The Key Ingredient for Revolutions

Earlier this year, a wave of populist uprisings swept across Northern African and the Middle East.  Regimes fell, new governments were put in place, and questions lingered about why some countries initiated revolutions and others did not.  Of particular note was the observation that income disparities are greatest in the United States, and yet there is no sign of revolution on the horizon.

The American people have lost faith in our cultural and political leaders.  Public confidence in governing institutions — corporations, the mainstream media, the federal government, and banks — is at an all-time low.  Living wages are scarce and corruption is widely recognized in the electoral process.  And the final bulwark of democracy fell last year with the Supreme Court decision with the Orwellian name “Citizens United” that granted corporations unlimited access to influence elections through direct advertising.

So why haven’t we seen a revolution in the United States?  What drives a country over the edge?  How can analysts mark the trends that convey a structural civil unrest that culminates in political transformation?  There are excellent frameworks for the stages a social movement goes through (like this one), including a tipping point where new behaviors go mainstream and shift the scales.  But what precursors tell us that such a tipping point is nearby?

This is not merely an academic question.  We now find ourselves confronted with the most challenging threats from global change in the history of civilization and our governing institutions have proven inadequate for addressing them.  The international climate talks in Copenhagen last year are but one example that demonstrates how disconnected our leadership is from any genuine ability to serve the needs of people or planet.  We must understand how revolutions reach their tipping point so that more effective modes of government can arise that enable us to solve our most pressing problems.

A Compelling Answer

When asked why revolution doesn’t happen in the U.S., a number of reasons are typically offered — the American people are too ignorant of global affairs; we’re sedated by mass media; our income levels are high enough that we feel buffered against chronic insecurity.  All of these reasons likely contribute.  But is there a lynch pin that holds the broken edifice together?

We often hear about the breakdown of social order as a process led by charismatic leaders.  It is true that Gandhi rose to lead the Indian people to independence and Martin Luther King Jr. offered a beacon of light in the darkness of a century-long struggle for racial equality.  What these shining leaders conceal is the backdrop of a particular kind of unrest that I believe holds the key to societal shift:

The vital ingredient for revolutionary change is highly educated, unemployable young people whose future depends on regime change for their survival.

In Egypt it was young engineers, doctors, and lawyers who led the revolution.  These people were highly educated, accomplished with the newest communication technologies, and removed from decision-making power in a time when their futures were at stake.  They had no access to living wage jobs despite being quite capable of taking leadership.

Here in the United States, we have an up-and-coming generation of highly educated youth leaders who feel disenfranchised by a broken political and economic system.  They are the most socially adept and globally conscious generation of emerging leaders in our nation’s history.  The question remains whether they will be crushed by student loan debt and quelled into acquiescence or galvanized by the converging threats of global ecological collapse and economic breakdown to mobilize and claim their power to create society anew.

I realize that nothing is certain and we are living in turbulent times.  And yet I am hopeful for the future because I see the restlessness of our youth and their dogged entrepreneurial spirit to launch social businesses, run for local office, and rebel against the status quo that has no promise of a better tomorrow for them.  This combined with a restlessness among movement leaders from the previous generation who hold deep knowledge of governing institutions is a source of hope for me.  Intergenerational bridges must be built and knowledge exchanged in order to help the emboldening youth to carry us through a global transition in the coming days, weeks, months, and years.

Now is the time for measuring these deep trends and characterizing the nature of the patterns we discover.  It is increasingly obvious that systemic change is vital for our long-term survival.  Can we make use of political, cultural, and economic revolutions to cultivate deep structural transformation?

Only time will tell.

Cognitive Policy Works specializes in providing organizations and individuals with frame analysis, policy briefs, strategic advising, and training.