Why great revolutions are now rare

Sarah Steimer

“Although the Americans are constantly modifying or abrogating some of their laws, they by no means display revolutionary passions.”

Alexis de Tocqueville wrote this sentiment in a piece entitled “Why Great Revolutions Will Become Rare.” That was 1856.

Now, 152 years later, the question can be presented: How endangered is revolution, or is it completely extinct?

Tocqueville argued in his essay that revolution will become rare in the United States because a general equality among its citizens will leave them with little to revolt against. There will still be the ultra rich and the ultra poor, but the bulk of the population remains middle class – who have not too little and not too much. Revolting requires one group wanting something from another group. The middle class, in all of its veritable La-Z-Boy recliner comfort, has become grossly passive.

To be clear, there is nothing wrong with the nation drawing ever closer to equality. There is little reason anymore to revolt against Bill Gates because the middle class needs more land and he owns however many acres. There is, however, other reason to revolt aside from fiscal equality.

Have Americans’ protests against politicians been stunted because all politicians are, in a sense, the same? Has protest against high college fees been avoided because each and every university has simultaneously raised prices to repulsively high digits? Have protests against the oil companies been few and far between because the middle class seems to own gas-run vehicles and, gee, who wants to buy a new car for new fuels?

A few Americans have responded to these and other issues. No one will follow the leader anymore, but instead people choose to watch the parade.

“They will not struggle energetically against him, sometimes they will even applaud him; but they do not follow him,” Tocqueville wrote of the lone revolutionary. “He strains himself to rouse the indifferent and distracted multitude and finds at last that he is reduced to impotence, not because he is conquered, but because he is alone.”

Complacency will be the end of American revolution. In reality, maybe we should no longer blame technology as the root of the nation’s passive nature. Perhaps we should blame the fact that we can all equally afford the computer, the iPod and the cell phone that cause even further complacency.

What the middle class can afford, what they can equally afford, causes just the right amount of comfort with just the right amount of lust after something bigger and better. To get to the little bit bigger and better, the bit of extra comfort, they know to change a few laws. Drugs make you uncomfortable? Illegal! Environmental protection makes you feel more at ease? Add an office in the government to ensure it!

But a serious problem that would make us uncomfortable for a period of time while it is fixed – forget it. Some other generation can take care of it.

“They are forever varying, altering, and restoring secondary matters; but they carefully abstain from touching what is fundamental. They love change, but they dread revolutions,” Tocqueville said.

What will it take for us to all say something – loudly – and no longer depend on the one little guy or make a small, simple law to correct it? When will we stop being so complacent and collectively revolt? How soon will we eventually kill revolution?

Sarah Steimer is a junior magazine journalism major and columnist for the Daily Kent Stater. Contact her at [email protected].