Perhaps the single most remarkable development in 2011 is the wave of political protests that have occurred in widely-varying political contexts. In addition to the various upheavals that constitute the "Arab Spring," we've also seen tent cities in Israel, the "Occupy Wall Street" movement and its clones here in the United States, and various imitators in both Europe and Asia. This wave of political contagion is more widespread than the "velvet revolutions" of 1989 (though not yet as significant), and perhaps the nearest analogue would be wave of youth-revolutions and upheavals that occurred back in 1968.
What is going on here? Is there a common set of causes at work, or at least a common thread to otherwise diverse phenomena? I think so, because I see these upheavals as fueled by three important global developments.
The first factor is economic globalization, which has made many states both sensitive and vulnerable to events in far-away places, and led to rising inequality both between and within countries. Yet most governments have failed to enact remedial measures to soften the consequences of economic change and to restore a more level distribution of income, thereby ensuring some degree of economic pain and political discontent.
The second development is the globalization of information, which allows events and ideas to spread much more quickly. As a result, demonstrators in Cairo can watch what's happening in Tunis and imitate it, and then other people in other countries get the idea that protest can be effective, even if their particular grievances are somewhat different. And so it spreads, as the radical idea of ordinary people taking action against the seemingly impregnable becomes increasingly contagious. Plus, each group can learn from each other and feed off the sense of being part of a larger process, instead of feeling like isolated and powerless individuals with scant hope of success. This sort of thing has happened before in world history (e.g., in 1789, 1848, 1919, 1989, etc.), but never in so many far-flung and widely different contexts.
The third reason is the increasingly-evident incompetence and/or corruption of governing elites in many countries, and the tendency of governments to do too much to protect wealthy and powerful interests and not enough to help ordinary people. In Egypt, it was the overt corruption of the Mubarak regime, whether in the form of privileged deals for military officers or for Mubarak's son. In the United States, it was the taxpayer-funded rescue of "too big to fail" financial institutions as well as the "too-well connected to fail" recycling of some of the same people who helped create the whole mess in the first place. And then there's the continued recycling of policy ideas that had been discredited by events but never discarded. People may be disappointed by Obama, but real disenchantment comes from the growing realization that replacing him wouldn't make much difference and might make things much worse. You know the line: "Meet the New Boss....Same as the Old Boss." (Turns out Pete Townshend was a prophet when he wrote "Won't Get Fooled Again," which would be a nice anthem for many of these movements.)
There is, of course, a deeper taproot to all this. As my colleague Jenny Mansbridge reminded me in a superb talk I attended last week, (and which will be published next month in PS), the present combination of economic inequality and political gridlock is fatal to the proper functioning of democratic orders. In a capitalist democracy, corporate interests tend to be wealthier than the rest of society, and the state is the only actor powerful enough to intervene to prevent corporate interests from going too far and exploiting their position. This is what happened in the Gilded Age and again in the Roaring 20s, which eventually led to the Progressive Era and later the New Deal.
But if the political system is gridlocked, then the state cannot act quickly or decisively to retard corporate power. Even worse, as corporate interests grow stronger they tend to acquire greater political power (and especially when a tame Supreme Court helps them, as it did in the Citizens United decision). Instead of just hamstringing the state, corporate interests can get it to enact laws that favor them even more. The result will be rising economic inequality and precisely the sort of irresponsible and unregulated behavior that led to the Great Recession of 2007.
Put these three things together, and you have a recipe for global protests in very different countries. Despite the many differences between conditions in the United States, in Greece, in Egypt, in Syria, in Israel, or elsewhere, what unites the 2011 wave of global protest is the shared belief that the People in Charge do not know what they are doing, care more about their own wealth and well-being than they do about the common weal, or are simply too spineless and shallow to do what at least a few of them secretly know to be right.
Ask yourself: how many contemporary political leaders do you genuinely admire? How many of them would rate a paragraph, let alone a whole chapter, in a revised edition of Profiles in Courage? How many of them seem capable of giving you a straight answer to a hard question, as opposed to offering you a lot of happy double-talk? How many of them are better at making a powerful speech than they are at taking a principled stand and sticking to it? How many of them have really got your back, as opposed to pandering to the endless parade of well-heeled lobbyists and special interest groups? Is there political leader in your country who is not for sale?
If you've been paying attention, and you can't find such leaders in your country, and you having been watching the obscenely wealthy get richer and more powerful, so that they can rig the game to make themselves richer still, then you'd probably think about painting a sign and getting out in the streets. And if I didn't already have this blog for my soap-box, maybe I would too.
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Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.