Gene Sharp’s “From Dictatorship to Democracy” Speaks to the Age of Trump

Though well known to some and little known by many, Gene Sharp’s From Dictatorship to Democracy has served as a handbook for pro-democracy advocates throughout the world. It is not an academic treatise on the whys and wherefores of this or that dictatorship; rather it is a straightforward, 100-page manual for formulating the strategies and choosing the tactics needed to bring down dictators, complete with an appendix listing 198 concrete actions available to do just that.

Donald Trump is no dictator. He is a demagogue who has managed to get himself elected president of the most powerful nation in the world on a far-right agenda which, to the extent he is able to implement, would be a disaster both at home and abroad.

That is where Gene Sharp comes in. With a few exceptions and with a little modification and imagination, From Dictatorship to Democracy can be read as “From Demagoguery (back) to Democracy.”

First, a word about Sharp himself. He is in his late 80s and has spent much of his life visiting, studying and analyzing pro-democracy movements under dictatorships — Panama, Poland, Chile, Tibet, Burma, Lithuania, Tiananmen Square and the like. From Dictatorship to Democracy is the result. It does not propose specific strategies, but “offers some guidelines to assist thought and planning to produce movements of liberation that are more powerful and effective than might otherwise be the case.” In other words, it provides a conceptual framework upon which coherent strategies can be built. Since its first publication in the 1990s, From Dictatorship to Democracy has served as a handbook for pro-democracy movements throughout the world.

Let’s begin with his basics.

The first is obvious:

One characteristic of a democratic society is that there exist independent of the state a multitude of nongovernmental groups…. These include, for example, families, religious organizations, cultural associations, sports clubs, economic institutions, trade unions, student associations, political parties, villages, neighborhood associations, gardening clubs, human rights organizations, musical groups, literary societies, and others. These bodies are important in serving their own objectives and also in helping to meet social needs. Additionally, these bodies have great political significance. They provide group and institutional bases by which people can exert influence over the direction of their society and resist … government [action that impinges] unjustly on their interests, activities, or purposes.

Because Trump is a demagogue, not a dictator, I would expand Sharp’s list to include those groups of elected officials and government workers, state and federal, who recognize the danger of Trumpism and want to do something about it. Legislative caucuses are just one example.

And the corollary: “Isolated individuals, not members of such groups, usually are unable to make a significant impact on the rest of the society, much less a government….”

In a dictatorship, there is likely to be a paucity of NGOs; in the United States there is a multiplicity. While that can be an advantage, it is an advantage with its own difficult challenges. Those independent centers of power must work together. Initially, they must reach out to each other and begin the process of formulating coordinated and complementary strategies, realizing that doing so will, in some cases, entail adjusting or altering individual objectives. Otherwise, the result will be a well-meaning, but ineffective Tower of Babel, with Black folks here, the LBGT community there, feminists, environmentalists, immigration activists and so on, each speaking its own tongue — a fine opportunity for Trump to divide and conquer.

While actual strategies are for participant groups to formulate, I have one suggestion for getting underway: multi-interest groups (MoveOn, Act Blue, and the like) sponsor forums in localities where they have roots, inviting more focused interest groups. There would be meetings and workshops looking for common ground, discussing priorities, perhaps reviewing possible tactics. A workshop or two, where case histories are discussed and critiqued — Black Lives Matter or Occupy, for example — would be interesting and helpful. That is just one idea; there are no doubt many more.

The role of the Democratic Party in all this presents a dilemma. It is eventually essential, but presently compromised. For my part, I would urge the Clintons to step away and let a new politics of opposition develop to a point where it can be integrated into the Party — strategies which ensure that they appreciate the new reality, especially the risks of negotiation (see below), and are prepared to provide committed opposition to Trumpism.

A final warning, there is a danger that dark blue states — especially California — will retreat into themselves, content to provide “shining examples.” Balkanization is not the answer. Those groups must also reach out to the rest of the US.

Persuasion and Conversion. One would like to believe that “if members of the opponent group are emotionally moved by the suffering of repression imposed on courageous nonviolent resisters or are rationally persuaded that the resisters’ cause is just, they may come to accept the resisters’ aims. This mechanism is called conversion.”

Sharp challenges that belief: “Though cases of conversion in nonviolent action do sometimes happen they are rare, and in most conflicts this does not occur at all or at least not on a significant scale.” That is certainly true of Trump’s avid supporters — Tea Partiers, white supremacists and those enchanted by his demagoguery — but there may be openings among supporters who voted for him because of their intense dislike of Hillary Clinton and those who, despite their misgivings, found it difficult to abandon their traditional allegiance to the Republican Party. The fact remains that, more often than not, nonviolent struggle succeeds, not by persuasion, but “by changing the conflict situation and the society so that the opponents simply cannot do as they like.”

The Risks of Negotiation. While Americans like to think that problems can be solved by “reasonable people sitting down to work things out,” Sharp does not. He thinks that negotiation with a dictator is usually a fruitless waste of time. Donald Trump prides himself as a negotiator, but he and his cohorts are, for the most part, not reasonable people with reasonable demands. And Trump, if his history is any guide, is a cutthroat negotiator. He will yield (or compromise, if you like) on one or another issue only when confronted with real countervailing power. At present, few, if any, existing independent organizations can bring that level of power to a negotiation. And, even more important, when and if they do, there must be widespread agreement that certain issues — the threat posed by global warming, for example — are non-negotiable. That said, any proposed compromise must be viewed skeptically, as something Trump will, if he can, repudiate or twist to his own ends. Any deal must be “nailed down” and publicized in a manner that will make it difficult or dangerous for him to ignore or subvert.

The Question of Violence and Destruction of Property. Sharp comes from a tradition of nonviolence, but one need not be a pacifist to recognize that violence and willful destruction of property are non-starters in the struggle against Trumpism. They will, almost certainly, alienate broad segments of the population, and Trump will seize upon them to discredit the opposition and to implement and expand his “law and order” agenda.

That leaves “civil disobedience,” a term we have come to equate with the marches and sit-ins of the civil rights era. Sharp offers much more:

About two hundred specific methods of nonviolent action have been identified, and there are certainly scores more. These methods are classified under three broad categories: protest and persuasion, noncooperation, and intervention. Methods of nonviolent protest and persuasion are largely symbolic demonstrations, including parades, marches, and vigils (54 methods). Noncooperation is divided into three sub-categories: (a) social noncooperation (16 methods), (b) economic noncooperation, including boycotts (26 methods) and strikes (23 methods), and (c) political noncooperation (38 methods). Nonviolent intervention, by psychological, physical, social, economic, or political means, such as the fast, nonviolent occupation, and parallel government (41 methods), is the final group. A list of 198 of these methods is included as the Appendix to this publication.

Preserving the integrity and credibility of an organization is not easy. Too much secrecy can lead to suspicion, accusation and paranoia. To avoid those dangers, Sharp recommends as much openness about intentions and plans as possible, understanding that “there are significant aspects of resistance activities that may require secrecy.”

Strategy. By far, the most important element in Sharp’s “Conceptual Framework of Liberation” is strategy. Half of his manual is devoted to its formulation and implementation. His analysis is subtle and detailed. The best I can offer is a short, overly didactic outline of his approach (my apologies).

Preliminary to any strategy is an appreciation the sources power upon which all governments — good and bad — depend:

  • Authority, the belief among the people that the regime is legitimate,
    and that they have a moral duty to obey it;
  • Human resources, the number and importance of the persons and groups which are obeying, cooperating or providing assistance to the rulers;
  • Skills and knowledge, needed by the regime to perform specific actions and supplied by the cooperating persons and groups;
  • Intangible factors, psychological and ideological factors that may induce people to obey and assist the rulers;
  • Material resources, the degree to which the rulers control or have access to property, natural resources, financial resources, the economic system, and means of communication and
    transportation; and
  • Sanctions, punishments, threatened or applied, against the disobedient and non-cooperative to ensure the submission and cooperation that are needed for the regime to exist and
    carry out its policies.

Successful strategies for change target those sources of power and seek to return them to democratic control. As Sharp says, “Withdrawal of popular and institutional cooperation … diminishes, and may sever, the availability of the sources of power on which all rulers depend. Without availability of those sources, the rulers’ power weakens and finally dissolves.”

Sharp begins his discussion of strategy with several definitions. A Grand Strategy “is the conception that serves to coordinate and direct the use of all appropriate and available resources (economic, human, moral, political, organizational, etc.) of a group seeking to attain its objectives in a conflict.” With Trumpism, given its well-recognized contradictions and dangers, that should not be difficult to formulate. What Sharp terms “Strategic Planning” (or just “Strategy”) is another matter.

[A] strategic plan is the basic idea of how a campaign shall develop, and how its separate components shall be fitted together to contribute most advantageously to achieve its objectives. It involves the skillful deployment of particular action groups in smaller operations. Planning for a wise strategy must take into consideration the requirements for success in the operation of the chosen technique of struggle. Different techniques will have different requirements.

Finally, “Tactics” are the methods of action appropriate to the strategy chosen. They will vary as the implementation of the strategy unfolds. Care must be taken to pick tactics with which the group is comfortable and for which they have been trained. Sharp’s Appendix, with its 198 Methods of Nonviolent Action, offers a smorgasbord of choices, and, as he says, there may be others.

He then turns to the questions that must be asked and answered in formulating a strategy:

  • What are the main obstacles to achieving the policy sought?
  • What factors will facilitate achieving the policy sought?
  • What are the main strengths of the demagogue?
  • What are the various weaknesses of the demagogue?
  • To what degree are the sources of power for the demagogue vulnerable?
  • What are the strengths of the democratic forces and the general population?
  • What are the weaknesses of the democratic forces and how can they be corrected?
  • What is the status of third parties, not immediately involved in the conflict, who already assist or might assist, either the demagogue or the democratic movement, and if so in what ways?

Finally, he sets outs the necessary characteristics of a successful strategy:

  • It is difficult to combat.
  • It can uniquely aggravate weaknesses of the opposition and can impair its sources of power.
  • Its actions can be widely dispersed but can also be concentrated on specific objectives.
  • It leads to errors of judgment and action by the opposition.
  • It effectively utilizes the population as a whole and the society’s groups and institutions in the struggle.

To which I add:

  • Provision for the escalation (or de-escalation) of tactics chosen as events unfold; and
  • The ability to modify the strategy as circumstances change.

What Sharp provides, then, are the tools (what he calls a “conceptual framework”) for creating and implementing a strategy. Actual strategies are, of course, left for non-governmental groups to create for themselves. For those who have already developed as strategy, Sharp provides a helpful checklist for evaluating what you have. For those who are in the process of creating a strategy or who have yet to do so, it is an valuable companion.

A further note on strategy: While the direction of the Trump administration is clear, there is no way to know exactly when and how critical events will unfold, but we must be ready. As they come, there will no doubt be spontaneous outbursts and demonstrations. About these, Sharp says, “While spontaneity has some positive qualities, it has often had disadvantages.” Not every outburst should be indulged. As Sharp says,

In the initial stages of the struggle, separate campaigns with different specific objectives can be very useful. Such selective campaigns may follow one after the other. Occasionally, two or three might overlap in time.

Those chosen should be ones which best “symbolize the general oppression” and which are “attainable by the current or projected power capacity of the democratic forces. This helps to ensure a series of victories, which are good for morale, and also contribute to advantageous incremental shifts in power relations for the long-term struggle.”

The trick, then, is to harness the energy of spontaneity and, where possible, integrate it quickly, before it dissipates or is crushed, into advantageous “selective resistance.” An imperfect but useful example is Black Lives Matter. In fact, it — or some movement like it — could prove helpful as a “case history” to be studied as groups formulate their strategies.

Modernizing Sharp. Sharp’s ideas were formulated before the ascendency of the computer. In our new cyber-world, the computer is essential for communicating, organizing and rapidly responding to new situations, but it can also serve as a critical tool for effectuating one of Sharp’s primary tactical categories, “intervention.” The United States is a gigantic bureaucracy. Any command issuing from above — an executive order, a regulation, an intra-agency directive — must travel through layers of bureaucracy to be implemented. Cyber intervention along the way, whether from within or without, would, given Sharp’s approach, warrant inclusion as one of his tactics for slowing, confusing or even preventing an unjust directive. It is, however, a tactic which, he would caution, should not be used randomly or indiscriminately, and always with the awareness that the other side has its own sophisticated cyber defenses and weapons.

Dictatorships thrive on secrecy and disinformation. The Trump administration is sure to follow their lead in spades. I believe that Sharp would counter those dangers by tactics addressing the hacking of governmental and complicit non-governmental sites — in a responsible, Edward Snowden manner — and, of course, by encouraging serious investigative journalism.

Two tactics mentioned in passing by Sharp deserve greater emphasis: music and humor. Trump is one thin-skinned demagogue; witness his reaction to Alec Baldwin on “Saturday Night Live.” Comedians, cartoonists and humorists, keep needling him!

Artists, better than most, can spot a phony, and Trump is a phony. Musicians — and by that, I mean anything from jazz to rap and everything between and beyond — are a powerful force in our culture. Working through their own groups or with others, they are essential participants in the struggle against Trump.

And the same is true of that related and all-encompassing phenomenon of our time: the superstar. Not only musicians, but athletes and actors inhabit that powerful, new realm. While one may lament the phenomenon, their participation is critical, and many are already sympathetic. The problem of large egos and cautious/financially-oriented advisers can be overcome.

A final footnote: A few years ago, Sharp was accused by some in the leftist press of collaborating with and accepting funds from the CIA. He has consistently denied those charges and, after a period of sustained attack, Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn, along with 136 other scholars and activists defended him in a signed open letter which was circulated here and abroad. One way or another, there is little doubt that the CIA is aware of From Dictatorship to Democracy and may well have utilized it in formulating some of its own misguided strategies.

So what? From Dictatorship to Democracy stands on its own as a powerful tool, which like all powerful tools is susceptible of misuse.