Power of protest on the wane

Popular politics is a thing of the past, which is why people don’t take to the streets over health care reform

April 16, 2010|By Ron Smith

"I was amazed that people didn't take to the streets after the health care reform bill passed," said a politician of my acquaintance the other day. That got me to wondering about what has happened to the power of "the street" in affecting what governments do. It seems to have seeped away, stealthily, over the years. People can gather in great numbers in Washington, London and other capital cities, wave their signs, shout their slogans, voice their displeasure with war, abortion, taxation, etc.; they can scream themselves hoarse and fling rocks at the police, and nobody in power really seems to care.

There was a time not that long ago when mass demonstrations had demonstrable effects on public policy. The most notable example in recent American history is probably the public protests against the Vietnam War, which grew in size as the futility of our bloody efforts there became apparent to all but the hard-core war supporters and caused President Lyndon Johnson to decide not to run for reelection in 1968. Though the war dragged on for years afterward, the efforts of the American government post-Johnson were focused on getting us out of there. The dissent expressed on the streets of American cities caused that shift in policy and also led to the abandonment of military conscription in the U.S. and the turn to the volunteer armed forces which now fight, kill and die without much public reaction at all.

There were also, of course, the mass demonstrations during the civil rights era, the effects of which cannot be denied. The March on Washington on Aug. 28, 1963 involved more than a quarter-million people, the largest such gathering in American history. Participants came on more than 2,000 "freedom buses" and on more than 30 "freedom trains." There was no violence associated with this gathering, remembered by most Americans alive at that time for Martin Luther King Jr.'s fabled "I Have a Dream" speech, one of the greatest oratories in history. After that, there was no doubt that Jim Crow was dead.

Now, there seems to be a disconnect between governments and public opinion. British-born historian Tony Judt (tragically stricken with Lou Gehrig's Disease, paralyzed from the neck down yet still writing and talking about the things that matter to him) explained his thinking on this matter in an interview published in the London Review of Books. He said that what we might call "the connect" was a short-lived phenomenon that "began in the late 19th Century with mass newspapers, mass literacy, speed and ease of communication and, especially, trains."

"Governments were forced to be very responsive to popular feeling," said Professor Judt. "They felt very vulnerable. Elections could remove them from power, and if elections didn't work, then the masses on the streets might achieve the same results. After World War II, [European] governments retreated from politics."

As to what he means by that, he says, "There was a feeling, partly a consequence of fascism, that you couldn't trust mass opinion anymore. It wasn't reliable. Not only were the masses willing to throw you out, they might be willing to overthrow the whole system."

Now things have been so arranged that it really doesn't matter if a government is turned out of office, since such election results don't actually change the fundamental policies or laws of the country. Popular politics is an artifact of the past. That realization is dawning on the American public, agitated by its lower standard of living and the growing gap between those who have, those who have not, and those who have had — but worry they soon will have not.

Tea partiers, so reviled by the powers-that-be, are nothing more or less than middle-class Americans who are trying desperately to restore the connection between people and their politicians. They're suspicious of both major political parties, and with good reason. Maybe there is more than a dime's worth of difference between the two, but that's only because of the ongoing currency devaluation since George Wallace made the original observation.

Ron Smith can be heard weekdays, 3 p.m. to 6 p.m., on 1090 WBAL-AM and WBAL .com. His column appears Fridays in The Baltimore Sun. His e-mail is rsmith@wbal.com.

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