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.
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