Christian Caryl

The Young and the Restless

Yes, young people are often a force for political change. But what kind, exactly?

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

I recently had the honor to participate in an online debate about democracy sponsored by the Economist. It was illuminating — not least because my opponent was Professor Larry Diamond, one of the most respected scholars in the field of democratic transitions.

Our debate revolved around our assessments of the future of global democracy. Professor Diamond made the case for the optimists, arguing that powerful forces in the world are naturally pushing societies toward the embrace of democratic institutions. I was the pessimist, so I see the picture as a bit less encouraging. I think that there are many powerful forces working to undermine or even reverse democracy in much of the world.

One of our most interesting differences of opinion involved the role of young people. At one point Professor Diamond wrote that the monarchies in Jordan and Morocco, which have so far survived the challenge of the Arab Spring with surprising resilience, are doomed to fall. The reason: both countries have large cohorts of "tech-savvy youth." The implication seemed to be that monarchic systems, inherently awkward, inflexible, and old-fashioned, simply won’t be able to resist large numbers of Internet-equipped, mobile-phone wielding activists once they get the bit in their teeth.

This assumption — that young people embody an inherently progressive revolutionary potential, making them the natural enemies of autocrats — is widespread. It’s been one of the major tropes of the Arab Spring: Remember all those cool young Egyptians using Twitter to trip up Mubarak? And the idea is still alive and well, informing coverage of countries ranging from Brazil to Cambodia. Autocrats tremble, apparently, at the mere thought of young people joining hands to challenge them.

Certainly there’s some basis for the idea. Younger people aren’t set in their ways. They’re often idealistic. They usually don’t have the children, the mortgages, or the hoarded savings that tend to make their elders shy of radical change. Plus the young have plenty of energy (as we’re reminded once again this week by the Olympics, that perennial showcase of youthful dazzle). For all these reasons, the idea of reckless twenty-somethings joining forces to bring down tyrants has been a staple of western political thought at least since the French Revolution. (Disclosure: The author of this article is, well, middle-aged, shall we say.)

The problem is that this image of the youthful activist as a natural friend of freedom is a stereotype — and, like all stereotypes, it has its element of truth. Yes, young people often end up on the side of change. But that doesn’t automatically make them "progressive," and it certainly doesn’t mean that they’re democrats.

The radical political movements of the twentieth century understood this very well. Both the Fascists and the Bolsheviks placed young people squarely at the center of their deeply illiberal programs. These totalitarians, knowing that the young were their natural allies in the fight against the old order, offered them quick access to power and careers — and the young were generally happy to accept. (And yes, both the Soviet Communists and the Nazis were "tech-savvy," avidly embracing new technologies like radio and the movies, and capable of ferocious innovation in the realms of social policy and warfare.)

If we were to pick the most influential youth movement of the twentieth century, measured by sheer numbers and actual political effect on the lives of others, the title surely belongs to the Red Guards of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution. When the Great Helmsman gave them official sanction to take bloody revenge on teachers, bureaucrats, and in some cases their own parents, millions of young Chinese responded with enthusiasm, unleashing a mass paroxysm of violence that remains without equal.

Young people often present their societies with great potential for destabilization — especially when the young are male (charged up by testosterone and frustrated ambitions). The problem is compounded when there aren’t enough jobs or career opportunities to go around. In the 1970s, the Shah’s Iran produced enormous numbers of overeducated young men without creating corresponding opportunities for advancement. They were easy prey for the ideology offered by the new revolutionary Islamists, who offered the young an attractive mix of militant faith and career-enhancing rejection of the old elites.

The idealism of youth, in short, doesn’t necessarily entail the embrace of liberal values. Young people can also satisfy their longing for purity in extremist identity politics. Most of the jihadis running around Syria and Iraq are young, though I doubt their vision of change is necessarily a kind of which Westerners would approve. (Pop quiz: Who’s the world’s youngest head of state? North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, age 31.)

The "revolutionary youth" meme is limited in other ways, too. Revolutionary practice suggests that young radicals are skilled at dismantling but not so great at building. Recent experience in Egypt and Tunisia offers good examples of this principle in action. The young liberals who sparked the revolution in Tahrir Square in 2011 have wielded negligible influence on the political scene in the years since. In retrospect, their use of social media appears to have been relatively effective at marshaling demonstrators, but far less helpful at building positive political programs to challenge the organizational dominance of the old farts in the Muslim Brotherhood and the Egyptian Army. In Tunisia, the young people who once called the shots on the streets have long since yielded the initiative to gray-haired politicians.

Time and time again, history shows us that youthful charisma, aggression, and idealism are great qualities for starting a political career, but they aren’t always enough to sustain one. We Americans, with our ingrained enthusiasm of youthful vitality, are particularly inclined to forget this. Our political journalists love charting "rising stars" — but when was the last time you saw a listicle on "the 10 old people in Washington who actually make things happen"? Foreign correspondents and diplomats are fond of depicting political struggles in the countries they cover as battles between heroic "young reformers" and the forces of entrenched reaction — a narrative that tends to overlook the many cases in which today’s "young reformer" becomes tomorrow’s geriatric dictator. (Colonel Qaddafi, it is worth nothing, seized power at 27.)

In short, it’s understandable that we always expect change from the young. But you should never write off the political survivors. My book, Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century, includes the stories of two of the last century’s most transformative politicians. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was 76 when he presided over the Iranian Revolution, an event that turned the Middle East on its head (and continues to do so). Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping was 74 when he launched the economic reforms that have since turned his country into a global economic power. Neither man would count as young. But if these two weren’t revolutionaries, I don’t know who is.

 Twitter: @ccaryl