Violence has gotten a lot of attention in the 2016 presidential race — from the kicking and punching of protestors at Trump’s rallies to incitements of violence against Muslim refugees and Mexican immigrants to promises by various candidates to use overwhelming military force to destroy the Islamic State.
But nonviolent resistance — that is, when unarmed civilians use a coordinated set of actions, such as protests, strikes, and noncooperation to directly confront opponents without harming or threatening to harm them — has actually been incredibly influential in this election.
On both the left and the right, popular movements have brought mainstream attention and support to issues that had previously been largely confined to the fringes, driving a populist wave that has enabled outsider candidates — including some who in earlier eras would have been virtually unelectable because of their controversial or radical views — to present serious challenges to establishment candidates.
But this dramatic shift in politics isn’t just happening in the US, nor did it pop up overnight. It’s actually part of a worldwide trend that has been growing over the past decade. In places as diverse as Guatemala, Thailand, Ukraine, Tunisia, and Moldova, nonviolent resistance movements have been upending the status quo as more and more people realize the power of mass mobilization to challenge entrenched authorities and hold politicians accountable.
This means that the remarkable upheaval we’re currently experiencing in American politics may very well continue far beyond the 2016 election. Indeed, politics as we know it may be fundamentally changing.
How nonviolent resistance impacts politics
Agenda setting — or elevating issues like inequality, race, and immigration to the forefront of public consciousness — is among the most important functions social movements can serve. But beyond setting the agenda, nonviolent resistance has other important organizational benefits.
Nonviolent resistance has the potential to mobilize large numbers of people compared with, say, movements that combine nonviolent and violent techniques. Because nonviolent resistance does not physically threaten the opponent, it provides the opportunity for movements to clearly communicate their messages to potential sympathizers and fence sitters without violence distracting from the core intent.
Because of this, well-organized nonviolent resistance tends to widen a movement’s appeal to a broader audience compared with violent or chaotic forms of unrest.
As a consequence, such movements have the capacity to create defections within the opponent — such as changes in policy preferences among political and economic elites, police officers’ refusal to serve in departments with racist practices, and corporate managers whistleblowing on their company’s environmental malfeasance.
How nonviolent resistance movements have shaped the 2016 elections
Many of the most prominent issues in the 2016 election — wealth inequality, the perils of foreign military intervention, and racial injustice — are part of the national debate in large part because multiple progressive social movements have used nonviolent action to bring these formerly fringe issues into the mainstream.
Occupy Wall Street generated a dedicated political conversation about wealth inequality, which now permeates both Democratic and Republican races and has pushed Bernie Sanders — an avowed democratic socialist, something many thought we'd never see in the US given the strong aversion to even the word "socialism" — forward despite a formidable and seasoned opponent in Hillary Clinton.
We see the outgrowths of this movement in the ongoing Democracy Spring protests, where thousands of people are occupying the steps of the US Capitol after a multi-day march from Philadelphia to demand that Congress pass legislation to get money out of politics.
The antiwar movement, which reached its pinnacle in the 1960s in response to the Vietnam War and resurrected itself in opposition to the 2003 Iraq War, has generated lasting conversation about alternatives to military intervention as a reflexive foreign policy tool. We see the current manifestation of this among those leftists opposed to Hillary Clinton, whose liberal-hawkish foreign policy preferences are deeply unpopular among today’s progressive forces.
Black Lives Matter began as a grassroots response to killings of black youth in Florida, Oakland, Ferguson, Baltimore, and elsewhere, but it has developed into a massive nonviolent movement that engages in a wide variety of civil disobedience actions, including shutting down major roads and highways, occupying public spaces in "die-ins," interrupting public figures, and removing Confederate flags from public institutions.
The movement has put racial injustice — and the unfinished business of the Reconstruction era and civil rights movement — back on the agenda in American politics in a way it hasn’t been in decades, disrupting candidates' messages on both sides of the partisan divide.
Even Sanders, widely seen as a sympathetic candidate among progressive leftists, has fumbled through interruptions by activists who have pressed him on his commitment to racial justice. Hillary Clinton’s filmed interactions with racial justice and climate activists have likewise challenged her progressive credentials in the eyes of her critics.
On the right, populism is dominating as well, albeit in a more fractured way. The Tea Party movement — although more of an electoral movement and not strictly a nonviolent one — brought mainstream attention to nationalist elements of the right-wing grassroots that promoted small government, tax cuts, increased defense spending, the ending of illegal immigration, protection of domestic labor markets, gun rights, and "traditional family values" such as opposition to LGBTQ rights and abortion.
All these social movements have convened an extremely diverse set of participants who otherwise would not have met, leading to surprising outcomes during this primary season. For example, many of the people forging Sanders’s campaign today met for the first time in the streets during Occupy Wall Street.
Likewise, many of those campaigning for Donald Trump met during the Tea Party protests of the mid-2000s, as well as during Occupy Wall Street. And Ted Cruz supporters generally emerge from activism combining some in the Tea Party with many on the Christian fundamentalist right, including those engaged in pro-life and Second Amendment activism and advocacy.
Such convening laid the foundations for further opportunities to organize effective political actions down the line, essentially pushing the organizational capacity of these groups into overdrive. For example, virtually every 2016 candidate has experienced routine interruptions and heckling on the stump. A wide range of progressive activists shut down Donald Trump’s rally in Chicago on the eve of the Illinois primary in March.
Clinton and Sanders have both experienced interruptions to their speeches. And Ted Cruz has not been immune, with nativists heckling him during his speeches about his Canadian birth. Even John Kasich, widely viewed as the most moderate of the Republican field, couldn’t avoid an interruption by a Trump supporter during his victory speech in Ohio.
The success of Sanders and Cruz in caucuses — which are largely determined by the candidates' abilities to mobilize supporters — also speaks to the protest-movement mindset of their campaigns. Sanders's wing of the left reflects a marriage of numerous social movements that have been actively and vigorously attempting to undermine establishment political, social, economic, and ecological behavior. Cruz’s supporters are likewise a hodgepodge of fundamentalists, economic nationalists, and small-government enthusiasts.
Trump holds well-attended rallies and tends to pull the majority of votes in primary races, but he does not have the kind of well-developed grassroots ground game the other two candidates do. It is thus no accident that the vast majority of Sanders and Cruz’s pledged delegates have come through the caucuses and not the primaries, where votes count but passion and mobilization do not.
Many people have asked me whether the violence displayed among Trump supporters toward their perceived opponents helps or hurts his chances at the White House. While electoral violence is a slightly different animal, the literature on nonviolent resistance provides some guidance here as well.
Contrary to widespread opinion, empirical research suggests that tolerating (or inciting) a violent flank alongside a primarily nonviolent movement is rarely a winning strategy in the long term. Consequently, one could argue that if Trump continues to call for violence against his perceived opponents, it will be difficult for him to expand his political base necessary for success in the general election.
Part of a bigger worldwide trend
The particularly contentious 2016 election cycle in the US is merely one manifestation of a broader worldwide trend that has been growing over the past decade or so, in which people are rejecting the right of the same old parties and politicians to govern without direct accountability for the population’s economic and social woes.
Since 2010 alone, we have seen more mass nonviolent uprisings than we saw during the entire 1980s — a decade characterized by an unprecedented level of popular mobilization surrounding the collapse of the Soviet Union.
And whereas popular uprisings of this kind have historically been the domain of authoritarian regimes — where civilians have few options with which to contest their governments — since around the time of the collapse of the global financial system in 2008, we have lived in a world where the establishment is up for grabs in democracies as well.
Erstwhile-stable Iceland, for example, has witnessed the collapse of two governments under popular pressure: one in 2009, during the so-called "Cutlery Revolution," and the other just two weeks ago after the Panama Papers ushered in a new corruption scandal for the incumbent Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson.
The rapid diffusion of information technology may have something to do with this, making nonviolent resistance somewhat "stickier" than it has been in prior periods. The spread of modern communication tools such as cellphones and internet to wider and wider segments of the global population, paired with the rise of social media, has made it much easier and faster for nonviolent movements to recruit, spread information, and coordinate and sustain mobilization. In Ukraine, for example, the use of Twitter was an important element in the staying power of the Euromaidan demonstrations.
There may also be a contagion effect at work here. The initial successes of Arab uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt as well as the Euromaidan revolution in Ukraine demonstrated to the world that nonviolent resistance has the potential to reshape political power from below, even in systems where skeptics would view nonviolent resistance as impossible and naive.
Nonviolent protest and mass mobilization are here to stay
All this means that regardless of which candidates are nominated — and which candidate is elected in November — these movements on the right and the left are not likely to disappear.
Supporters of Bernie Sanders don’t buy Hillary Clinton’s claim that she is progressive, seeing her instead as part of the establishment forces against which they’ve been fighting for decades. And, of course, many forces on the populist right will continue to mobilize against any Democratic nominee — Clinton or Sanders.
It’s the same story on the right. A President Trump or Cruz is likely to elicit mass mobilization among progressive activists of all stripes. On the off chance a contested Republican convention leads to a John Kasich nomination, Kasich as candidate (or president) will have to reckon with the fury of a disenfranchised populist right on top of all the challenges he’d face from the left.
In other words, regardless of the outcome of the general election in November, the populist mobilization in the United States isn’t going anywhere.
Erica Chenoweth is a professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. Find her on Twitter @EricaChenoweth.