Throughout history, social movements — small groups that are loosely connected but united by a shared purpose — have created transformational change. Women’s suffrage and civil rights in the U.S., Indian independence, the color revolutions in Eastern Europe, and the Arab Spring all hinged on the powerless banding together against the powerful.
In these movements, protest has played an important role, highlighting the ability for ordinary citizens to make their disapproval heard. This type of activism is crucial for creating the groundwork for change. Consider the recent protests in Poland concerning an unpopular abortion law. They inspired millions to take further actions, including a women’s strike, that convinced lawmakers to back down.
Still, protests like the massive global marches that took place on January 21, 2017, although crucially important for creating transformational change, are merely a first step. There are clear reasons why some movements languish and fade away while others succeed, and activists need to take history’s lessons to heart. To truly make an impact, a movement needs to follow five steps:
Step 1: Define the change you want to see
To create the change you want to see, you have to make an affirmative case and define exactly what you want to happen.
Clearly defining change is a consistent theme in successful movements. Gandhi wanted independence from the British. The Civil Rights Movement wanted specific legislation passed. The color revolutions wanted a change in leadership. These were all tangible goals that they could build a strategy around.
In Serbia’s Bulldozer Revolution, which one of the authors helped lead, the objective was to rid the country of dictator Slobodan Milošević. Full stop. No equivocations. What was the point of the women’s marches? Was it to remove Donald Trump from power? Are specific policies being opposed and others being advocated for? Those who marched with such enthusiasm need to ask themselves, “If you could wave magic wand and create change, what specifically would happen?”
The need for a clearly stated purpose becomes glaringly obvious when you look at unsuccessful movements. For example, as Joe Nocera noted, the Occupy movement “had plenty of grievances, aimed mainly at the ‘oppressive’ power of corporations,” but “never got beyond their own slogans.” It’s not enough to point out what you don’t like — you need a clear idea of what you want instead.
A revolution doesn’t begin with a slogan, but with a clear vision of the change you want to see. That doesn’t mean you need to be rigid. You are not trying to impose your vision; you are sharing it, you are listening, and you are respectful to those who don’t hold the same views as you. But above all, you are clear and everybody knows where you stand.
Step 2: Shift the spectrum of allies
Once you have clearly defined the change you want to happen, you need to start examining your spectrum of Allies. Figure out whom you can expect active or passive support from and who will offer neutrality at best — or active or passive opposition at worst. As Sun Tzu wrote, “Know yourself, know your enemy, and know the terrain.” The spectrum of allies is the terrain.
Successful movements don’t overpower their opponents; they gradually undermine their opponents’ support. Start at the receptive end of your spectrum, working your way through higher and higher thresholds of resistance. In other words, begin by mobilizing your active allies and core supporters. Reach out to passive supporters, and then bring neutral groups over to your side. Once you start winning over the passive opposition, you’re on the brink of victory.
For example, in the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King Jr. and his contemporaries started by mobilizing Southern blacks, but then shifted to bringing Northern whites over to their cause. And when Harvey Milk began the LGBT movement, he started with gay people on Castro Street, but then continued to the straight liberals in the San Francisco Bay area. Colonel John Boyd, the military reformer who helped change the way the Pentagon functions, pursued a similar path, first preparing briefings for junior officers, and then congressional staffers, and then elected officials, and finally the top generals.
The path to victory is not to create a coalition through awkward comprises, but rather to expound on your values with such clarity that you persuade others to join your cause. Empires fall not because people oppose them, but because they find their support eroded. To win, you need to convince others to defect.
Step 3: Identify the pillars of power
While it is crucial to recruit allies from up and down the spectrum of support, it is also important to identify the institutions that have the power to implement the change you seek. These “pillars of power” can be the police, the media, the education system, government agencies, or other organizations. As important as popular support is to a movement, without institutional support, little is likely to change.
In Serbia, the revolutionary group Otpor saw arrests not merely as an act of defiance, but as an opportunity to build positive relations with the police. In fact, protesters were trained to defend officers from any provocation within their own ranks. In the end, when the police had to decide whether to shoot into crowds or join the movement’s ranks, they chose the latter.
Which stakeholders inside or outside the halls of power have the ability to implement or resist change? What are their incentives? How can they benefit or be hurt by the change you seek? These are all things you need to consider.
Step 4: Seek to attract, not to overpower
Every movement seeks to correct some injustice, so it’s easy to fall into the trap of demonizing the other side. Yet this is where many movements go off the rails. Anger is an effective mobilizer, but anger without hope is a destructive force. You need to make an affirmative case with affirmative tactics.
That’s why it’s best to start with small, achievable goals. Gandhi’s allies questioned his idea to make the salt tax a primary focus of the Indian independence movement, because they favored a plan for comprehensive change, but he saw that a single issue, even a small one, could unify the nation and break British Raj’s monopoly on power.
Cheap, easy-to-replicate, low-risk tactics are the most likely to succeed. They are how you can mobilize the numbers you need to influence a pillar of power, whether that influence is disruption, mobilizing, or pulling people from the middle of the spectrum of allies, especially if your tactics are seen as positive and good-humored.
Blocking streets and throwing rocks at the police is most likely to turn off those in the middle of your spectrum of allies and will make it decidedly more difficult to gain support from the institutions inside the pillars of power. During the 2016 U.S. presidential election, for example, the “Bernie bros” may have riled up Bernie Sanders’s most ardent supporters, but they likely turned off many that he desperately needed to win over.
Step 5: Build a plan to survive victory
Ironically, one of the most dangerous stages of a revolution is just after victory has been won. In Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution, the incoming team was unable to create a unified, effective government, and soon the country devolved into chaos once again. Secular protesters prevailed in Egypt in 2011, but it was the Muslim Brotherhood that won the elections that followed.
It’s important not to confuse the movement for change with the values that the movement seeks to represent. Just because you win an election or get a program approved and funded doesn’t mean it’s time to declare victory. In fact, it’s at this point that you must strengthen alliances and renew each stakeholder’s commitment to what created change in the first place.
As Moisés Naím wrote in The End of Power, today “power is easier to get, but harder to use or keep.” To truly revolutionize how things are done, it’s not enough to change a policy or shift leadership to a new regime. You must change the beliefs that lead to actions. History is made by those who can define a path forward and persuade others — even those who are initially skeptical — that it is a journey worth embarking on.