“Why Great Revolutions Will Become Rare”

27 January 2020

Judging by the various mass protest movements that have erupted around the world in recent years (see the rest of our series on global revolt here), there have been no shortage of potential triggers for something similar in the United States. One common reason for these uprisings have been government policies imposing increased costs on basic needs of many working- and middle-class people: even modest raises in the price of fuel in France, subway fare in Chile, or electronic messaging in Lebanon can be seen as a major indignity in the context of historic economic inequality. The other main thread is a sense of democratic impunity, a feeling that there is a political class that is wholly unresponsive to the desires of the demos—a feeling shared by protesters from the precarious democracies of Hong Kong, Algeria, and Lebanon to the relatively stable political systems of France and Chile.


A great many Americans would be justified in taking to the streets on both accounts. Compared to its peers among rich countries, the United States inflicts plenty of economic indignities on its people, the price of healthcare and the horrors of private insurance being only the most egregious example. And under the Trump Administration—a president elected by a minority of the voters who openly admits to impeachable offenses, knowing that the GOP Senate will never remove him—there are plenty of reasons to believe that those in power are acting with impunity. On top of the unique behavior of Donald Trump, state Republican Parties have been hard at work shielding their governments from the popular will, both through familiar tools such as gerrymandering and through novel tools of voter disfranchisement, and even open reversals of statewide referenda.


Yet there is currently no mass protest movement on a scale anywhere near what has taken place in other countries—nothing that has dominated news cycles or forced national leaders to make policy concessions (cf. Macron in France), and certainly nothing that has forced them to resign or stand down from a re-election campaign (cf. Hariri in Lebanon, Bouteflika in Algeria) or contemplate constitutional reform (cf. Piñera in Chile). It is tempting—especially on this blog—to look to Tocqueville to understand why, particularly his famous chapter from the second volume of Democracy in America entitled Pourquoi les grandes révolutions deviendront rares. Tocqueville argues a truly democratic society like the United States will be essentially a middle-class society, populated by “an innumerable multitude of men who are nearly identical, who, without being exactly rich or poor, own enough property to desire order, but not so much as to excite envy.” Everyone has something to lose from social unrest, and little to gain that they could not simply earn through their own initiative. Though old-world societies require revolutions in order to become democracies—and these revolutions can leave lasting traces in the political culture of a country like France—the United States has always enjoyed equal social conditions, and therefore has never seen much need to engage in mass revolt.


This chapter is sometimes celebrated as one of Tocqueville’s most far-sighted, predicting not only the American Civil War—he writes that if a revolution were to occur, it would involve the status of Afro-Americans, who obviously did not enjoy equal status—but also diagnosing the American propensity for individual market action, bourgeois political moderation, and middle-class proprietarian identity. Or rather, Tocqueville’s views on the matter have often been cited by proponents of this ideology of American life. This interpretation should not be surprising, since this chapter is also one that bears the most obvious evidence of Tocqueville’s own ideological mission to convince his fellow aristocratic elites that accepting democracy was in their interests. Both at the beginning and towards the end of the chapter, he addresses these elites’ worry that democratic societies are plagued by “eternal movement … [in which] no one knows any rest,” assuring his readers that in a democracy, “men act within certain bounds that they will never overstep.” Tocqueville’s conservative story of American social peace is less a detached description of American democracy than a product of his attempt to sell democracy to conservatives.


If Americans have not joined the wave of mass protests around the world, it is not because they are inherently allergic to revolt. Looking at the economic causes of social dissatisfaction, we see that in fact there have been significant social movements that have held political leaders’ feet to the fire. Republican voter protests at town halls back in 2017 may have been the key reason Trump’s GOP failed to repeal Barack Obama’s healthcare reform while they still controlled Congress. And the high cost of higher education—another major public service that imposes significant financial burdens on individuals in the form of student debt—was the main driver of the Occupy Wall Street movement nearly a decade ago, which ultimately gave rise to a large part of the coalition that is now supporting Bernie Sanders for president. Though these economic issues do in fact occupy a large amount of the national political debate today, it appears that in the late 2010s and now early 2020s, the ordinary political process is providing a mechanism to address them.


In terms of political impunity, the Democrats’ strategy for impeaching Donald Trump may bear much of the blame for why there is no mass movement in the streets. Though Trump is conceivably guilty of any number of misdeeds—from his flagrant acceptance of bribes by foreign officials staying in his hotels to crimes against humanity committed against asylum seekers attempting to cross the US-Mexico border—Democrats chose to focus Trump’s trial on what Jeet Heer has called the “narrow beltway issue” of his dealings with Ukraine. While clearly improper, Trump’s conditioning of military aid on campaign dirt is hardly something most ordinary people care enough about to get them out of their houses to protest (particularly during this wintertime trial). Whatever Democratic House leadership believed it was seeking to accomplish by impeaching Trump, it was not mobilizing a mass revolt.


Ultimately, though, America’s vast size and its decentralized political system make a truly national mass mobilization extremely difficult to accomplish. But this does not mean that small pockets that resemble revolts abroad are impossible. Briefly last fall in New York, for example, the city’s increased police presence on public transit to enforce subway fares led to a situation that closely mirrored the beginnings of the mass movement in Chile, with hundreds of riders jumping turnstiles in protest. Teachers’ strikes not only in large liberal cities like Chicago, but also in “red states” like Oklahoma (where teachers refused to submit to a state policy that would have forced them to wear FitBit monitors in order to prove themselves worthy of state-funded healthcare) have forced state and local authorities into major concessions on education policy. And perhaps the most important uprising of them all was the movement in Puerto Rico last summer that successfully forced Governor Ricardo Rosselló to resign. Combining economic indignity with political impunity, Rosselló had been caught mocking over text messages victims of the devastating 2018 Hurricane María, many of whom are still waiting for basic disaster relief services. This was a democratic revolt every bit as powerful as those authors on this blog have explored in our series, which took place on American soil.


Mainland Americans may find that local-level revolts are sufficient to demand the political changes they desire. Alternatively, the 2020 presidential election may offer a different form of mass mobilization—more structured, but less confrontational—as the “army” of volunteers for Sanders might suggest. If there comes a point, however, where Americans decide that accumulated economic and political affronts have become intolerable, they may not have to look quite as far afield for guidance as they might think.


Photo Credit: Daryana Rivera, Protesters celebrate Ricardo Rossello resignation, via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0.


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