Political Weather

By Mike Dorf

A few days ago on Balkinization, Bernard Harcourt had a very interesting post noting (in part by noting how others have noted) that we appear to be on the verge of some very substantial social and political upheaval throughout the world--or perhaps not: Perhaps we are simply witnessing a disorganized rabble that has no coherent ideology, much less any demands.  To my mind, though, what we are witnessing are a number of largely unrelated movements united only by the fact that people in the movements are angry.

Ask yourself the following question: What do the Arab spring, the recent riots in London, and the American Tea Party movement have in common?  Harcourt doesn't exactly give an answer, but one needn't be a Marxist to think that these are all at least partly reflections of economic anxieties.  I don't usually think much of Thomas Friedman's analysis, which seems MUCH more interested in attaching catchy labels to phenomena than to understanding them, but his straightforward account seems about right in this case.  Friedman suggested a few weeks ago that there is much anxiety about an "accessible future."

Of course that's not all that these disparate protests reflect.  Still, there is an unmistakable economic role in each instance.  Both democratic and Islamist movements in the Arab world had long chafed under dictatorships (many and still do), but rising expectations meeting diminished opportunities were an important catalyst for the Arab spring.  Meanwhile, one can acknowledge, with David Campbell and Robert Putnam, that the Tea Party is filled with socially conservative ideological Republicans, but the movement would have had little traction--or at least would have taken a very different and probably less potent form--if unemployment were substantially lower.  And London's youth culture has long had a disturbingly thuggish nihilist component, but surely the economy and the cuts to police budgets that came from austerity played an important role in igniting it.

If there is a common catalyst for all of the upheaval, does that mean that there will be a common future?  Hardly.  Democratic activism in Iran in 2010 presaged the Arab spring, but was then ruthlessly crushed.  Assad may yet hold onto power in Syria.  And the peculiar role of the military in Egypt's revolution makes it very much a work in progress.  2012 in the Arab world could well look like 1849 in Europe, with an anti-democratic backlash.  Or newly democratic Arab governments could take a more confrontational stance towards Israel (as has already happened somewhat), leading to regional war and all of the unpredictability that follows.

Meanwhile, the London uprising and protests in European countries being pushed into austerity as the price of bailouts seem unlikely to lead to long-term radical change.  The Euro and even European Union could collapse in the worst-case scenario, but peaceful coexistence in western Europe for 65 years leaves little appetite for retrograde policy.  The same is probably true for the states of central and eastern Europe, which, despite some substantial slippage, cannot reasonably be envisioned slipping back into anything like their pre-1989 condition.

And here at home?  Republicans likely will continue to make gains at the polls for at least one more election cycle, seemingly fueled by the Tea Party, but in fact mostly benefiting from the fact that Democrats took control of Washington just in time to take the blame for the economic damage done over the prior decade.  No doubt this will result in some right-wing policy choices, but here too, it is hard to see anything happening in the U.S. today that portends substantial political change.  Indeed, if there is anything that stands out about our current era, it is how passive the American electorate has been over the three-plus years of economic hard times.  Angry, yes, but it's the sort of anger that leads to reactionary demands from the right and mild meliorism on the left.

I could be wrong about any or all of this.  Even analysis of large trends can be wildly off-base.  In one view, we are witnessing the decline of the West and the rise of China (and perhaps India).  Maybe, but in another view, China's growth is completely unsustainable, as a matter of economics and ecology.

Social and political upheaval are much like the weather: so complex as to be unpredictable.  That may even be true in retrospect.  Historians still debate whether the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand was merely, or even, a catalyst for World War I, a conflict that shaped the modern world in innumerable ways.  Cause and effect are substantially more difficult to diagnose ahead of time.  Thus, while I share the general sense of foreboding, it's not at all clear that such a "sense" is any kind of reliable guide to the future.