It seems that everywhere you look today, people are taking to the streets. Recent mass protests have exploded in a dizzyingly diverse range of countries, including France, Hungary, Romania, Zimbabwe, Thailand, Sudan, Venezuela, Greece, as well as Gaza, and most recently Algeria. Does this surge of citizen activism and anger, which is just the most recent swell in what has been a decade-long tide of large-scale protests, offer some broader lessons about the state of democracy?
Some protests may look like a sign of democratic decay amid a rise of populism and alienation with the political status quo—for example, in Brazil, the United States or France. Others may look like a futile rattling of the political cage under growing illiberalism and authoritarianism, such as in Hungary, Morocco or Thailand. More optimistically, protests in places like Algeria, Venezuela and Sudan may signal a heartening indicator of the persistent aspiration for democracy and peoples’ willingness to fight for it in very different parts of the world.
Understanding the impact of these protests first requires dispelling several misconceptions that have accumulated about street politics over the past decade. A common view is that protests, though loud and disruptive, achieve little. But while many demonstrations fail dismally—consider attempts to overturn repressive regimes in Russia, China or Egypt—others achieve even beyond their initial aims. In just the past few years, popular movements have had a hand in throwing out governments in Armenia, Brazil, Ethiopia, Gambia, Guatemala, South Korea, Peru, Tunisia and Ukraine. Until recently, Venezuela belonged in the group of countries where protests failed against an entrenched regime, but now it may be on the cusp of moving into the category of more effective cases.