Last week, a guest on one of my favorite podcasts (Slate's Political Gabfest) said something that really intrigued me. I have been trying to put my finger on what has been going on in the world recently, crystallized by the Arab Spring, that seems to be making people take the streets against their governments more and more. Is it the rise of social media, allowing people to organize and gather like never before? Is it that the problems created by outside forces artificially forming country borders are finally coming home to roost (all at once)? Is globalization pushing marginalized people to see what is available in more developed countries and wanting it for themselves? It's probably some of all of these factors, and many more that are context-specific. Regardless, in squares across the globe, from Tahrir to Maidan, people are rising up and demanding change. Sometimes it works out. Most of the time, it seems like it doesn't (although I wonder, maybe we are expecting too much too quickly).
Anyway, the guest (that I mentioned an entire paragraph ago), William Dobson, said that while 2011 was the year of people rising up against dictators (inspiring TIME Magazine to claim "The Protester" as their Person of the Year), 2013/14 seems to be the time of rising up against democratically elected leaders. As someone who grew up in and lives in the United States, I kind of take democracy for granted, like a lot of us do; I figure even if the guy I like isn't in office, between the facts that he has term limits, a Congress that will likely pick apart his policies, journalists who will dig into even monotonous sounding bridge closure stories to find hidden skeletons, a public who is at least semi-active in advocacy and activism efforts, and a Supreme Court that adjudicates our more complex issues, things won't get too crazy.
But in too many "democracies" lately, we are seeing leaders who were elected into office by some majority of people turn their back on enough of those people that the leader is ousted from office, protesters claim control of the leader's residence, and journalists covering the story are kicked out for "contributing with their coverage to psychological warfare". After the requisite first step of blaming the US, as all of these pushed-to-the-brink regimes are apt to do, they come down hard on protestors, silencing, imprisoning, and even killing them.
But wait. Didn't these countries do things the right way? Ran campaigns? Held elections? Did exactly what the US wants countries to do, what so many Americans fought and died for in Iraq and Afghanistan (and that's a whole different story)? Something about democracy, or the form of democracy embraced by large parts of the world, is failing these protestors. Yes, admittedly, not everyone in these fractured countries opposes their governments. Anti-government protestors are usually the loudest and most compelling, but from Egypt to Ukraine to Venezuela, there are large swaths of the population that continue to support the government regime. Years from now, when the data has been gathered about this time period, the common threads between conflicts and what caused them to coalesce how, when, and where they did, will make the patterns look crystal clear. For the time being, we are left to wonder how third parties can best intervene without becoming too intertwined. A decade plus of war in the early 21st century quelled much of the Western power's appetite for trying to save any more of the world for the time being. But now people in the world really do need saving, and we're seeing it live on our computers and TVs, and it seems they are being told to save themselves. Surely there is a middle ground between leaving civilians to die at the hands of their leaders and full on government takeover and boots on the ground (by the way, how sick are you of that phrase?). We just clearly haven't found it yet.