Few things can be as inspiring -- or misleading -- as the sight of millions of people gathered in protest. From Egypt (again) to Turkey to Brazil, we have recently seen stirring displays of people power, prompting commentators to suggest (again) that we are living in the new 1848 -- an era of discontent in which the world's emergent middle classes are finding their voices.
Putting aside the fact that many of those protesting in the Arab world and in other regions rattled recently by civil unrest are not yet middle class by any reasonable definition, the analogy holds in one particularly important respect: The revolutions of 1848 failed to produce real, immediate change. They upset the establishment to be sure, and they had longer-term consequences that should not be discounted. But they also frittered out or were quashed for an important reason: The revolutionaries were better at organizing protests than they were at institutionalizing their movements or creating, cultivating, and empowering leaders who could master existing institutions.
The genius of the American Revolution was that its leaders were good not only at promoting upheaval, but also at creating mechanisms to foster that upheaval over several years (a Continental Congress, a Continental Army). And then, once victory had been achieved, they created a constitutional government that protected itself while enshrining the principles they had fought for in a system that would both protect those principles and resist the efforts of counterforces to reassert themselves. The system allowed for pluralistic expression of views and smooth transitions among political groups within the society. In other words, the system preserved and was actually sustained by the energy of the revolution.
Look at some of the recent outpourings of public discontent that have captured our imaginations in the past couple of decades. Tiananmen Square. The uprisings that brought down the Soviet Union. Iran's Green Revolution. Tahrir Square. Revolutions in Libya, Tunisia, and elsewhere in the Arab world. Taksim Square. In each case, even where revolutions have brought seeming change, the protesters were hardly among the greatest beneficiaries of the outcomes.
There were really two kinds of outcomes. In the first, there was precious little change at all -- as in the case of China, Iran, or, to date, Turkey. In the second, the change shifted power from one entrenched elite to another: Russia may not be communist, but it is run by a former KGB officer in a very undemocratic way; in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood sought to fill the void created when Hosni Mubarak was pushed out, and if the current protests there play out, expect the military to resume primary control of the state, reversing the "reforms" demanded by President Mohamed Morsy.
Certainly, there are exceptions. The wave of revolutions that swept through Central and Eastern Europe brought real change and democratic government to a swath of the continent. But for each such exception -- the Philippines' People Power Revolution might be another -- there are as many or more examples of protests going for naught or being exploited by the already-powerful to consolidate their grip on the countries. Ask Jennifer Lopez what kind of Soviet-style strongman she was singing "Happy Birthday" to the other day in Turkmenistan? Look elsewhere in the 'stans. Sometimes, where there is no effective organized political force behind the revolution -- as in Libya -- the result is years of festering unrest.