(10/21/11: UPDATED TO INCLUDE OPENING PARAGRAPH THAT WAS SOMEHOW MISSED YESTERDAY)
The other day, I referenced a portion of an excellent essay by Walter Russell Mead on the meaninglessness of street protests in the United States. I want to revisit that and share a few further thoughts. Mead’s opinion that taking it to the streets is largely an exercise in futility is spot on. It’s one of the reasons that I initially greeted the Tea Party movement with a great deal of skepticism. Many of the same questions that are being asked of the OWS crew today were ones that I had for the Tea Partiers: What is it exactly that you want? What are the goals of your movement? What’s your plan to achieve those goals? What comes next?
To their credit (as Mead notes) the Tea Party took the momentum and energy generated by their rallies and channeled that into useful political activity. Exactly the kind of activity that does make a difference as opposed to protesting in the streets or occupying anything. The political efforts of the Tea Party truly were grass roots as ordinary citizens—many of whom had previously had little involvement in local politics—started showing up and driving things in a different direction. Anyone who has participated in politics at this level has experienced a couple of truths:
1. You can make a difference , probably more than you might imagine going in
2. It takes a lot of time and effort
For people with families and jobs, this involves making sacrifices and that’s one of the remarkable yet underappreciated stories of the Tea Party. A lot of people who had never really had much interest in politics other than showing up to vote, decided to give up their time, money, and other resources to support political change. That’s how dire a situation they believe the country is in and that’s how concerned they are.
The OWS folks pat themselves on the back and take credit for “laying it on the line” for their beliefs. But the reality is that showing up for a street protest or camping out in a park with fellow unwashed activists is easy compared with the consistent and committed engagement in politics that the Tea Party has embraced. And again, the latter actually does drive real change while the former are largely ineffectual displays of misdirected angst.
So why do so many, mostly on the Left, cling to the idea that carrying signs and chanting slogans actually can make a difference? I think a lot of it stems from historical ignorance and the way the illusion of the glories of the Sixties has been sold over the years. Every generation to follow has always had a sizable chunk of naïve denizens wondering when they will get their chance to do what their anti-establishment heroes of the Sixties did. They challenged the system. They tore down boundaries. They ended a war.
Except they really didn’t. Yes, there were large anti-war protests that rollicked the country. Yes, those protests changed the political environment. And yes, as Mead notes, those protests did lead to the end of the draft. But they didn’t end the Vietnam War. There’s a myth that all these young people marching in the streets turned the tide of public opinion and forced the government to end the war. The reality is different. At the height of the anti-war protests, a majority of the American public still supported the war. And if the anti-war movement was so popular why did the avowedly anti-war candidate Eugene McGovern get shellacked by Richard Nixon in 1972? For all the myth making about what the protests of that era did and how they changed everything, the truth is that changed little in any positive way.
But they did help lead to the undermining of various pillars of American society such as the family, education, civics, and even religion. The effects of this corrosion are still being felt today. If one looks throughout history you’ll discover that it’s a lot easier to tear down institutions than it is to create them. And the type of groups that usually take their grievances to the streets in America are far more interested in and skilled at the former than the latter. Which is one of the reasons that I’m so skeptical of any large scale protest movement. Except for the Civil Rights cause, in the last fifty years they’ve done far more harm than good in America.
And despite protests to the contrary (no pun intended), I think there’s something distinctly un-American about street protests. One of the things that made the American Revolution unique in history was the absence of large scale mob violence. Yes, there was some tarring and feathering of colonial officials and violence directed against Loyalists, but compared to what happened in the French Revolution or in others throughout the world it was relatively tame. And in the years since then, with a few notable exceptions, Americans have largely resisted the mob impulse (at least when it comes to politics-sports is another matter).
Mobs are the antithesis of civilization. They are lawless bands with no legitimate claim to power who don’t respect individual rights or personal property. One of the truly frightening aspects of last year’s clash in Wisconsin between the governor and the teachers unions and their allies was just how close we were to having mobs overrule the results of the ballot box. There is a process in place for us to determine who are elected leaders are and what policies we want them to pursue on our behalf. And in a democratic republic there is no place for mobs. What are most of the protests that we see today, but mobs in the making?