Max Fisher and Amanda Taub, The Interpreter, NYTimes, Oct. 26 2019:
The world is changing in ways that make people likelier to seek sweeping political change by taking to the streets. [But] Protests are also becoming much, much likelier to fail.
Only 20 years ago, 70 percent of protests demanding systemic political change got it — a figure that had been growing steadily since the 1950s.
In the mid-2000s, that trend suddenly reversed. Worldwide, protesters’ success rate has since plummeted to only 30 percent, according to a study by Erica Chenoweth, a Harvard University political scientist who called the decline “staggering.” [...]
To understand that shift, here are four major changes behind our new normal of mass global protest and what it reveals about the world.
(1) Democracy is stalling out
Democracy’s once-steady growth around the world has stalled, and is maybe beginning to reverse.
For the first time since World War II, the number of countries moving toward authoritarianism is exceeding the number moving toward democracy, according to a recent study by Anna Lürhmann and Staffan Lindberg of the University of Gothenburg in Sweden. [...] Bottom-up pressures that usually manifest as public demand or at least desire for democracy, such as rising middle classes, are still building, as they have throughout the modern era.
But now that people aren’t getting democracy, it’s as if a release valve has been closed. That built-up pressure is getting released as explosions of mass outrage. And because within-system avenues for change, like voting in elections or lobbying elected officials, are seen as less and less reliable, people seek change from outside the system, with mass protests. [...]
Those middle-ground countries, where citizens have enough freedom to expect and demand change but not to get it, may be the most susceptible to repeated popular revolt.
Such countries can become “stuck in a low-level equilibrium trap” between unrest and reform, Seva Gunitsky, a University of Toronto political scientist, wrote in a recent paper. [...]
(2) Social media makes protests likelier to start, likelier to balloon in size and likelier to fail
[...] She [Erica Chenoweth] cited, as a comparison, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, a student civil rights group that played a major role in the civil rights movement.
In that pre-social media era, activists had to spend years mobilizing through community outreach and organization-building. Activists met near daily to drill, strategize and hash out disagreements. But those tasks made the movement more durable, ensuring it was built on real-world grass-roots networks. And it meant that the movement had the internal organization both to persevere when things got hard and to translate street victories into carefully planned political outcomes.
Social media allows movements to skip many of those steps, putting more bodies on the streets more quickly, but without the underlying structure to help get results. [...]
At the same time, governments have learned to co-opt social media, using it to disseminate propaganda, rally its sympathizers or simply spread confusion. [...]
(3) Social polarization is way up
There is a truth about protest movements that often gets missed.
We often think of mass protests as representing “the people.” It’s how participants describe them. And it gives their protests a degree of democratic legitimacy.
But the truth, in almost all cases, is that they are primarily driven by a particular social class or set of social classes. [...] any movement, especially at first, is usually animated by a social class collectively demanding changes that will serve that class or, maybe just as often, demanding to reverse changes that have hurt them. (When enough social classes join in, particularly poorer strata that are historically less likely to protest, you have a revolution.) [...]
Social polarization is increasing worldwide. People are more polarized along racial, class and partisan lines. As a result, they are likelier to cling to their sense of group identity and to see their group as under siege — compelling them to collectively rise up. [...]
The result is often a sense of conflict between “the people” and “the system” — a recipe for populist backlashes in countries where people still trust institutions enough to bring change through elections, and anti-system uprisings seemingly everywhere else.
(4) Authoritarian learningH/t Tyler Cowen.
The world’s strongmen, would-be strongmen and outright dictators appear to have noticed the rise in civil unrest, and especially protesters’ success at forcing change.
Nonviolent protests became, to the world’s authoritarians, a threat just as dangerous as any foreign army, if not more so.
In the mid-2000s, they began to fight back with what Ms. Chenoweth called, in a 2017 paper, “joint efforts to develop, systematize, and report on techniques and best practices for containing such threats.” [...] And, Ms. Chenoweth said, governments learned to watch one another for lessons on tools and tactics, and even to openly share them.
There is a term for this direct and indirect lesson-sharing: authoritarian learning.
These cat-and-mouse strategies for frustrating and redirecting popular dissent without crushing it outright are a major reason that protests’ success rate has plummeted.
But such strategies also don’t really defeat dissent outright — so they may be helping to ensure future cycles of protests, maintaining the high global rate.
See earlier post, INEQUALITY!! sparks rising tide of protests world-wide.