Originally published in The National Interest on 7/5/13
Many are asking why people in democratic regimes are taking to the streets. First there was Paul Pillar in The National Interest. Then, drawing on Pillar, Tom Friedman asked the same question in the New York Times. There was also a cover story about this in The Economist. The topic should attract attention. After all, democratic theory assumes that if people are dissatisfied with their government, they will get a new one via the ballot box. But whether in Brazil, Turkey or many other democracies, people are instead protesting. Moreover, all too frequently what start as a peaceful demonstrations turn into violent confrontations with the police or other demonstrators.
I want to add a few thoughts to the important points already made by Pillar and others. It is clear that these eruptions are driven by multiple factors, and cannot be explained by one hypothesis alone. One factor is the romanticizing of the mob. When people took to the streets to topple the Stasi state of communist East Germany or sat in front of the Russian parliament to protect the budding democratic regime, the Western media gushed about “people power.” The same happened when masses took to the squares and toppled authoritarian Arab regimes, beginning with Tunisia and Egypt.
Not much attention was paid to an aspect of the protests that deeply concerned the founding fathers—that such mobs can get out of hand. Even less attention was devoted to the fact that such uprisings can wreck governments, whether or not they should be overthrown, without laying the foundations for new regimes.
In the months that followed, most of these nations squandered or never had their constitutional “movement.” Unlike the founding fathers, who met at length in Philadelphia and worked out agreed new principles on which the newly born American republic was going to be founded, in the Middle East, constitutions were written in great haste, often under duress engendered by one group or another. In Turkey, the regime moved away from the long-established secular consensus.
More deeply concerning is the loss of personal self-restraint combined with overhyping by the political class. In some countries, such as Greece, Portugal, Spain and Ireland, people got used to living well above their means, and are having a hard time accepting their true circumstances. In Brazil, Turkey, India and China, the rising standard of living has led people to expect that all would live the way the rich live on television. Leaders have egged on these unrealistic expectations by boundless promises of affluence.
No one can predict what will happen next. The Economist is correct in suggesting that all these demonstrations abroad may end up having little more effect than the various Occupy movements in the United States. Yet there can be little doubt that the time has come for all nations to ask what they can realistically deliver to their masses, and help adjust people’s expectations to what can be done.