Why Insurgency Is Fun
The status quo in the Western democracies is under attack — and its defenders are looking more listless by the hour.
In September 2014, the citizens of Scotland went to the polls to decide whether their country should remain a part of the United Kingdom. Walking around Edinburgh that day, I had the great privilege to watch them do it. It was an experience I don’t think I’ll ever quite forget.
Those who favored staying within Great Britain were notable by their absence. People wearing Union Jacks and other symbols of the status quo were in a small minority. Even those who were willing to defend their views seemed oddly subdued, almost demoralized.
Supporters of independence, on the other hand, were having the time of their lives. They wore funny hats and T-shirts in Scottish blue and white. They walked down the street arm in arm, and they were happy to tell you why an independent Scotland was the only choice that made sense. As I wrote at the time, “If you see a guy wheeling down the street on a unicycle while playing ‘Auld Lang Syne’ on the banjo and harmonica, you can bet that he’ll be wearing the insignia of the pro-independence campaign.”
In the end, a solid majority of Scots ended up voting in favor of staying with the U.K. The status quo triumphed — and, just to be clear, I wasn’t sad to see that happen. But I still can’t help wondering about the infectious zeal of those who were fighting for what turned out to be a lost cause. Why were the people who were striving to upend the established order so much more fun?
I’m not sure there’s a simple answer to that question. But it’s definitely one that’s worth asking. Right now, throughout the liberal democracies, the scions of the system are on the defensive. In the United States, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are jolting their parties with loud challenges to orthodoxy. In Germany, an upstart far-right party has just shocked the mainstream by winning unprecedented victories in state elections — following a pattern established by the surging National Front in France and other anti-immigration populists in Poland, Hungary, and Slovakia. And now Prime Minister David Cameron, veteran of the Scottish referendum, is facing a new test as the campaign to push Britain out of the European Union gathers steam.
This is the hour of the insurgent. It’s the underdogs versus the big dog, the raucous streets versus the gated community, the Rebellion versus the Empire. There are a lot of different revolutionaries out there, and they have all sorts of things to be angry about: migrants, evil banks, Obamacare, stagnating wages, remote elites (whether in Washington or Brussels or London). What they have in common is their rejection of the powers that be — and that’s what gives them energy.
Which is exactly what the incumbents seem to lack. Just take the European Union. It may be hard to believe, but the EU was a sexy idea once, back in its youth. Now it’s more like a middle-aged marriage, all tired compromises and embarrassed silences. Or consider German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in power for 11 years. When she’s praised, it’s invariably for her reliability, her role as the country’s ersatz mother, a “safe pair of hands” — not exactly the stuff of dreams. And Hillary? She tries to convince us that she’s a fighter but ends up looking like a fixture.
When he first showed up, Barack Obama’s very appearance signaled the end of business as usual. Now, seven years later, he’s part of the background noise, the ultimate no drama president. And when Trump zinged the dogged Jeb Bush as “low energy,” the barb stuck: The man’s family has been hogging our screens for decades. Surely they’re tired of themselves by now?
The challengers, the barbarians at the gate, are fueled by righteous indignation — and you can usually understand where they’re coming from, even if you can’t accept where they’re going. You can hear the voices: Our factory jobs went overseas, and China is eating our lunch. We lost our houses, and none of those bankers ever went to jail. Those Eurocrats bedevil us with their silly regulations. The people in power don’t listen, won’t listen, don’t care to listen. A 63-year-old woman demonstrating for the ultra-right Alternative for Germany complained to a reporter about her miserable pension and what it was like to watch the migrants keep coming in: “I have never had so much hatred inside me.”
The great rabble-rousers — the Hitlers and the Lenins — understood the power of rage. They tapped into the lure of violence, the seductiveness of revolutionary resentment. And these days everyone’s angry about something. The difference is that twenty-first century populists offer the same adrenaline rush at minimal cost. Ever feel like sucker-punching someone you disagree with? We’ll pay your legal fees. Want to bust out of the dictates of “political correctness”? We’ll be happy to retweet that for you. Breaking stuff is liberating.
Calling out the elite is not a bad thing in itself. “I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical,” is how Thomas Jefferson once put it. But there’s a problem with revolutions: How do you know when you’ve gone far enough? Elsewhere, in a somewhat more ominous mood, Jefferson contended, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”
In the 20th century, calls for “political revolution” — not tossed off with insouciance — sometimes translated into the deaths of millions. In 1914, even the world’s most brilliant intellectuals welcomed the onset of war as “a purification,” a storm that would blow away the cobwebs of bourgeois complacency. They got a bit more than they bargained for.
Revolution is sexy — romantic, even. Guerrilla theater is way more of a rush than the scripted press event. No one ever got votes by issuing calls for “muddling through” or “more of the same, tweaked a bit.” Even if you have the right ideas (sticking with Europe, welcoming migrants), it can be hard to get people excited about business as usual.
If the defenders of the old order want to survive this moment, they’ll need to convince us that it’s worth keeping them around. They’ll need to tap into our emotions, not just our sense of continuity. They’ll need to convince us that they’re not just selling us a line.
And, most importantly, they’ll need to give us a vision, a plan that’s worth a fight, maybe even some sacrifice. The rebels already have one of their own. They might be vague about it, maybe immature. But they’ve got the adrenaline on their side, that righteous rage. If the establishment can’t figure out a way to compete, we may be in for some all-too-interesting times.
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