Settle for Nothing
Pete Guest, Medium, June 5, 2018
After millions marched in 2003 to protest the US-led invasion of Iraq, the ensuing conflict dealt a forceful blow to the empowerment of the anti-war movement. It was also the start of a worrying trend for governments to ignore the will of their people.
One day after Donald Trump took his oath of office, millions took to the streets of more than 400 US towns and cities to protest. The ‘Women’s March,’ which began as a demonstration to rage against Trump’s overt misogyny and anti-abortion stance, evolved rapidly into a protest against the very fact of his presidency. Trump’s first two weeks were always going to be a divisive theatre, but few expected the new administration to follow through on its campaign pledges to build a wall and shut its borders to the citizens of seven Muslim countries.
Once, such howls of protest from the street would have led to reversals of policy, but today there is no sense that the outcry has resonated at all in the White House. With perhaps the most divisive president in modern American history now in office, protest movements new and old are gearing up for four years of running battles with the administration. But what can they really achieve if Trump and his government aren’t listening?
Protest is supposed to be a pressure valve for democratic society, and a way for the people on the street to shape their politics outside of the electoral cycle. At some point, in the democracies of the West, that mechanism has broken down.
Donald Trump is more than just an anti-institutional candidate; his rise was a many-headed hydra of unrestrained prejudice, blue-collar desperation, and an American identity in crisis, all aided by the systematic undermining of the basic rules of engagement in Western politics. But the anger against the institutions of state that Trump tapped into as he rattled towards the White House transcends political tribes, and it is rising — in part as a consequence of those same institutions’ failure to listen to the drumbeat from the streets.
Jeffrey Murer, lecturer on collective violence at St Andrews University and an expert in protest, said that the turning point could have come more than a decade ago, in 2003, when massive protests across Europe against the US-led invasion of Iraq were ignored by politicians, who pressed ahead anyway.
“You see literally millions of people marching across Europe and North America against what was then the impending invasion of Iraq. And there was nothing doing. In particular, in Britain, it was a profound moment, where it was the Labour Party not listening to people on the street,” Murer says.
But in the febrile years since the financial crisis, that feeling of distance has metastasised into impotence, driving protest movements to try to enter the political mainstream. In the US, Occupy Wall Street took on the banks that many believed had caused the downturn, but had escaped without censure. In the UK, students turned out en masse to argue against the imposition of tuition fees. In Greece, Athens’ Syntagma Square was turned into a near-permanent battleground over brutal cuts to social services during the country’s debt crisis, and what they saw as the government’s desire to appease investors and international institutions.
“I think there was the idea that people in the street were asking for public health, for utilities, for transportation, for heat, for electricity, and the priority still was private banks,” Murer says.
That was mirrored across Europe, and in the US, where the anger on the streets failed to translate into meaningful reform. Faced with this failure, several protest groups morphed into mainstream political — or anti-political — movements that are contesting elections or forcing their way into the democratic process. In Italy, the Five Star
Movement, led by the comedian Beppe Grillo, has moved from the street to the ballot box; in Spain, the anti-austerity group, Podemos, snowballed from a group of radical academics to become a genuine political force.
In the US, the message and language of the Occupy movement echoed in the campaign that turned the independent, radical senator Bernie Sanders into a credible challenger for the Democratic Party’s nomination for president.
There was considerable overlap between the UK’s anti-tuition fee marchers and those who surged into the Labour Party to back the anti-establishment Jeremy Corbyn for leader. But when Corbyn ‘relaunched’ himself for 2017, his language — at least on Twitter — started to mirror not Sanders, but Trump, repeating over and over again that “the system” was “rigged”.
“Sometimes protest movements that step into the formal electoral system do indeed find it is rigged against them.”
In Hong Kong, in September 2014, proposed changes to the electoral system brought protesters, many of them students, onto the streets. They camped out in the business district, channeling the US’ Occupy Wall Street to form Occupy Central. As the standoff — and ultimately, clashes — with the police escalated, the umbrellas that many carried became a symbol of the movement.
Those protests were eventually dispersed, but they simmered all through 2015 and into 2016, occasionally boiling over into more confrontations. As the second anniversary of the protests approached, though, many of those who had been at the vanguard of the movement had to admit defeat. Beijing’s grip continued to tighten, the Party-appointed chief executive, CY Leung, offered no concessions.
In the words of one protester, who later became a candidate for a new political party contesting Hong Kong’s September Legislative Council elections: “Occupy failed. It achieved nothing.”
Even the protesters that won seats found they were restricted in their ability to exercise any kind of power; several have been challenged by the government and face disqualification. Their foray into democracy seems to have done little but widen the gap between the protests and the state.
Worldwide, people are finding that gap insurmountable, creating an odd dynamic between formal democratic mechanisms and protest, made stranger by the fact that many young people are apparently losing faith in democracy and in democratic institutions. Recent research by two political scientists — Yascha Mounk from Harvard, and Roberto Stefan Foa from the University of Melbourne — found that globally, younger people are less convinced by the importance of democracy than their parents’ generation; they were also more accepting of authoritarian measures, such as military control of governments.
Fewer than 30% of Americans born since 1980 say that living in a democracy is ‘essential’; more than 20% born since 1970 say that the country’s democratic system is ‘bad’ or ‘very bad’. Mounk and Foa observed the same patterns — a phenomenon that they call ‘democratic deconsolidation’ — in the UK, the Netherlands, Sweden, Australia, and New Zealand.
|Source: World Values Survey, USA, 2011. Percentage stating that “having a strong leader who does not have to bother with parliament and elections” was “Fairly Good” or “Very Good”.|
As Murer said, it is hard to separate this loss of faith in democracy and democratic institutions from the sense that government no longer listens, and that protest’s power has dwindled.
“For the most part, at least in my own research, I’ve found that a lot of young people have very little regard for institutions in general,” says Murer. “They think that those institutions don’t work, or are corrupt. In thinking so, they look for alternate means of expression. Sometimes that’s through direct action, sometimes that’s through protest or demonstrations. The idea that, to use the term that Donald Trump keeps using, that the system is rigged, I think for a lot of young people that feels like a great reality.
“We are headed into uncharted territory of very new challenges for democratic institutions, where we will really see how resilient they may be. Is there a way for the voice of average people to stand up against the very entrenched corporate interests that have now permeated Western politics… Or do we see direct action groups themselves replace a kind of politics?”