Small World: The muffled shouts from the street

Henry Precht

Henry Precht

By Henry Precht

BN Columnist

In a column a few weeks ago, The New York Times’ Thomas Friedman surveyed the outbreak of street revolts led largely by the middle class in democracies around the globe.

Why, he asked? Three reasons, he replied: First is the rise of “illiberal majoritarian democracies,” which interpret their election as the ticket to do whatever they please. Second is the economic squeeze that the middle class suffers in shrinking welfare states and tighter job markets. Third, there is the proliferation of smart phones, Facebook, etc. which enable people in the street to communicate faster and more effectively and, thus, out-fox ruling regimes.

“The net result,” Friedman concludes, is that “Autocracy is less sustainable than ever…Democracies will be more volatile than ever.”

Now for the harder, flip side question: “Why aren’t there more — any — street revolts in democratic America? Stop reading please, you deep thinkers, and try to think of three reasons to answer that question. Time’s up. Here are my seven — count ’em — thoughts:

• The famous American individualism overrides Old World collectivism. Unions and political party membership in the United States shrink. Americans would rather write a letter to the editor than search for a parking place in order to link arms in demonstrations with others equally unhappy.

• Americans believe they have a chance to better themselves. So why risk a possibly prosperous future vainly confronting authority? Studies have shown, however, that social mobility in the United States is significantly less than that in some European states.

• Our values are rarely focused on a single cause; conservatives and liberals are divided up into those who fervently support social issues (guns, abortions, etc.) and those arguing for changes in our fiscal, financial or business systems. There is no unifying, overriding cause to bring multitudes out and into the streets. When there is a grassroots movement — Tea Party or Occupy Wall Street — they are taken over by well-financed entities with quite different, selfish agendas.

• Maybe, compared to other nations, we’re just too big for a mass movement — too many ethnic groups, faiths and regional allegiances, too many large cities and small towns.

• Many young people — and oldsters — in the United States feel insecure in their jobs, uncertain of their futures. Why put yourself and family at risk of arrest and a black mark on your record for a waste of time demonstrating?

• The old democracy seems outclassed by the new democracy which is dominated by mountains of money, slick ads and slicker, often glamorous candidates. It seems primitive or archaic to many to struggle for the old causes — honesty, integrity, responsiveness — in the face of such smoothly operating, manufactured systems.

• Finally, what good will marching in the streets do any way? What has shouting at authority ever accomplished? Change — abolition of slavery, Progressive and New Deal legislation — came through the ballot box, not crowds in the public square. But voting for change means delay, compromises, watering down of demands.

Perhaps you can offer better reasons for the lack of American participation in physical acts of solidarity for a cause. Or, maybe you can even explain the declining turnouts for Bridgton’s annual meetings?

Henry Precht is a retired Foreign Service Officer.

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