My first political epiphany came at the movies. I was about thirteen years old, and in those days, somewhere between the previews of coming attractions and the main feature, you got a newsreel. This one featured a violent political protest in a Latin American country (I think it was Panama). I watched in fascinated revulsion at the mostly young protesters’ undiscriminating destruction, unappeasable rage, and unreflective assurance of virtue. What kind of country, I thought, conducts politics this way? Thank God we don’t do that here.
That was, of course, a pre-sixties experience. It occurred in the blessedly placid fifties—a period, I came to understand later, that was less the normal American way of things than a relatively uncharacteristic era of tranquility in a tumultuous national history. We began in revolution, after all, and the national experience has been marked with periodic populist outbursts.
Still, that moment left an indelible mark on my political consciousness. Chalk it up to Lutheran quietism if you will, but it seemed to me then and afterwards that it is a form of insanity to conduct politics in the streets. Political decisions, I thought and think, should be determined by debate that, however lively—even impassioned—finally yields to rational argument. The politics of mass protest is the politics of the id. It is, by its very nature, the enemy of democratic persuasion. Even when nonviolent, it tends to mindlessness. We are, of course, creatures of passion. All the more reason, therefore, to keep that passion in check. Large public demonstrations invite demagoguery and irrationalism, and they amount to a populist vote of no confidence in the orderly processes of representative government.
For every rule, there are exceptions. One thinks of the early civil rights movement, when blacks excluded from the political process in large parts of the South could make their voices heard only in marches, sit-ins, and demonstrations. (Much the same could be said of the pro-life movement today.) I myself participated in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s massive March on Washington in 1963, and have never regretted it. Indeed, it was an incandescent political moment, and it played no small part in prompting passage of the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964.
But it was an exception, and its success came at a cost. A whole generation of dissenters learned its presumed lessons too well: they took the exception for the rule, and soon were taking to the streets at every provocation and with little of the restraint and discipline that marked the original event. It was a long way downhill from the grandeur of King’s “I have a dream” to the ugliness and incivility that marked so much of the street politics of the sixties. By the time cartoonist Al Capp, creator of L’il Abner , came up with his satirical S.W.I.N.E. (Students Wildly Indignant about Nearly Everything) late in the decade, it was difficult to distinguish between caricature and reality.
All this came to mind watching the coverage of the protests during the meetings of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank in Washington this April. The protests, a more restrained replay of the violent outbursts during a gathering of the World Trade Organization last fall in Seattle, were long on outrage and short on coherence. The enemy is “globalization,” but it’s not clear what alternative the protesters have in mind. Their declared ideal—“a system that is democratic, that values the environment, and that puts the needs of the world’s people before the profits of transnational corporations”—amounts, as David Frum notes in a New York Times op-ed, to “the anarchist equivalent of Dick Morris sound bites.”
The first time tragedy, the second time farce. The protesters of the sixties and seventies—many of them anyway—knew what they had in mind to remedy the evils of the present system. As Frum recalls: “Once upon a time, the left possessed a clear and coherent vision of a better world. Resources were to be owned collectively rather than individually. Important economic decisions would be made by the state rather than by private managers and owners. Everyone would earn more or less the same amount. This ideal was called socialism, and . . . it commanded the assent of a very considerable number of intelligent people.”
That was then. With the passing of the late unlamented Soviet Union, people aren’t much interested in socialism anymore—or if they are, they hesitate to say so out loud. That would appear to leave capitalism, in some form or another, as the only game in town. But that seemingly inexorable political logic does not register with today’s protesters. If they can’t credibly be pro-socialist, that does not prevent them being vehemently anti-capitalist. They may have no idea how to build the new Jerusalem, but they’re bent on destroying Babylon. As Frum says of the protesters, “They still know what they hate.”
I suspect that Frum overstates the differences between the old protesters and the new. The radicals of the sixties weren’t all socialists, and even the socialists were often remarkably imprecise about what they meant by the term. As the late Irving Howe famously put it, “Socialism is the name of our dream.” My sense of the sixties’ radicals is that, much like our current dissenters, they were far more clear on what was wrong with the system than on what might replace it. And they too were fueled by an amorphous rage that provided justification enough for their politics. When it comes to radical protest—and this applies as much to the fringes of the right as of the left—hatred is pretty much a constant.
That’s the point. The problem with mass protest politics is not so much with ideology (or its absence); it is rather that it encourages the indulgence of our least attractive emotions, hatred and self-righteousness chief among them. It is unsurprising that the politics of the street so often ends up in violence.
There are obvious intellectual temptations as well. Street politics is politics reduced to what fits on a placard or can be rhymed into chant. It is the politics of cheap theater, the opposite of what deliberative democratic politics ought to be. I recall a comment of the late television newsman Harry Reasoner. After covering one too many mass demonstrations, he remarked that he would like to carry a placard of his own, one bearing a counter-slogan suitable to virtually all such occasions: “It’s Not That Simple.”