Living in Washington DC, it is hard not to notice the protesting that has taken place since President Trump has been elected. Trump has only been president for about three months, and there has already been a Women's March, a protest against his refugee ban, and a "Day Without Immigrants" to protest his border wall. While we might see an uptick in protests and demonstrations in the next four years, it is not as if they are a new phenomenon. In an American context, protesting the government goes all the way back to the American Revolution in the eighteenth century. It's also part of the First Amendment of the Constitution. Since the American Revolution, there have been protests against the Vietnam and Iraq Wars, the march for woman's suffrage, the Million Man March, March for Life, Occupy Wall Street, and the Tea Party. Even outside of the United States, there has been the Arab Spring, Tiananmen Square, the French and Russian Revolutions, just to name a few. Protests and demonstrations can certainly be memorable forms of wanting the government to enact change. But how well do they work? What makes a protest more likely to succeed?
One facet is whether the protests are violent or nonviolent. Looking at protests since the start of the 20th century (including those in authoritarian regimes), a nonviolent protest is twice as likely to succeed as a violent protest when the protest is about a country's central leadership (Chenoweth and Stephan, 2012). Even when looking at cases of self-determination, nonviolence works better (Gallagher Cunningham, 2016). Nonviolence campaigns are ten times more likely to usher in democracy than violent ones. This does not mean that violent ones have not or can not work, but that they are more likely to fail, even when the majority of protesting is nonviolent (Chenoweth and Schock, 2013). Take something like the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. There is a valid complaint about racial disparity in policing. At the same time, that violence at many of the BLM protests detracts from the message. Plus, violence has this tendency to escalate into a downward spiral and discredit the protesters as more radical and extreme, so doesn't surprise me that nonviolence protesting works better.
The lack of violence is not the only factor to consider. About three years ago, I looked at the effectiveness of boycotts, and my conclusion was that "for a boycott to work, you need to have a targeted, massive enough of a collective to impact [the revenues]." Boycotts are more of an economic protest because a boycotter spends money elsewhere to make a statement, but the idea is similar. One takeaway from this parallel is that size counts. Research shows that if 3.5 percent of the population actively resists the government, the current government cannot withstand that sort of scrutiny. The other takeaway is about targeting, i.e., the message needs to be salient and "under one banner." The more that people can identify with the protesters, the easier it is to sympathize to the point of getting more to protest with you. Much like with boycotts, protests also take time to seep in. For nonviolent protests, it can take three years before progress fully comes into fruition.
The final point is that of turning protest into action. Let's compare two recent protest-based movements: Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party. The message of Occupy Wall Street was "the wealth is concentrated at the 1 percent while the 99 percent have problems making ends meet." The result of Occupy Wall Street? There is more talk about income inequality than there used to be. However, there is not discernible policy change as a result of Occupy Wall Street, and I wouldn't count on it being addressed by President Trump. We don't even hear about Occupy Wall Street anymore because that is how much it is in the dustbin of history. Yet the protests of the Tea Party were successful (Madestam et al., 2013). Why? One was concise, salient messaging: "government spending and taxes are out of control, and we want our government back." In spite of the decentralized nature of the Tea Party, another feature was the Tea Party was that pivoted from protest to getting officials elected, which is preferable to letting the protest die out or having social media substitute for actual political change (see below). We can argue about whether the Tea Party stayed true to its message or how effective it is in the long-run. But the contrast between the Occupy and Tea Party shows that protest is a starting point, not an endpoint. If protesting is ultimately going to work, it needs to reach and sway key decision-makers (ibid.). Otherwise, the effects of protesting are going to be minimal.
Source: London School of Economics
To summarize, the main criteria to best ensure success of a protest are nonviolence, size and prevalence of demonstration, the extent of protesting, a salient message, how the long protesting lasts, and whether it can mobilize enough to enact change in political agenda and policy. For those who are looking to use protest as a mechanism for political change, these are some things to keep in mind moving forward.