Adopting a Middle Eastern Model, Americans Have Become Infatuated with Crowd Politics

January 27, 2017 | Lee Smith
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For the past week, the president, his press secretary, and the media have been consumed by a debate over how many people attended the inauguration. Enthusiasts of the anti-Trump women’s marches that took place across the country have likewise boasted about the numbers of participants, posting photographs declaring that “this is what democracy looks like.” To Lee Smith, this newfound passion for head-counting reflects less the democratic traditions of the U.S. than the mob-driven and party- or regime-manipulated politics of the Arab world:

[T]he talk about crowds is a sign of how American perceptions and expectations have been subtly and pervasively altered by our engagement with the undemocratic, and traditionally autocratic, Arab societies of the Middle East, especially since the beginning of the Arab Spring uprisings a little more than six years ago. Certainly, those bloody events should have reminded us that the politics of the ballot box are preferable to the politics of the street. But that’s not what happened. Instead, the massive protest movements of the Arab Spring were regarded across the American political spectrum, left and right, as genuine outpourings of democratic feeling. . . .

In fact, journalists, analysts, and policymakers got Egypt wrong three times in a little more than two years because they believed that numbers matter—and that crowds signal democracy. But that’s not how it happens in places like Egypt, where democratic practices and traditions are scarce. Numbers matter in the Third World because they are the mechanism by which a party or faction shows its strength—and seeks to intimidate others. If you’re in the minority faction, unless you own the preponderance of weapons, you have to back down. Your life depends on being able to count.

Crowd politics is the opposite of electoral politics. In democratic societies, crowd politics are generally hostile to electoral politics and procedural government, and often presage their destruction. . . .

Mass demonstrations are not a sign of a healthy democracy. Rather, as signs at the march more correctly advertised on Saturday, they are a symbol and a means of “resistance.” Adopting and retooling Arab tropes like “resistance”—often armed and typically directed at Israel—is hardly a new fashion for the progressive camp. . . . The Arabs became the culture of resistance par excellence. They have resisted everything, and now are paying dearly for it. If the people of Syria had a choice, would they have chosen “resistance” half a century ago—or a different way to get along with their neighbors, domestic and foreign? Would they not prefer to resolve their political disputes at the ballot box rather than in the kill zones of Aleppo? This is not what democracy looks like—but it is how crowd politics often ends.

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