The Unwisdom of Crowds

Anne Applebaum on why people-powered revolutions are overrated in the New Republic: “..Yet a successful street revolution, like any revolution, is never guaranteed to leave anything positive in its aftermath—or anything at all. In the West, we often now associate protests with progress, or at least we assume that big crowds—the March on Washington, Paris in 1968—are the benign face of social change. But street revolutions are not always progressive, positive, or even important. Some replace a corrupt tyranny with violence and a political vacuum, which is what happened in Libya. Ukraine’s own Orange Revolution of 2004–2005 produced a new group of leaders who turned out to be just as incompetent as their predecessors. Crowds can be bullying, they can become violent, and they can give rise to extremists: Think Tehran 1979, or indeed Petrograd 1917.

The crowd may not even represent the majority. Because a street revolution makes good copy, and because it provides great photographs, we often mistakenly confuse “people power” with democracy itself. In fact, the creation of democratic institutions—courts, legal systems, bills of rights—is a long and tedious process that often doesn’t interest foreign journalists at all. Tunisia’s ratification of a new constitution earlier this year represented the most significant achievement of the Arab Spring to date, but the agonizing negotiations that led up to that moment were hard for outsiders to understand—and not remotely telegenic

Equally, it is a dangerous mistake to imagine that “people power” can ever be a substitute for actual elections. On television, a demonstration can loom larger than it should. In both Thailand and Turkey, an educated middle class has recently taken to the streets to protest against democratically elected leaders who have grown increasingly corrupt and autocratic, but who might well be voted back into office tomorrow. In Venezuela, elections are not fair and the media is not free, but the president is supported by many Venezuelans who still have faith in his far-left rhetoric, however much his policies may be damaging the country. Demonstrations might help bring change in some of these countries, but if the change is to be legitimate—and permanent—the electorate will eventually have to endorse it.

As we often forget, some of the most successful transitions to democracy did not involve crowds at all. Chile became a democracy because its dictator, Augusto Pinochet, decided it would become one. In early 1989, well before mass demonstrations in Prague or Berlin, the leaders of the Polish opposition sat down at a large round table with their former jailers and negotiated their way out of communism. There are no spectacular photographs of these transitions, and many people found them unsatisfying, even unjust. But Chile and Poland remain democracies today, not least because their new leaders came to power without any overt opposition from the old regime.

It would be nice if these kinds of transitions were more common, but not every dictator is willing to smooth the path toward change. For that reason, the post-revolutionary moment is often more important than the revolution itself, for this is when the emotion of the mob has to be channeled rapidly—immediately—into legitimate institutions. Not everybody finds this easy. In the wake of the Egyptian revolution, demonstrators found it difficult to abandon Tahrir Square. “We won’t leave because we have to make sure this country is set on the right path,” one protester said at the time. In fact, he should already have been at home, back in his neighborhood, perhaps creating the grassroots political party that might have given Egyptians a real alternative to the Muslim Brotherhood…”

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