The Common Good
September-October 2013

A Revolution of Rising Expectations

by Duane Shank | September-October 2013

Dreams of a better life—and political corruption—spark rising protests around the world.

THE PHRASE “a revolution of rising expectations” is now part of the social science literature. When people who are not oppressed have a belief that life is getting better as economies improve, their expectations often outstrip the pace of actual change. Those rising expectations lead to unrest as demands for improvement continue to grow.

This summer we have seen that play out in several countries. As living standards increase, people are less likely to tolerate corrupt and inefficient governments. Washington Post reporters Anthony Faiola and Paula Moura recently wrote, “One small incident has ignited the fuse in societies that, linked by social media and years of improved living standards across the developing world, are now demanding more from their democracies and governments.”

In Turkey, it was the government’s plans to destroy the only public green space in the heart of Istanbul, a park that was to be replaced with a shopping mall. Protests against the plan soon grew into broader concerns about what is seen as increasingly authoritarian rule by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. They turned violent when peaceful demonstrators were attacked by police, and ultimately an Istanbul court ruled against the plan, although it is not finally settled.

In Brazil, protests that began over a proposed rise in bus fares brought hundreds of thousands of people into the streets. The protests soon escalated into opposition to the large amounts of money the government is investing in facilities for the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, while neglecting basic health care and education. President Dilma Rousseff has promised political reforms and increased spending on public transportation and other social needs.

With an approaching presidential election in Chile, students again took to the streets with a demand for free education rather than a for-profit system. They were joined by workers and fishermen with broader demands for reform of the political system. There, too, promises of reforms are being made.

And, in perhaps the most dramatic change, growing street protests brought about the military overthrow of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s Islamist government. In the year since the election that brought him and the Muslim Brotherhood to power, the economy has not kept pace with demands, unemployment has climbed, and social services declined.

The events this summer follow on the strikes and demonstrations that have occurred in Europe—in Greece, Spain, Portugal, Bulgaria, and elsewhere—as austerity budgets have taken hold while unemployment and falling standards of living affect more and more people.

All of this raises the obvious question: Why are the people of the U.S. seemingly so acquiescent to what is happening here? Unemployment, especially long-term, is still high; our infrastructure is crumbling; the social safety net is being shredded, at both the state and national levels; our education system is now ranked 17th among the top 40 developed countries. Despite all that, there are not thousands of people in the streets demanding change.

The closest the U.S. has come in recent years was the dramatic birth and growth of the Occupy movement. Two years later, that has largely disappeared at the national level, in part due to its active suppression by the police. But more important, the activists involved have been putting down local roots, organizing at the community level against foreclosures and for jobs, protesting growing income inequality, and getting involved in many other struggles around the country. One day, there may be that “one small incident” here that will spark the kind of nonviolent prophetic protests that are now occurring around the world.

Duane Shank is an associate editor of Sojourners.

Image: People's revolution, minoru suzuki / Shutterstock.com

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