What happens when democracy fails to deliver? What happens when people give up on democracy?
What happens when a majority or militant minority decide that the constitutional rights of free speech, free elections, peaceful assembly and petition are inadequate and take to the streets to force democracy to submit to their demands?
Our world may be about to find out.
Chile is the most stable and prosperous country in Latin America.
Yet when its capital, Santiago, recently raised subway fares by 5%, thousands poured into the streets. Rioting, looting, arson followed. The Metro system was utterly trashed. Police were assaulted. People died. The rioting spread to six other cities. Troops were called out.
President Sebastian Pinera repealed the fare hike and declared a national emergency, stating, “Chile is at war against a powerful, implacable enemy who does not respect anything or anyone and is willing to use violence and crime without any limits.”
How does a democracy that has spawned within itself a powerful and implacable enemy deal with it?
Last week, tens of thousands of Lebanese of all faiths and political associations rioted in Beirut and Tripoli to demand the overthrow of the regime and the ouster of its president, speaker of parliament and Prime Minister Saad Hariri. All must go, the masses demand.
In Barcelona, Friday, half a million people surged into the streets in protest after the sentencing in Madrid of the secessionists who sought to bring about the independence of Catalonia from Spain in 2017.
In all of China, few enjoy the freedoms of the 7 million in Hong Kong. Yet, for five months, these fortunate and free Chinese, to protest a proposal that would have allowed Hong Kong residents to be extradited to China, stormed into the streets to defy the regime and denounce the conditions under which they live.
These protests have been marked by riots, vandalism, arson and clashes with police. “Hong Kong streets descended into chaos following an unauthorized pro-democracy rally Sunday,” writes the Associated Press. Protesters “set up roadblocks and torched businesses, and police responded with tear gas and a water cannon. Protesters tossed firebombs and took their anger out on shops with mainland Chinese ties.”
What are the Hong Kong residents denouncing and demanding?
They are protesting both present and future limitations on their freedom. The appearance of American flags in the protests suggests that what they seek is what the agitators behind the Boston Tea Party and the boys and men at Concord Bridge sought — independence, liberty and a severing of the ties to the mother country.
Yet, because the Communist regime of Xi Jinping could not survive such an amputation, the liberation of Hong Kong is not in the cards. The end to these months of protest will likely be frustration, futility and failure.
Perhaps it is that realization that explains the vehemence and violence. But the rage is also what kills the support they initially received.
In 1960s America, the first civil rights demonstrations attracted widespread sympathy. But the outburst of urban riots that followed in Harlem, Watts, Newark, Detroit and 100 cities after Martin Luther King’s assassination sent millions streaming to the banners of Gov. George Wallace in the campaigns of 1968 and 1972.
When the “yellow vest” protests broke out in 2018 in Paris, over a fuel tax, the demonstrators had the support of millions of Frenchmen.
But that support dissipated when protesters began smashing windows of boutique shops on the Champs-Elysee, assaulting police and desecrating monuments and memorials.
This reversion to violence, ransacking of stores and showering of police with bricks, bottles and debris, is costing the protesters much of the backing they enjoyed. In the trade-off between freedom and order, people will ultimately opt for order.
Yet, one wonders: Why are these outbursts of violent protests and rioting taking place in stable, free and prosperous societies?
Chile is the most stable and wealthy country in South America. Catalonia is the most prosperous part of Spain. Paris is hardly a hellhole of repression. And Hong Kong is the freest city of China.
If the beneficiaries of freedoms and democratic rights come to regard them as insufficient to produce the political, economic and social results they demand, what does that portend for democracy’s future?
For, despite the looting, arson and attacks on cops in Hong Kong, Xi Jinping is not going to order his satraps to yield to popular demands for autonomy or independence. Nor is Madrid going to accept the loss of Barcelona and secession of Catalonia. Nor is the conservative Chilean government going to yield to the street rebels and revolutionaries. Nor is Paris going to back down to the “yellow vests.”
Yet, one wonders: If the “end of history” and worldwide triumph of democratic capitalism thesis has, as most agree, been disproven, is it possible that the Age of Democracy is itself a passing phase in the history of the West and the world?