Democracy Lab

The Young and the Restless

Yes, young people are often a force for political change. But what kind, exactly?

I recently had the honor to participate in an online debate about democracy sponsored by the Economist. It was illuminating -- not least because my opponent was Professor Larry Diamond, one of the most respected scholars in the field of democratic transitions.

Our debate revolved around our assessments of the future of global democracy. Professor Diamond made the case for the optimists, arguing that powerful forces in the world are naturally pushing societies toward the embrace of democratic institutions. I was the pessimist, so I see the picture as a bit less encouraging. I think that there are many powerful forces working to undermine or even reverse democracy in much of the world.

One of our most interesting differences of opinion involved the role of young people. At one point Professor Diamond wrote that the monarchies in Jordan and Morocco, which have so far survived the challenge of the Arab Spring with surprising resilience, are doomed to fall. The reason: both countries have large cohorts of "tech-savvy youth." The implication seemed to be that monarchic systems, inherently awkward, inflexible, and old-fashioned, simply won't be able to resist large numbers of Internet-equipped, mobile-phone wielding activists once they get the bit in their teeth.

This assumption -- that young people embody an inherently progressive revolutionary potential, making them the natural enemies of autocrats -- is widespread. It's been one of the major tropes of the Arab Spring: Remember all those cool young Egyptians using Twitter to trip up Mubarak? And the idea is still alive and well, informing coverage of countries ranging from Brazil to Cambodia. Autocrats tremble, apparently, at the mere thought of young people joining hands to challenge them.

Certainly there's some basis for the idea. Younger people aren't set in their ways. They're often idealistic. They usually don't have the children, the mortgages, or the hoarded savings that tend to make their elders shy of radical change. Plus the young have plenty of energy (as we're reminded once again this week by the Olympics, that perennial showcase of youthful dazzle). For all these reasons, the idea of reckless twenty-somethings joining forces to bring down tyrants has been a staple of western political thought at least since the French Revolution. (Disclosure: The author of this article is, well, middle-aged, shall we say.)

The problem is that this image of the youthful activist as a natural friend of freedom is a stereotype -- and, like all stereotypes, it has its element of truth. Yes, young people often end up on the side of change. But that doesn't automatically make them "progressive," and it certainly doesn't mean that they're democrats.

The radical political movements of the twentieth century understood this very well. Both the Fascists and the Bolsheviks placed young people squarely at the center of their deeply illiberal programs. These totalitarians, knowing that the young were their natural allies in the fight against the old order, offered them quick access to power and careers -- and the young were generally happy to accept. (And yes, both the Soviet Communists and the Nazis were "tech-savvy," avidly embracing new technologies like radio and the movies, and capable of ferocious innovation in the realms of social policy and warfare.)

If we were to pick the most influential youth movement of the twentieth century, measured by sheer numbers and actual political effect on the lives of others, the title surely belongs to the Red Guards of Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution. When the Great Helmsman gave them official sanction to take bloody revenge on teachers, bureaucrats, and in some cases their own parents, millions of young Chinese responded with enthusiasm, unleashing a mass paroxysm of violence that remains without equal.

Young people often present their societies with great potential for destabilization -- especially when the young are male (charged up by testosterone and frustrated ambitions). The problem is compounded when there aren't enough jobs or career opportunities to go around. In the 1970s, the Shah's Iran produced enormous numbers of overeducated young men without creating corresponding opportunities for advancement. They were easy prey for the ideology offered by the new revolutionary Islamists, who offered the young an attractive mix of militant faith and career-enhancing rejection of the old elites.

The idealism of youth, in short, doesn't necessarily entail the embrace of liberal values. Young people can also satisfy their longing for purity in extremist identity politics. Most of the jihadis running around Syria and Iraq are young, though I doubt their vision of change is necessarily a kind of which Westerners would approve. (Pop quiz: Who's the world's youngest head of state? North Korea's Kim Jong Un, age 31.)

The "revolutionary youth" meme is limited in other ways, too. Revolutionary practice suggests that young radicals are skilled at dismantling but not so great at building. Recent experience in Egypt and Tunisia offers good examples of this principle in action. The young liberals who sparked the revolution in Tahrir Square in 2011 have wielded negligible influence on the political scene in the years since. In retrospect, their use of social media appears to have been relatively effective at marshaling demonstrators, but far less helpful at building positive political programs to challenge the organizational dominance of the old farts in the Muslim Brotherhood and the Egyptian Army. In Tunisia, the young people who once called the shots on the streets have long since yielded the initiative to gray-haired politicians.

Time and time again, history shows us that youthful charisma, aggression, and idealism are great qualities for starting a political career, but they aren't always enough to sustain one. We Americans, with our ingrained enthusiasm of youthful vitality, are particularly inclined to forget this. Our political journalists love charting "rising stars" -- but when was the last time you saw a listicle on "the 10 old people in Washington who actually make things happen"? Foreign correspondents and diplomats are fond of depicting political struggles in the countries they cover as battles between heroic "young reformers" and the forces of entrenched reaction -- a narrative that tends to overlook the many cases in which today's "young reformer" becomes tomorrow's geriatric dictator. (Colonel Qaddafi, it is worth nothing, seized power at 27.)

In short, it's understandable that we always expect change from the young. But you should never write off the political survivors. My book, Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century, includes the stories of two of the last century's most transformative politicians. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was 76 when he presided over the Iranian Revolution, an event that turned the Middle East on its head (and continues to do so). Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping was 74 when he launched the economic reforms that have since turned his country into a global economic power. Neither man would count as young. But if these two weren't revolutionaries, I don't know who is.

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Democracy Lab

Snow Blind

When Americans look at Russia, they see what they want to see. And that's dangerous.

Two of Russia's most famous dissidents are visiting the United States. I speak, of course, of Nadya Tolokonnikova and Masha Alyokhina, members of the feminist conceptual art group known as Pussy Riot who were recently released from jail by President Vladimir Putin. The U.S. media have been raving. "Pussy Riot gals stun Brooklyn crowd with powerful speech," blared the New York Post about the duo's appearance at a charity concert in New York this week. "Pussy Riot stole the show from Madonna" was the verdict from Time. They put in a bravado performance on The Colbert Report and even had the New Yorker gushing about their presumed artistic achievements. Pretty impressive.

There's just one problem. Most of the adoring coverage of the two Pussy Riot stars presumes that their protest is having an enormous impact on the political situation in their home country. If not, why are we (and Madonna) paying such inordinate attention to them?

In fact, though, there is little evidence that they have any sort of influence on Russian public opinion at all. Most Russians regard Pussy Riot with outright hostility. As one recent public opinion survey revealed, the number of Russians who view the prison sentence the two women received as either fair or too soft has actually grown in the two years since they went to jail: The figure is now 66 percent. (A reminder: Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina were convicted on charges of "hooliganism" after performing an impromptu anti-Putin concert in a Moscow cathedral in 2012.)

But the overarching sentiment regarding Pussy Riot back home can probably be characterized more accurately as general indifference. The broader opposition movement in Russia has never embraced Pussy Riot -- perhaps because members of the group exult in their reputation as radical avant-gardists, a position that is scarcely calculated to gain much traction with the country's deeply conservative mainstream. (Tolokonnikova once had herself photographed having sex with her husband in a museum as part of an edgy protest against patriarchy, or something.)

Indeed, the remaining members of Pussy Riot have now expelled Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina from the group for sundry minor misdeeds, which means that the two women now represent the outer fringe of a fringe. A caption in a fine story by New Republic reporter Julia Ioffe, who shows how other Russian critics of Putin's regime regard the group as an irrelevant sideshow, makes the same point: "Pussy Riot, who galvanized Western outrage over Putin's repressive regime, evokes a more complicated response at home." Andrew Monaghan of the London think tank Chatham House, who tracks public opinion in Russia, puts it with rather less understatement: "My sense is that most Russians just don't give a damn."

The Pussy Riot episode is just one part of a much bigger recent history of a vast perception gap between Russia and the West. In the 1980s, Westerners went gaga over Mikhail Gorbachev's wife, Raisa, who, with her designer clothes and outspoken political opinions, seemed to embody the kind of more modern and cosmopolitan USSR her husband was trying to build. Meanwhile, her compatriots back home despised her, seeing in her highfalutin' airs just the sort of arrogance of privilege they'd come to expect from high-ranking communists. Soon enough, of course, Gorbachev himself fell victim to the same sort of disillusionment. The more Berliners and New Yorkers adored him for dismantling the Iron Curtain, the more Russians grew to detest him for dismantling the empire and presiding over a collapsing economy.

These days, many Westerners, appalled by Putin's authoritarian airs, find themselves almost instinctively rooting for the opposition. Western reporters covered the big anti-Putin protests of 2012 as if the president's fall from power was just a matter of days -- yet here he is, glibly presiding over the Olympics, and the protesters are nowhere to be seen. Not only that, his approval rating, now hovering at around 65 percent, would be the envy of just about any of his counterparts in the West.

By contrast, the most prominent opposition leader, corruption fighter Alexey Navalny, scores at 1 percent in most current opinion polls -- which, one should point out, is less than the usual margin of error. "We look at Russia and often want certain things to happen," notes Monaghan. "Navalny has presented himself very well to the West. He's undoubtedly a talented politician. But he's done much better over here than in Russia." As far as Russians themselves are concerned, Monaghan says, the real opposition in their country today is the Communist Party, which regularly garners about 20 percent in elections and opinion surveys and which, unlike the liberal protesters, has a solid organizational infrastructure across the country. This isn't to say that Navalny isn't completely irrelevant. It's just to point out that he's probably not as relevant as we think he is.

This is not an academic point. If you can't separate your biases from your analysis, your analyses will usually turn out to be wrong. One might argue that precisely this has been the case over the past few decades. In the 1990s, Westerners (and especially the Clinton administration) trumpeted Boris Yeltsin's success at leading Russia forward into a bright democratic future -- while ordinary Russians were experiencing an everyday existence marked by evaporating savings, rampant sleaze, chronically unpaid salaries, triumphant Chechen rebels, mafia shootouts, and patently unfair privatizations that left just seven men controlling most of the country's industrial assets. The architect of that privatization effort, Anatoly Chubais, was hailed by Washingtonians as a young, tech-savvy genius (he brought a laptop to meetings!), while most Russians saw him as the nauseating epitome of a corrupt new system that didn't even trouble to conceal its injustices. Were the Russians wrong? Perhaps. But they had very good reasons for believing what they did.

The post-Yeltsin era has brought more of the same. Americans were appalled when Putin described the collapse of the USSR as the "greatest geopolitical catastrophe" of the 20th century. Russians applauded. In 2001, George W. Bush looked into Putin's eyes and saw exactly the kind of soul he hoped he would see there; he was later roundly disabused of this comforting notion. But that didn't stop the Obama administration from trying to build up President Dmitry Medvedev, Putin's seemingly liberal protégé, as an alternative power center -- only to discover, to their own chagrin, that there wasn't anything independent about Medvedev to begin with.

For the record: I would very much like to see Russia become a democracy that respects the rights of all its citizens. I think that Russians deserve this. But the West isn't going to help them find their way there by indulging in wishful thinking. In some cases, indeed, such dreaming might even make things worse (for example, by allowing the Kremlin's reactionaries and their ilk to brand all democrats as pimps of the West). So maybe it's time to stop seeing in Russia what we want to see.

Photo: ROSLAN RAHMAN/AFP/Getty Images