In December of 2010, a Tunisian street vendor by the name of Tarek al-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi stood in front of the governor’s office in the rural town of Sidi Bouzid, doused himself with gasoline, and set himself on fire to protest the severe economic conditions suffered by himself and much of the local population. Outraged by the events that led to this act, thousands of people staged public protests that quickly spread throughout the region, engulfing not only Tunisia, but nearly the entire Middle East and parts of North Africa. At the time of this writing, some three years later, the governments of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen have been forced from power, with major protests and civil unrest still occurring in Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, and Algeria, amongst others. It is yet to be seen which of these governments will survive the coming year.
From a Western perspective, it is easy to dismiss this turn of events as yet another round of violence and unrest in a region that has earned, legitimately or otherwise, a reputation for political instability. Yet, while human rights violations and autocratic governments have historically defined the region, this belies the roles that political corruption, lack of government reform, wealth disparity, economic decline, unemployment, food and water insecurity, and large populations of dissatisfied and demoralized youth have played in fueling the protests. Indeed, it is these factors which may be the most troubling, even for democracies as stable as the United States.
It is taken by many as a hard fact that, after nearly 150 years of somewhat stable government, the U.S. will never experience another civil war. To be sure, even that war was a war amongst the states, though ultimately fought by the people, and not the result of a general uprising. Thus, it is not difficult to understand the faith the American people have in the durability of their government. However, can a situation exist such that even the resilience of the United States can be pushed beyond the breaking point?
It is not an easy thing to motivate a population to revolt against its government, and it is a historical fact that the people will overlook a lot from their rulers as long as they appear to be performing legitimate acts of governance. However, it is also a historical fact that it is when the governing class becomes so disconnected from the masses that the people begin to question their legitimacy to rule that the pitchforks come out. How, then, could such a situation arise in America?
There are many features to this country, both geographically and politically, that help to make it exceptionally resilient to a general uprising by the people. One is its immense vastness, across which it is highly unlikely that revolution fever will strike simultaneously, or even propagate. Thus, while one region or another may experience upheaval, it can be quickly contained and dispelled by the rest of the country. Another is the nation’s vast wealth, through which resources can be allocated to appease and placate regions on the verge of civil unrest. The multi-layered, and cooperative, system of city, county, state, and federal governments help to shield the U.S. from a general revolt. The ability of these various levels of government to change in response to, and thus absorb, civil unrest makes it even more difficult for a general revolution to take hold. And the belief by the American people in their ability to effect that change without resulting to revolution makes such an occurrence highly unlikely. Thus, it is easy to see that it would take a series of exceptionally disruptive forces, acting collectively, to bring a general revolution this country.
That being said, it is not impossible, nor do governments last forever. Even China, with its long common history, has seen governments, regimes, and dynasties come and go amid collapse, political upheaval, and outright revolution. Hence, it is safe to say that the same will eventually happen here, the question being…when. And if current events are a clue, then the answer may be sooner, rather than later.
As was recently seen in the Middle East, it is not impossible for revolutionary movements to simultaneously sweep across geographically disperse areas. All it takes is an economic and political environment across that region suitable for civil unrest to take hold. Given the general economic condition of the United States, following successive years of high unemployment, economic instability, the historically low participation rate of eligible workers, and the historically high rate of income disparity, it is easy to see that the economic conditions may very well be in place. Couple that with the historically low ratings of the various government agencies by the people, and the chances for widespread upheaval appear to be dangerously high.
Another example from the Middle East was the important part that disenfranchised youth played in energizing and propagating civil unrest and revolution. In the U.S., the unemployment rate for those under the age of 25 is currently between two and three times the national average, with little prospect for change in the near future. Add to that the prohibitive increase in the costs of attending college and the large-scale loss of manufacturing jobs, and the result is a not-insignificant, increasingly disenfranchised percentage of the population whose future looks quite grim. Not a good sign.
Finally, another important characteristic of the Middle East unrest was the deep distrust of the people in their respective governments, many of which had long histories of civil rights violations and autocratic rule. While civil rights abuses in the U.S. have not been, in general, as deep or widespread as in the Middle East, there are reasons for concern. Specifically, the increasingly militant attitude of local and federal law enforcement agencies, the increasing coordination of federal, state, and local agencies to restrict legally protected protests by the people, and the recently divulged extent to which the NSA and other government agencies have disregarded fundamental civil rights by spying on the population and secretly infiltrating legally sanctioned protest groups for the sake of disrupting and disenfranchising them are particularly troubling. All of which have acted to strengthen and perpetuate an ever-growing feeling of “us vs. them” between the government and the people.
Is the above enough to make America ripe for revolution? Although there is certainly an ever-increasing level of grumbling amongst the masses, there is still enough resilience and trust in the government to make a widespread uprising by the people highly unlikely. However, as was seen with Syria, when large portions of the population are forced to relocate and concentrate due to worsening economic conditions, all it takes is a mere spark to set the ball in motion. Thus, as the U.S is forced to manage the increasingly destructive effects of climate change, and growing portions of the population are forced to flee the inner regions of the country at the same time that the coastal populations are moving inward, conditions may eventually deteriorate to the level where at least localized uprisings become more and more frequent. When enough of these happen, and happen more and more often, then what was once considered impossible becomes possible, and the improbable, probable.