you might assume that politicians would be racing to expand background check laws. Guess what? They’re not. While support may be in the majority, opinion remains passive and thus fails to rouse political urgency and willpower.

The importance of active popular support

The resistance to Trump is built on beliefs that have broad popular support. Immigrants’ rights, free college education, the protection of voting and reproductive rights, a $15 minimum wage, universal health care, and an end to the drug war are all fundamentally popular issues with bedrock support of 50 percent or more.

But on many of the issues—gun control is the starkest example—the minority opposition is more effective. Why is this?

The difference between an issue that doesn’t move and one that does is active popular support. This refers to the base of people who are willing not only to approve but to take action on behalf of a social movement.

Active popular support makes a crucial difference. In its absence, elected officials can disregard even majority passive support. Even if politicians vote against positions held by the majority, they will pay little price so long as this majority is passive.

Active popular support can encompass a wide range of activities. Supporters might attend marches, call elected officials, host educational events, or donate money. The key is that they do more than merely agree with a movement: They back up their beliefs with action. When a movement has enough active popular support, it can compel politicians to change their positions—or replace those who will not.


The theory that participation by only 3.5 percent of the population can ensure the success of a revolution refers to active popular support. This support gives movements room to maneuver. If we can keep people joining us and taking action, we can make significant progress long before the majority comes to our side.

Research shows that even tactics the public dislikes can increase support for an issue. Even a movement that is seen as unpopular can continue winning people to its cause. Public opinion never gave wide support to the Occupy movement—approval of the Occupy encampments often polled lower than it did for the Tea Party. Yet through Occupy, public concern over inequality grew. Ultimately, the movement popularized the argument that the United States was ruled by an elite one percent whose interests were opposed to the remaining 99 percent, and a political debate centered on budget cuts and debt ceilings gave way to a debate about the unjust influence of the wealthiest few.

Politicians become alert to growing popular resistance well before it reaches the level of majority support. It can limit their power, dry up their campaign contributions, damage their reputations, and ultimately end their careers. As active popular support grows, then, it can often influence the actions of elected officials.


Keep showing up

One protest does not a social movement make—even if the protest is a big one. The Tea Party rocked the establishment when it burst onto the scene in 2009, but its real victories came when it swept the Democrats out of control of Congress, pushed the Republican Party to the right, and created the conditions for Donald Trump’s rise to power.

New activists can get discouraged when, after one or two protests, they don’t see immediate results. But winning depends on persistently expanding our active popular support, with the recognition that this is a long-term process. It means showing up, and showing up again. It means protesting hundreds of times in dozens of different ways. Often it means returning to the same place, with the same message and the same people until more people join.

We know that we are winning when more and more people are becoming engaged. The one thing we can’t do is slack off, either because it feels like momentum is on our side, or because we are losing hope. Small victories become the foundation of our movement. By claiming these victories and continuing to show up, our active popular support will continue to grow.

You may not agree with every aspect of a particular protest. You may feel critical of certain messages and actions promoted by the groups that are organizing it. But that doesn’t mean you should disengage. The best way to contribute is to show up time and time again. Find the organizers and offer to help promote, organize or set up. The more protests you support by simply showing up, the better sense you’ll have of what works. (Existing resources can help you identify what works—for practical protest tips, checkout, which provides an online toolbox for grassroots action.)

Change the political weather

The Women’s March. The airport protests. Occupy. Black Lives Matter.

All these did more than change public opinion. They changed the political weather.

What’s the difference? Just as passive political support is not the same as active popular support, normal fluctuations in public opinion are not the same as shifts that signal the possibility for genuine political change. As social movements develop active popular support, their activities begins to have ripple effects. Social movements can do more than shift opinion—they can make once-radical opinions into a new conventional wisdom.

As the 2008 financial crisis set about ruining thousands of lives, national political opinion was obsessed with debt reduction. Occupy upended that discussion, re-centering it around inequality. Before Black Lives Matter, the criminal justice debate was focused on crime and punishment. Black Lives Matter expanded it to address police violence. Both of these movements led to dozens of local, state and even federal policy changes, such as millionaire taxes in the case of Occupy and body cameras for officers in the case of Black Lives Matter.

From the day after the 2016 presidential election through the inauguration, our actions have energized thousands of people to join our movements, to demand change and to fight back.

By showing up, we have given the institutions that might have capitulated to Trump’s agenda the backbone to stand up to him in the courts, in the legislatures and in the streets.

We have laid the groundwork to resist Trump and the Republican Congress.

Now we have to build on it.

So how do we do that?