5.13. What Makes a Movement Successful?

If we take a step back, and do our homework before we take action…we’re going to be much more likely to succeed.

What makes a social movement successful?

A lot of scholars have spent a lot of time and energy looking into this question.

There’s no magic formula, of course. But there are plenty of things that have been found to correlate with success.

Yes, size matters. A lot.

But just as importantly, so does diversity. It’s not enough for a movement to be big. It also has to be broad. It can’t just be confined to one location, or to a small group of activists, or to just a few social or demographic groups.

We know that nonviolent movements have a better track record than violent movements.

Nonviolent movements alienate fewer people, put people in less dangerous situations, and allow more people to participate, including those who aren’t fit for combat.

But violence is also usually a strategic blunder, even if your goal is to overthrow a government. Because the military and the police are one of the government’s greatest strengths—and it’s just not smart, in any struggle, to attack your opponent where they’re strongest.

The best way to win is to use your movement’s strengths to apply pressure where your opponent is weakest. By using violence, you do the exact opposite of that.

Successful movements are also proactive, durable, long-lasting, and use a variety of different tactics.

You can’t just get excited, run out and pull off a protest, and expect anything to change.

In fact, we’re probably overusing protests nowadays—because we remember the success of that tactic in the 1960s, and are trying to duplicate it today.

There are lots of ways protests can backfire: when they’re too small, when they alienate more people than they attract, when they embolden the opposition.

Meanwhile, there are tons of other tactics we could be using.

Gene Sharp—the guy who literally wrote the book on how to topple an oppressive regime—compiled a list of 198 methods of nonviolent action!

Successful movements play a long game. They have a plan. They use the full arsenal of tactics at their disposal, pick which ones are best suited to the situation at hand, and make adjustments as the situation develops.

A lot of people used to be optimistic about the potential of using social media to fuel social movements, when they played a pivotal role in the Arab Spring.

But many of those movements were suppressed, fizzled out, or struggled after their initial successes. Because even though social media helped them get together and pull off their initial actions, it didn’t help them play that necessary long game. It didn’t help them come up with a strategic plan, or switch up their tactics.

We need to take these lessons to heart.

Too often, we simply try to create social change by quickly cobbling something together, without much thought about how to create a big, diverse, proactive, durable, long-lasting, nonviolent movement with a good strategic plan and multiple tactics…and then just cross our fingers and hope it works out.

It shouldn’t surprise us when it doesn’t work out.

If we take a step back, and do our homework before we take action…we’re going to be much more likely to succeed.


This is the 89th in a series of over 150 videos about how to create real, lasting social change. Click here for a list of all titles, videos, and transcripts.

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