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This Is An Uprising: Active Popular Support & The 3.5% Rule

July 17, 2018

(One in a series of posts on Mark & Paul Engler’s 2016 book, This Is An Uprising: How Nonviolent Revolt Is Shaping The Twenty-First Century.)

When discussing the importance for momentum-driven organizing of swaying public opinion, the Englers add a fascinating and important tangent on the crucial role played by “active popular support”.

In doing so, they draw upon groundbreaking recent research by political scientists Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan summarized in their 2011 book, Why Civil Resistance Works. They found that “from 1900 to 2006, campaigns of nonviolent resistance were more than twice as effective as their violent counterparts in achieving their stated goals.

The Englers focus in particular on one of Chenoweth & Stephans’ findings: the 3.5% rule. “Reviewing the data, Chenoweth found that, in fact, ‘no campaigns failed once they’d achieved the active and sustained participation of just 3.5% of the population—and lots of them succeeded with far less than that.’” (p. 110)

“Active popular support” is defined by the following characteristics:

  1. Showing Up: for rallies, marches, phonebanking, doorknocking, teach-ins, etc.;
  2. Voting With The Movement: the movement’s cause (e.g., abortion, climate change, immigration) is the deciding factor in the active supporter’s vote;
  3. Persuading Others: at school, at family reunions, on social media, at work;
  4. Acting Independently Within Their Sphere Of Influence: lawyers taking on pro bono cases, preachers using their pulpit, entertainers writing songs, teachers using their classrooms, union members using meetings of their local to advance the cause.

“In the case of Serbia in the late 1990s, it was not hard for Otpor and other resistance groups to get a majority of the population to agree that Milosevic should go. A huge portion of the public already detested the regime. With the economy in shambles and the country reeling from a series of disastrous wars, public opinion had already been won. The problem was that people expressed their dissenting views only in whispers, behind closed doors. Although many Serbians wanted change, few believed that it was actually achievable. It took Otpor’s active supporters to demonstrate the viability of resistance.” (pp. 112 – 13)

The Englers argue that active public supporters have the same kind of decisive impact in campaigns not dedicated to overthrowing dictatorships.

“In the case of same-sex marriage, the work of dedicated activists was likewise essential. It was helpful to have families in Middle America approvingly watch Ellen or Will & Grace in the 1990s. But the vast majority of these people were not going to force the issue in their workplaces or make it their top electoral concern. The few who actually pushed at the pillars—-petitioning their churches to accept their same-sex weddings, calling for their employers to extend health benefits to same-sex partners, attending rallies, filing lawsuits, defending same-sex couples at their schools’ proms, knocking on doors, and demonstrating the electoral muscle of LGBT voters at the polls—were the movement’s active supporters.” (p. 113)

For leaders, organizers and activists interested in creating transformative change, the question isn’t simply to win the hearts and minds of 51% of the population. It’s also to win the hearts, minds and bodies of 3.5% of the population (about 11 million people in today’s USA) to take sustained public action in support of their cause.

Posts in this series:

From → Books, History, Politics

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