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Contributed by:
ISB Staff Writers

Professor Hahrie Han, “Understanding Protest and Resistance in the Trump Era”, May 2, UCSB Library

Professor Hahrie Han jokingly said she started her career in the fifth grade when she organized a protest and ended up in the principal’s office.  As a Harvard student, she organized another protest and ended up in the dean’s office.  So she decided to switch from organizing protests to researching protests.

Today she is one of the nation’s top researchers on grassroots engagement in environmental and political issues.  She specializes in understanding the factors and conditions that lead to whether or not a social movement will be successful.  Why is this important?  She said the most common outcome of social movements is “nothing happens, nothing changes” in Washington, D.C.

But grassroots organizations have changed history in significant ways. Examples include the Suffragettes who led the way for women to get the vote, the Civil Rights Movement that resulted in a host of civil rights laws and Mothers Against Drunk Drivers, which led to seat belt legislation.

Contrary to popular opinion, large numbers of activists and ample money are not the most important predictors of political success.  Based on Professor Han’s research, people and money correlated to political success only about half the time. That is equivalent to the odds of flipping a coin.

So what works?
The single most important predictor of affecting political change is for an organization to have access to high-level decision makers and deliver what they want – which usually means votes.  The organization must be able to deliver that competitive advantage on a consistent and recurring basis.

How is “success” defined?
Success is defined by the grassroots organization reaching the goal(s) it sets out to achieve.  This could mean influencing the public narrative like Occupy Wall Street did on income inequality. Success could mean influencing or setting a new agenda like Martin Luther King did.  Or it could mean changing public policy and legislation such as the Prohibition leaders did which led to the 18th Amendment, and was later repealed by other activists through the 21st Amendment.

Did the research indicate any counter-intuitive results important to progressive activists?
Yes!  The research showed that 44 per cent of anti-abortion activists said they didn’t hold anti-abortion views before they became involved in the movement. However, they had some other connection to the movement and became converts.  Their connection may have been a friend who invited them to attend a meeting (and they didn’t want to say no) or a famous speaker who attracted them to attend. The lesson for progressives is it’s a mistake to target solely people who are already believers.

Is the Trump era any different from earlier periods of protest?
Studies show that people respond more to threats than opportunities.  Trump has brought a lot of smoldering issues in the US to the front and made them his own.  Within the first 100 days of his administration, there have been threats and executive orders across a broad range of issues including restricting travel into the US, rolling back environmental regulations, and changing the rules on healthcare.

The challenge for progressives in the Trump era is how to convert the fear of a common threat into the power of a common purpose, especially as the threat wanes.  The longer Trump is in office, the more his threats become normalized.

Below is a Q&A on the essentials needed to change public policy and legislation, in terms of resources, strategies, organization, and attracting and motivating activists for the long-term.


If people and money are not the most important resource to create a successful movement, what is?
The most important resource is the relationships the grassroots organization has with high-level decision makers.  This includes high-level elected officials, political appointees, and key lobbyists.  Professor Han said “power isn’t a thing.  It’s not something I have and you don’t. It’s a relationship.  So thinking in terms of power being relational, the elite relationships are important.”

In addition, there are three levels of power:
(1) visible forms of power such as getting a candidate to act,
(2) invisible forms of power such as who decides what is included on an agenda, and
(3) persuasive power on how the world works and being able to change someone’s assumptions.


What are the key factors to include in a strategy to be successful?
It is essential to have a clear goal and a clear pathway on how to get from what you have to what you want. Occupy Wall Street had neither.  Without a clear pathway, the Occupy movement wasn’t able to leverage its large number of activists and frequent media coverage.

In addition, a strategy must be able to deliver a “competitive and recurrent advantage,” such as delivering votes. The NRA excels at this.  There are nearly 15,000 more gun clubs in America than grocery stores, and the clubs give members the skills to influence elected officials and get out the vote against gun control supporters.  The NRA ‘s “competitive and recurrent advantage” is that it can move votes. Politically, the most successful movements are ones that work at the local, state and national level and coordinate their efforts.


Is it better to be centralized or decentralized?
The plan or strategy should be centralized and the work should be distributed or decentralized. This is how Indivisible is organized. The goal and “pathway forward from what we have to what we want” was developed at the national level, but the work is carried out by nearly 6,000 chapters across the country working at the local level with strategies adapted to each community.

If the goal and strategy is not centralized, then the result is a scattered and diluted effort, with ad-hoc outcomes.

People Power

What does it take to attract activists and keep them engaged for the long-term?
To get people to come back to a second meeting and become converts usually takes creating a socially engaging or fun meeting. People are social animals.

For both the short and long-term, the way an organization continually engages people influences its capacity to shape political outcomes. People are not transformed or engaged by sitting in front of a computer writing letters or calling legislators.  They need to have social interaction to build their commitment, share tips on what really works and learn new skills.

So what’s the bottom line?
Professor Han said that success depends “not just on what resources you have, but how you use what you have to get what you want.”

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Hahrie Han is the Anton Vonk Associate Professor of Environmental Politics in UCSB’s Department of Political Science. She received her Ph.D. in American politics from Stanford University and her bachelor’s degree in American history and literature from Harvard University. Her most recent book is “How Organizations Develop Activists:  Civic Associations and Leadership in the 21st Century”  (July 2014)

For more on Professor Han:
Han UCSB Profile:
Han Interview with The Atlantic (April 2017)

Han research on movement building for the Ford Foundation:
Full report
Summary report

Further reading suggestions:
How the Tea Party and Koch Network were able to leverage grassroots power,
by Theda Skocpol Harvard University.

Notes from Marshall Ganz on how to organize.