In a public policy debate, how much opposition ensures defeat?


What percentage of a given population—working together in opposition to an existing regime—does it take to topple that government? Fifty percent? Thirty percent?

If the rest of the population is agnostic or apathetic, as little as 3.5 percent of the population can force a regime change, through violent or non-violent means.

It seems almost impossible. But when you consider how often relatively small, committed groups radically alter public opinion (and policy), the number seems less farfetched. And given the dramatically smaller scope of most public opinion campaigns, the requisite support needed to succeed is often much lower.

If you’re well-funded, committed, and willing to put in the time, you could probably achieve most opinion and policy goals with support from less than one percent of the population.

For industries looking to manage cultural shifts (and cultural shivs), these numbers have some real-world implications. Here are four steps every industry must take to protect itself from succumbing to a cultural shiv.


1.       Keep watch. Social media has made monitoring emerging trends easier … and more overwhelming. Your opposition will almost certainly spell out their plan at some point—but you have to recognize the signs early and take the threat seriously to get ahead of them.


2.       Take movements seriously. There is an almost-universal belief among industries that their efforts are critical to the economy and well-being of the United States, and this—while often true—leads them to underestimate the ability of their opponents to make cases based on emotion and anecdotes that trump their statistics and economic impact statements.

Too often, we see industries go through the painful transition from “no one would seriously take their side” to “if people only heard our side of the issue, they’d side with us” to “how did this happen?”


3.       Look for linkages. Activist groups are tremendously well organized. They communicate regularly, share executives among the organizations, hold endless conferences, and commission equally endless amounts of research from a common roster of indoctrinated “academics.” Keeping track of who your opponents are—and who they are likely to pull in—helps you stay on top of developments and track how the opposition is growing.

4.       Cultivate your allies and communities. This is the number one mistake that industries make. Their value to their customers or the economy is so patently obvious to them that they think everyone else understands it as well. And by the time they realize they need to educate the public, the well has been poisoned by misinformation and malicious campaigns.

Building a network of allies and invested communities before you need them, and continuing to stiffen their spines, debunk misinformation, and make them able and enthusiastic ambassadors for your industry takes time and effort … but it yields invaluable benefits when you’re facing a well-organized adversary, especially those with good reputations.

After all, just as it takes a small-but-passionate percentage of the population to win on an issue, that same group can be stymied by an opposing small-but-passionate percentage on the other side.