Earlier this month a wave of protests spread across the nation of Iran and captivated much of the media’s attention. Like the Iranian protests of 2009 many believed, or wanted to believe, that a movement toward popular democracy might finally be springing up from the people and forced upon the hardline Islamic Republic.
Iran topped Twitter and Facebook trending topics and much of the political establishment’s hopes for what might be occurring there. President Trump tweeted, “The people of Iran are finally acting against the brutal and corrupt Iranian regime.” Newt Gingrich blasted leading European nations for not standing up and supporting the Iranians with greater boldness like the American President had done. Major media publications from the New York Times to the Washington Post ran a barrage of analyses and editorials on the protests. The Wall Street Journal jumped in on the action with articles like this one: 247 Demonstrations, 90 Cities, 14 Days: Iran’s Upheaval. For several days the western world held its breath, watched the protesters and enjoyed day dreams of Iranian democracy.
Now, two weeks removed from the height of these protests the unfortunate but familiar trends have set in. The Iranian government has cracked down on protesters, arresting thousands alleging they were inspired by Israeli and American propaganda. Reports of torture, deaths and disappearances are filling US media. And significantly, the analysis of leading experts is slowly admitting these protests were not as much about democracy as we were earlier led to believe.
This trend is now almost a decade old and yet we still seem to miss it every time it occurs. In a time when news and norms are moving so fast the dream and narrative of democracy spreading across the world will not let go in the media’s popular imagination even if it is far from on the ground realities.
Years ago I spoke about this when exploring the realities versus the popular narratives during the Arab Spring. Little has changed since that time. Throughout the world whenever people living under hardline governments rise up in protest, American leaders and the media are all too quick to jump onto “democratic uprising” stories and conclusions. The facts however are usually quite different.
American perspectives of these protests are usually bound by a set of simple misunderstandings about the world we live in today. Namely, the era in which the priority and appeal of popular democracy drove social movements and change has ended. It has been replaced by individual anxiety and desperation for basic needs. Our modern era of extreme inequality is stirring up the forces of individual and societal frustration and desperation throughout the world. From Russia, to Egypt, to Iran, to Venezuela, widespread protests in 2017 were not inspired by a desire for democracy but by food prices and unemployment; yet repeatedly the western world initially reported these events as democratic uprisings.
The democratic think tank Freedom House recently released its annual report finding for the 12th year in a row democracy declined around the world. Dictatorship and tyranny are rising. The rule of law is eroding. Military rule is expanding. Nationalism is being prioritized over the principles of liberal democracy. These are global trends and the fact that the people are not standing up to resist these trends makes evident how the world has changed. It is not that democracy is changing but that the people’s desire for democracy has changed. They would rather a strong authoritative leader who promises to restore their bank accounts and job security than liberal democratic values.
In Iran unemployment among young people, half the national population and the large majority of the crowds who made up the recent protests, stands at 40%. Inflation has risen into double digits. College graduates in Iran are finding they must work two to three jobs at once in order to break even. The rural areas, where much of these recent protests were centered, have seen a host of government subsidies lost in recent years which means less income and higher food prices.
Statistics and on the ground realities like these can be identified in every nation where in recent years it was believed that democratic protests were erupting to overthrow the hardline regimes. Similarly the rise of nationalist movements in Europe and the US can be linked to these same trends. This is not about democracy. It is about food and jobs. In a sense the protesters in Iran were marching to “Make Iran Great Again.”
As opportunity and prosperity is squeezed from the poor and middle classes in these countries it does not take long for them to begin to look for answers to the problems afflicting their lives and homes. Generally, the answers are easy to find in governments who possess both apparent corruption as well as needless spending on military ambitions abroad rather than domestic needs at home. In the case of Iran millions have been spent in the advance of the Shia Crescent. The Iranian Republican Guard Corps now controls a third of the national economy. Citizens are fed up with seeing the government so busily engaged internationally while the people at home are struggling to simply get by.
Recognizing what is truly taking shape in the world today will help us better understand the world we live in. This is less about fake news and more about locally born narratives and ideals regarding events and people abroad. Their struggles and desires, frustrations and anger are not that different from what is being experienced in America. Around the world inequality is driving frustration and resentment and the occasional explosions into protests are not likely to stop in the near future.