3.09.2011

"From Cairo to Madison, political contention has motivated major public protests on a scale not seen since the late 1960s."

Professor Jeremi Suri dissects worldwide discontent:
We might call it the "representative gap." In each and every society experiencing major protests today there are political leaders in power who have strong claims to legitimacy based on established procedures of selection: tradition, elite consensus, party promotion, and popular election. All of the figures under public attack can claim that their authority is "normal," "constitutional," and "recognized" internationally. Citizens are not confronting usurpers, but entrenched political powers.

That is precisely the point. The diverse men and women who have taken to the streets in different societies comprise groups of educated, articulate, energetic, and mostly young citizens who feel locked out of power. Established political processes in nearly every major society are organized around interest groups that are corporate, backward-looking, and middle aged. They think in terms of factories, budgets, and public order. They are generally baby-boomers who came of age after the Second World War and are fearful that their present earnings and security are jeopardized.
He's arguing that this holds true for the unions protesting in Madison as much as the students in Egypt, which is an interesting, and I think very problematic, argument to make. I wonder how the Tea Party fits into this rubric, too.

Added: The more I think about this, the more it rankles. Are the anti-Walker union protesters not themselves "baby boomers who came of age after the Second World War and ... fearful that their present earnings and security are jeopardized"? The shoe seems to fit pretty well.

I think Suri here is unfortunately falling into a trap of taking a thesis that gorgeously explained one thing and applying it incorrectly to something else -- here, the idea that one underlying cause unites significant social upheaval across disparate countries. I'd be perfectly happy arguing something along the lines of "the global recession has brought simmering social tensions based on years of infrastructural imbalances to a head, forcing countries worldwide to undergo a difficult transition period to correct the same." But Suri overreaches when he attempts to paint the unions with the same brush as the student protesters across the Middle East, and is poorly served for it.

Edit: I'll retract my suggestion that Suri directly compares the North African autocrats and Governor Walker. But using phrases like "representative gap" and suggesting that all of these leaders derive claims of legitimacy from "party promotion, and popular election" still seems to conflate the leaders in problematic ways. A deeper discussion of the issue would have served him well here.