What is happening in Brazil? Not so long ago, it was the toast of the global economy. More than 40 million Brazilians joined the middle class, the number of indigents plummeted, and the nation achieved the feat of reducing its legendary income inequality. The Latin American giant was awarded both the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics. It seemed to have finally buried the old cliche: Brazil is the country of the future … and always will be.
Now Brazil has hit turbulence. Since the middle of June, its biggest cities have been convulsed by rolling street protests. The initial spark was a 9¢ rise in bus fares, but the protests have since become wider, more clamorous expressions of anti-establishment anger. The day after the government backed down on the bus fare hike, 1 million demonstrators turned out in more than 100 cities to voice frustration with corruption, the inefficiency of the health-care and public transport systems, and runaway costs of hosting the World Cup. Some protests have turned violent, with mobs vandalizing banks and attempting to break into the Ministry of Foreign Relations. Police responded with pepper spray and rubber bullets. The uprising is Brazil’s biggest since 1992, when a student revolt against then-President Fernando Collor de Mello led to his resignation.
Around the world, eruptions of mass rage are becoming increasingly common, often sparked by relatively minor incidents or grievances. In Chile, student protests about the high cost of education turned into violent clashes. In Turkey, the instigation was the government’s intention to raze a park in Istanbul. In 2011 a Tunisian fruit vendor, exasperated by the constant harassment of the authorities, set himself on fire and started a revolution that ousted dictator Zina al-Abidine Ben Ali and ignited popular revolts throughout the Middle East. Chinese cities are often rocked by street demonstrations spurred by the most varied of reasons: protests against shoddy construction, the abusive behavior of local authorities, corruption, or contaminated food or water.
While critics of capitalism might claim the unrest represents a backlash against the global economic order, the reality is that the protest movements are highly localized, focused on grievances specific to a single country. However, the countries in which these protests have occurred do have something in common: economic success. And that’s no coincidence.
In all the countries in which street riots erupted, the government was stunned by the rapid escalation of the protests. It didn’t expect them, didn’t understand their true nature, and was ill prepared to react effectively. The common response was to repress the protests by sending in the riot police. Inevitably, the clashes between the people and the police led to casualties and scenes of brutality that spread rapidly through social media, thus exacerbating the protests and spurring even more people to take to the streets.
Governments have difficulty dealing with movements that lack a clear chain of command or a discernible organizational structure. The protests—informal, spontaneous, collective, often chaotic—are baffling to governments organized along hierarchical lines of authority. In Brazil, for example, a survey found that 81 percent of those who participated in one of the massive rallies simply learned about it via Facebook or Twitter and decided to join. In these cases, with whom should a government negotiate to restore order?
The leaderless, spontaneous nature of the protests also makes it difficult for the government to find someone to blame—or to decide whom to arrest in the hope of weakening the movement by cutting off its head. There is no head. In this sense, it’s interesting to compare the reactions of Brazil’s and Turkey’s leaders. Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff shied away from denouncing the protesters and instead insisted that their voices needed to be heard, their demands taken seriously and changes made. She has pledged to spend billions upgrading public transportation, promised to crack down on official corruption, and proposed a national plebiscite on political reform. In contrast, Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has attacked, threatened, and insulted the protesters, claiming they were part of a widespread conspiracy against his Islamic government. Among those Erdoğan singled out as participants in the conspiracy are local bankers and, of course, unnamed foreign powers.
Just as nobody could anticipate the start of these protests, it’s equally impossible to predict how and when they will end. In many countries caught up in the recent wave of unrest, the protests have had little to no lasting impact; in others, they’ve produced small, cosmetic reforms. In a few places, particularly in the Arab world, the protests have toppled governments. But Brazil, Turkey, and Chile are not Tunisia or Egypt. Their democratically elected governments are far more resilient and their leaders far more popular and secure in their power than the North African dictators swept away by the Arab Spring. Nonetheless, one thing is certain: The political climate of these countries was radically changed by the protests, and their leadership has been weakened.
This comes as a rude shock to policymakers in emerging economies who convinced themselves—with some justification—they’ve done things right. Chile is often cited as the example of a poor country able to overcome its troubled political past to become a world-class model of economic progress, development, and democracy. Same with Turkey: It’s common to call it an “economic miracle.” Moreover, Turkey was widely seen as the ideal of a country where East and West, modernity and tradition, Islam and democracy could peacefully blend and coexist.
So why did thousands of citizens of Chile, Turkey, and Brazil take to the streets to protest, instead of celebrating the obvious and tangible progress of their respective countries? The answer may be found in a book that the late Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington published in 1968, Political Order in Changing Societies. His thesis is that in societies experiencing rapid change, the public’s demand for public services grows at a faster clip than the government’s ability to satisfy it. His more general point is that institutions cannot develop at the pace required by the fast-growing expectations of a population recently empowered by prosperity, literacy, more information, and a newfound expectation—indeed hunger—to shape its own better future. In Huntington’s words, “The primary problem of politics is the lag in the development of political institutions behind social economic change.”
That lag is what brings people into the streets and amplifies more limited protests against high college tuitions in Chile, the redevelopment of Taksim Gezi Park in Istanbul, or the 9¢ increase in public transport fares in Brazil.
In these three successful nations the current street protests will eventually abate. But that doesn’t mean their roots will disappear. In some countries the gap identified by Huntington is the source of debilitating turmoil and paralyzing political instability. In others it awakens apathetic citizens and forces them to engage, politicians to listen, and governments to change. In some lucky cases, Huntington’s gap propels society forward.
The Turkish and Brazilian situations will provide interesting lessons for the many governments facing newly empowered populations that want more from their leaders. Hopefully the lesson will confirm that dialogue, inclusion, and sincere responses to popular grievances work better than demagoguery and repression. No government will be able to fully satisfy all the expectations of its people. But governments in the 21st century need to hear their people’s voices and offer something real in response. That means building a democracy that goes beyond holding free and fair elections.