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A call for pragmatism in today’s protests

Published: October 14, 2011
Section: Opinions


If I could give a title to 2011, it would be the Year of the Protest.

From Wall Street to Tahrir Square, Tunis to Tel Aviv, Athens to Tripoli, Madison to Madrid—people around the world are rising up, advocating for change and taking political matters into their own hands.

There are many ideological disparities that separate the demonstrations. Clearly the participants in the Arab uprisings, who were demanding an end to corrupt, authoritarian rulers, differ from, say, those protesting against austerity measures in European capitals. The colorful crowd that composes the Occupy Wall Street movement could not be further apart in terms of temperament, goals and political alignments from the Tea Party movement.

Nonetheless, there are certain similarities that unite the grievances of protesters from the Middle East to New York City.

In particular, the core message that motivates the objections of the demonstrators internationally is that the institutions holding the most national influence have, in some fashion, failed the greater public. Whether the target of the protests is supposedly unaccountable corporations, repressive regimes or an excessively large government, the recurring underlying theme is that the current power structure in society is inequitable and untenable. Domineering organizations are monopolizing the levers of control in the state in a way that alienates and marginalizes the average person politically, socially and economically. Something is simply wrong with the present condition of the social compact.

Out of this sentiment grows a sense of desperation. Traditional forms of political participation, such as voting and basic forms of lobbying, seem insufficient and futile in terms of fundamentally altering the status quo. Interest groups and factions that have become so entrenched in the current political arrangement can only be challenged in unconventional and even revolutionary ways. Mass mobilization is required even to garner the attention of what appears to be an otherwise neglectful elite class. This urgency and frustration is only amplified by poor economic conditions. And thus the world witnesses the myriad rallies, campaigns and demonstrations.

This mindset may be understandable. Nevertheless, as someone who generally values stability and order, I am skeptical about grand, sweeping narratives of transforming society in an effort to correct perceived injustices. Yes, there are problems associated with the way political systems operate, both in the United States and especially in places like the Middle East. Protesters have to be mindful, however, of the alternatives to the existing state of affairs and they must remain level-headed in their assessments of the situation they are seeking to confront. The idealism and Utopianism that is fueling these demonstrations should be moderated by a firm dose of pragmatism.

Members of the Occupy Wall Street movement, for instance, should resist calls to alter radically the financial sector and the market system that have fueled so much economic growth and prosperity. Instead, they should advocate for more sensible, realistic and constructive policies that can level the playing field to an extent while maintaining the fundamentals of the economy. This seems like a dubious prospect though, considering the lack of intellectual sophistication witnessed in the protesters so far.

Similar words of caution can be directed to groups like the Tea Party, whose views toward government can be interpreted by some as extreme. Even protesters in places like the Middle East and Europe ought to be mindful of the alternatives to their own ideological visions as well the potential undesirable consequences of success.

The complaints that are fueling this international turbulence are arguably legitimate. For the sake of stability and moderation, however, the participants in these demonstrations should consider advocating for more incremental and less dramatic reforms.