💊 Nonviolent resistance can facilitate a transition from autocracy to democracy

Many political scientists have analysed democratic backsliding. Justin Kempf shows how some are helping activists refine their strategies and tactics to challenge autocrats and the basis of their rule. This provides an example of how political science can do much more than just conducting analysis and providing simple diagnoses

Practical experience

Recently, I spoke with Serbian activist Srđa Popović on my Democracy Paradox podcast. Srđa is well known for his role in Serbia's Bulldozer Revolution. A few years afterwards, he founded an organisation called the Center for Applied Nonviolent Actions and Strategies (CANVAS). Anyone who knows Srđa is aware that he is not a political scientist. He is well-versed in the literature of nonviolent resistance, but his mission is to train activists in nonviolent strategies and tactics. He does not care whether his ideas are new or novel – or even insightful. What he cares most about are practical results.

That’s why he partnered with two political scientists from Penn State University, Sophia McClennen and Joseph Wright, on a groundbreaking study on the effectiveness of nonviolent tactics. They co-authored a paper together in the Journal of Democracy called How to Sharpen a Nonviolent Movement. Srđa understands the value of academic research. It helps him develop the best training for activists. It also legitimises strategies and tactics he knows work from practical experience.

Nonviolent resistance leads to democracy

Once upon a time, most people thought that challenging a political regime meant guerilla warfare and armed resistance. Today, most revolutions occur nonviolently. Scholars have identified plenty of reasons why this shift happened. However, the obvious one is that they are more effective. Groundbreaking research from Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan demonstrated the effectiveness of civil resistance and made an early effort to explain why.

Since then, many different political scientists, including Jonathan Pinckney, Judith Stoddard, and Mohammad Ali Kadivar, have expanded the study of nonviolent resistance to consider its effectiveness and its limitations. Recent findings have emphasised the importance of nonviolent revolutions for democratic transitions, and analysed the effectiveness of different strategies and tactics.

Nonviolent resistance is no longer a physical conflict against a repressive regime, but an effort to bridge political divides and show democracy is a realistic option

The literature on nonviolent resistance has changed how we think about democratisation. It is no longer a physical conflict against a repressive regime. Instead, it has become an effort to bridge political divides and show democracy is a realistic option. Armed revolutions, on the other hand, rarely bring about democratisation. Instead, they merely install a new authoritarian regime. The logic makes sense. Violence leads to more violence. Nonviolent revolutions have shown us democratisation requires us to break the cycle of violence. This paradigm shift has affected activists on the ground, researchers in academia, and has even begun to change conversations about democracy among everyday people.

Democratic recession

Unfortunately, these days, most people worry less about how to transition autocracies into democracies than to preserve the democracies that already exist. Over the past twenty years, democratic backsliding has happened in every region of the world. Some consolidated democracies like Venezuela have collapsed into outright dictatorships, while many democracies with long histories, like India, have descended into electoral autocracy. Meanwhile, many democracies from the United States to Brazil have suffered from episodes of backsliding.

Political scientists have made this democratic recession public and visible. Many books from well-known political scientists such as How Democracies Die, What is Populism?, and The People Vs. Democracy brought ideas about democratic decline and breakdown into mainstream popular discussions. There is no shortage of political scientists who call out democratic backsliding around the world.

Political science must do more than simply shame leaders who pursue undemocratic ends. It must develop a toolkit for the democratic opposition to withstand democratic erosion

However, political scientists have had little to say beyond a very simple diagnosis. The simple solution was just not to vote for candidates with authoritarian tendencies. But this solution forces many voters to set aside their policy preferences and ideological tendencies. Milan Svolik has shown this is a strategy doomed to failure. For most voters, polarisation trumps civic virtue.

Political scientists need to find realistic strategies for activists and politicians during episodes of democratic backsliding. Political science must do more than shame leaders who pursue undemocratic ends. It must develop a toolkit for the democratic opposition to withstand democratic erosion.

Resisting democratic backsliding

Laura Gamboa has provided the best blueprint so far. Her book Resisting Backsliding compares the opposition strategies used in Colombia and Venezuela during periods of democratic uncertainty. The opposition survived the presidency of Alvaro Uribe with their democracy intact. Meanwhile, democracy in Venezuela collapsed. Gamboa argues that rather than challenging the legitimacy of the president, the opposition in Colombia worked to preserve institutions and norms.

What I like about Gamboa’s approach is that it shares similarities with the literature on nonviolent resistance. Gamboa argues that an opposition must preserve its political resources and expend them for a clearly defined purpose.

It parallels many of the same strategies used in nonviolent resistance. It also encourages leaders with undemocratic tendencies to continue to use the democratic process. Her work does not provide a complete blueprint to fight off democratic erosion. However, it provides a new direction for research to begin to provide meaningful answers moving forward.

Real-world applications

Obviously, I cannot speak for all political science research. A tremendous amount is done without any meaningful real-world applications. However, it is disingenuous to cast the net over the entire discipline. A lot of cutting-edge research has real-world applications for how we can both bring about democracy and how we can save it where it already exists.

It is disingenuous to cast the net over the entire political science discipline. A lot of cutting-edge research has real-world applications for how we can bring about democracy – and how we can save it

Obviously, it takes time to develop major breakthroughs. A lot of seemingly inconsequential findings must happen before someone puts them together into an idea with real-world consequences.

Still, people on the ground like Srđa Popović continue to rely on political scientists to help them refine their strategies and tactics to challenge autocrats, and aspiring autocrats, around the world.

💊 Eighth in a Loop series examining how political scientists, and citizens, can take practical steps to strengthen democracy

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Justin Kempf
Justin Kempf
Democracy Paradox

Justin hosts the podcast Democracy Paradox and manages the blog at www.democracyparadox.com.

He lives with his family in Carmel, Indiana.

He tweets @DemParadox

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