What about here in the United States? Polls consistently show that fewer than half of Americans approve of the job that President Obama is doing, and those ratings are far higher than Congress or either political party receives. Unemployment remains stubbornly above 9 percent. There is plenty of anger in America today: anger about joblessness across the nation, about cutbacks in services in the states, about increased tuition at our universities, about economic and political inequality that seems to be increasing, and at a government that seems unable to do anything about any of this. Where are the people taking to the streets?
The closest thing to a strong social movement in the United States in recent years has been the tea party, and it demands that government do less. Lately, we hear about the tea party largely from members of Congress and candidates for office, who have drowned out and replaced the activists at the grass roots.
This is largely because although movements carry anger, anger doesn’t make a movement — organizers do. Anger helps, of course; it’s a resource that organizers can stoke, channel and exploit.
Although saints and psychopaths will take great risks in the service of their beliefs, most people are a little more calculating. People protest when they believe that something is wrong, that it could be otherwise, and that their efforts are both necessary and potentially effective.
They rarely make these calculations by themselves. Rather, they respond to those around them. Ostensibly spontaneous eruptions of political protest reflect the hard work and investment of organizers who cultivate grass-roots activism. Organizers point to a government’s provocations, focusing on the issues that they believe will spur action. They nurse both moral righteousness and a sense that it’s actually possible to get something done — both essential for sustained action. And, perhaps most important, they point to others who are already active, telling the newly recruited that they are not alone and that, together, they can matter.
There’s a long and proud history of Americans standing up for what they want, dating back, at least, to the original tea party in Boston in 1773. That tea party grew into a revolution and ultimately produced a government that would not be so easy to topple. The American political system is structured to channel anger and discontent into political institutions. James Madison, the genius behind the Constitution, envisioned a system of government that would embrace dissent and offer malcontents the hope, however distant, that they can get what they want by working through it. Protesters who start in the streets envision themselves, or at least their causes, entering the halls of power.