Why are people protesting everywhere?
We have entered one of those moments when citizens around the world become aware of their global connections. People in numerous regions are revolting against their government leaders. This is most evident in the Middle East – from Tunisia and Egypt to Iran and Libya – where young men and women are courageously organizing to topple dictators. In China, groups of citizens are “strolling” through cities to express their dissatisfaction with restrictions on their freedom. Throughout Europe in recent months groups have demonstrated against governments that seem stymied by slow economic growth and ever scarcer public resources. Even in the United States – especially in “heartland” cities from Madison, Wisconsin to Columbus, Ohio – tens of thousands of citizens have taken to the streets against strong-willed governors. In Madison, teachers, firefighters, carpenters, and students have spent three weeks camping in front of the state Capitol demanding that Republican legislators reconsider proposals to starve public education, cut health services, and crush unions. From Cairo to Madison, political contention has motivated major public protests on a scale not seen since the late 1960s.
Men and women in these cities are acutely conscious that they are part of a global moment: “The whole world is watching.” Protests against electoral fraud in Iran in 2009 inspired marches in Tunisia, then Egypt, and now Bahrain, Yemen, Libya, and other Middle Eastern societies. The courage and hope of one group of citizens convinced others that they too could make demands on long repressive regimes. In the United States, the evidence that young men and women could challenge the guns of dictators abroad surely motivated workers and students to assert their own power, in far less dangerous circumstances. As historians have observed for prior moments of transnational unrest (1968, 1919, 1848) the “demonstration effects” of protests are quite strong, especially when events get prominent media coverage. The whole world is watching, and many observers are moved (and empowered) by what they see.
Global movements do not have single causes. People revolt in different places for different reasons specific to their locales. The demands of protesters in Egypt, China, and Madison, Wisconsin are not the same. They Egyptians are demanding an end to military dictatorship in a context of economic and social stagnation. The Chinese are pushing for more personal freedom in a police state that promises security, economic growth, and single-party rule. The workers and students in Madison are operating in a free and austere environment, challenging the claims of recently elected officials that budget cuts require savaging basic commitments to community and the least advantaged. These are separate movements, with diverse motives and goals. They operate in very different circumstances.
What makes these movements global is one basic theme that frames protests across the Middle East, Asia, Europe, and the United States. This theme contributes to a sense of urgency, an affirmation of righteousness, and a feeling of togetherness across societies. Protesters feel they are not alone, but part of a larger community that shares their concerns, their frustrations, and their moral claims. Despite the local odds, they feel they cannot lose because “history is on their side.” The whole world of forward-looking people is watching.
What is the theme that offers this global connection? We might call it the “representative gap.” In each and every society experiencing major protests today there are political leaders in power who have strong claims to legitimacy based on established procedures of selection: tradition, elite consensus, party promotion, and popular election. All of the figures under public attack can claim that their authority is “normal,” “constitutional,” and “recognized” internationally. Citizens are not confronting usurpers, but entrenched political powers.
That is precisely the point. The diverse men and women who have taken to the streets in different societies comprise groups of educated, articulate, energetic, and mostly young citizens who feel locked out of power. Established political processes in nearly every major society are organized around interest groups that are corporate, backward-looking, and middle aged. They think in terms of factories, budgets, and public order. They are generally baby-boomers who came of age after the Second World War and are fearful that their present earnings and security are jeopardized.
The protesters come from large social groups (pluralities but not majorities) that have little voice in political systems affirming the present over the future. They are professionalized, forward-looking, and often entering what should be their highest earning years. The protesters think in terms of innovation, investments, and the free flow of ideas among as many people as possible. They are the real advocates of markets: markets driven by creativity, connection, and individual control. Their model is the web-like social networking of Facebook and Twitter, not the linear television and telephone lines favored (and manipulated) by their leaders.
The “representative gap” between the traditional political interests in modern societies and a new cohort of professional citizens is the common source of conflict across the globe. The “representative gap” reflects the demographic, educational, and economic trends that cross cultural and national boundaries. Until a new set of pragmatic and courageous leaders emerges in multiple societies to bridge this gap we can expect more protests, more polarization, and probably more violence. The protests mark a global turning point when the politics of the street require a new politics in the besieged palaces of power. Stubborn entrenched leaders in Tripoli, Beijing, and Madison, Wisconsin will only turn conflict to disaster.
The opinions expressed in this blog are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of either Global Brief or the Glendon School of Public and International Affairs.