Why have there recently been so many popular protests in democracies?
The former CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar asked this question in a recent essay in The National Interest: Why are we seeing so many popular street revolts in democracies? Speaking specifically of Turkey and Brazil,but posing a question that could be applied to Egypt,Israel,Russia,Chile and the United States,Pillar asks: The governments being protested against were freely and democratically elected. With the ballot box available,why should there be recourse to the street?
It is an important question,and the answer,I believe,is the convergence of three phenomena. The first is the rise and proliferation of illiberal majoritarian democracies. In Russia,Turkey and todays Egypt,we have seen mass demonstrations to protest majoritarianism ruling parties that were democratically elected (or sort of in Russias case) but interpret their elections as a writ to do whatever they want once in office,including ignoring the opposition,choking the news media and otherwise behaving in imperious or corrupt ways,as if democracy is only about the right to vote,not rights in general and especially minority rights. What the protesters in Turkey,Russia and Egypt all have in common is a powerful sense of theft,a sense that the people who got elected are stealing something more than money: the peoples voice and right to participate in governance. Nothing can make a new democrat,someone who just earned the right to vote,angrier.
A second factor is the way middle-class workers are being squeezed between a shrinking welfare state and a much more demanding job market. For so many years,workers were told that if you just work hard and play by the rules,youll be in the middle class. That is just not true anymore. You have to work harder,work smarter,bring more innovation to whatever job you do,retool yourself more often and then you can be in the middle class. Too few leaders are levelling with their people about this shift,let alone helping them navigate it.
In America,the Tea Party began as a protest against Republicans for being soft on deficits,and Occupy Wall Street as a protest against Democrats for being soft on bankers. In Brazil,a 9 cent increase in bus fares set off mass protests,in part because it seemed so out of balance when the government was spending some $30 billion on stadiums for the Olympics and the World Cup.
Finally,thanks to the proliferation of smartphones,tablets,Twitter,Facebook and blogging,aggrieved individuals now have much more power to engage in,and require their leaders to engage in,two-way conversations and they have much greater ability to link up with others who share their views to hold flash protests. The net result is this: Autocracy is less sustainable than ever. Democracies are more prevalent than ever but they will also be more volatile than ever. Look for more people in the streets more often over more issues with more independent means to tell their stories at ever-louder decibels.
The New York Times