Why Aren’t Americans Rising Up Like We Are Seeing Across the Planet?

By Medea Benjamin and Nicolas J. S. Davies

The waves of protests breaking out in country after country around the world beg the question: Why aren’t Americans rising up in peaceful protest like our neighbors? We live at the very heart of this neoliberal system that is force-feeding the systemic injustice and inequality of 19th-century laissez-faire capitalism to the people of the 21st century. So we are subject to many of the same abuses that have fueled mass protest movements in other countries, including high rents, stagnant wages, cradle-to-grave debt, ever-rising economic inequality, privatized health care, a shredded social safety net, abysmal public transportation, systemic political corruption and endless war.

We also have a corrupt, racist billionaire as president, who Congress may soon impeach, but where are the masses outside the White House, banging pots and pans to drive Trump out? Why aren’t people crashing the offices of their congresspeople, demanding that they represent the people or resign? If none of these conditions has so far provoked a new American revolution, what will it take to trigger one?

In the 1960s and 1970s, the senseless Vietnam War provoked a serious, well-organized antiwar movement. But today the U.S.’s endless wars just rage on in the background of our lives, as the U.S. and its allies kill and mutilate men, women and children in distant countries, day after day, year after year. Our history has also witnessed inspiring mass movements for civil rights, women’s rights and gay rights, but these movements are much tamer today.

The Occupy Movement in 2011 came closest to challenging the entire neoliberal system. It awakened a new generation to the reality of government of, by, and for the corrupt 1 percent, and built a powerful basis for solidarity among the marginalized 99 percent. But Occupy lost momentum because it failed to transition from a rallying point and a decentralized, democratic forum to a cohesive movement that could impact the existing power structure.

The climate movement is starting to mobilize a new generation, and groups like School Strike for the Climate and Extinction Rebellion take direct aim at this destructive economic system that prioritizes corporate growth and profits over the very survival of life on Earth. But while climate protests have shut down parts of London and other cities around the world, the scale of climate protests in the U.S. does not yet match the urgency of the crisis.

So why is the American public so passive?

Americans pour their energy and hopes into electoral campaigns. Election campaigns in most countries last only a few months, with strict limits on financing and advertising to try to ensure fair elections. But Americans pour millions of hours and billions of dollars into multi-year election campaigns run by an ever-growing sector of the commercial advertising industry, which even awarded Barack Obama its “Marketer of the Year” award for 2008. (The other finalists were not John McCain or the Republicans but Apple, Nike and Coors beer.)

When U.S. elections are finally over, thousands of exhausted volunteers sweep up the bunting and go home, believing their work is done. While electoral politics should be a vehicle for change, this neoliberal model of corporate “center-right” and “center-left” politics ensures that congresspeople and presidents of both parties are primarily accountable to the ruling 1 percent who “pay to play.”

Former President Jimmy Carter has bluntly described what Americans euphemistically call “campaign finance” as a system of legalized bribery. Transparency International (TI) ranks the U.S. 22nd on its political corruption index, identifying it as more corrupt than any other wealthy, developed country.

Without a mass movement continually pushing and prodding for real change and holding politicians accountable—for their policies as well as their words—our neoliberal rulers assume that they can safely ignore the concerns and interests of ordinary people as they make the critical decisions that shape the world we live in. As Frederick Douglass observed in 1857, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

Millions of Americans have internalized the myth of the “American dream,” believing they have exceptional chances for social and economic mobility compared with their peers in other countries. If they aren’t successful, it must be their own fault—either they’re not smart enough or they don’t work hard enough.

The American Dream is not just elusive—it’s a complete fantasy. In reality, the U.S. has the greatest income inequality of any wealthy, developed country. Of the 39 developed countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), only South Africa and Costa Rica exceed the U.S.’s 18 percent poverty rate. The United States is an anomaly: a very wealthy country suffering from exceptional poverty. To make matters worse, children born into poor families in the U.S. are more likely to remain poor as adults than poor children in other wealthy countries. But the American dream ideology keeps people struggling and competing to improve their lives on a strictly individual basis, instead of demanding a fairer society and the health care, education and public services we all need and deserve.

The corporate media keeps Americans uninformed and docile. The U.S.’s corporate media system is also unique, both in its consolidated corporate ownership and in its limited news coverage, endlessly downsized newsrooms and narrow range of viewpoints. Its economics reporting reflects the interests of its corporate owners and advertisers; its domestic reporting and debate are strictly framed and limited by the prevailing rhetoric of Democratic and Republican leaders; its anemic foreign policy coverage is editorially dictated by the State Department and Pentagon.

This closed media system wraps the public in a cocoon of myths, euphemisms and propaganda to leave us exceptionally ignorant about our own country and the world we live in. Reporters Without Borders ranks the U.S. 48th out of 180 countries on its Press Freedom Index, once again making the U.S. an exceptional outlier among wealthy countries.

It’s true that people can search for their own truth on social media to counter the corporate babble, but social media is itself a distraction. People spend countless hours on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other platforms venting their anger and frustration without getting up off the couch to actually do something—except perhaps sign a petition. “Clicktivism” will not change the world.

Add to this the endless distractions of Hollywood, video games, sports and consumerism, and the exhaustion that comes with working several jobs to make ends meet. The resulting political passivity of Americans is not some strange accident of American culture but the intended product of a mutually reinforcing web of economic, political and media systems that keep the American public confused, distracted and convinced of our own powerlessness.

The political docility of the American public does not mean that Americans are happy with the way things are, and the unique challenges this induced docility poses for American political activists and organizers surely cannot be more daunting than the life-threatening repression faced by activists in Chile, Haiti or Iraq.

So how can we liberate ourselves from our assigned roles as passive spectators and mindless cheerleaders for a venal ruling class that is laughing all the way to the bank and through the halls of power as it grabs ever more concentrated wealth and power at our expense?

Few expected a year ago that 2019 would be a year of global uprising against the neoliberal economic and political system that has dominated the world for 40 years. Few predicted new revolutions in Chile or Iraq or Algeria. But popular uprisings have a way of confounding conventional wisdom.

The catalysts for each of these uprisings have also been surprising. The protests in Chile began over an increase in subway fares. In Lebanon, the spark was a proposed tax on WhatsApp and other social media accounts. Hikes in fuel tax triggered the yellow vest protests in France, while the ending of fuel subsidies was a catalyst in both Ecuador and Sudan.

The common factor in all these movements is the outrage of ordinary people at systems and laws that reward corruption, oligarchy and plutocracy at the expense of their own quality of life. In each country, these catalysts were the final straws that broke the camel’s back, but once people were in the street, protests quickly turned into more general uprisings demanding the resignation of leaders and governments.

They have the guns but we have the numbers. State repression and violence have only fueled greater popular demands for more fundamental change, and millions of protesters in country after country have remained committed to non-violence and peaceful protest—in stark contrast to the rampant violence of the right-wing coup in Bolivia.

While these uprisings seem spontaneous, in every country where ordinary people have risen up in 2019, activists have been working for years to build the movements that eventually brought large numbers of people onto the streets and into the headlines.

Erica Chenoweth’s research on the history of nonviolent protest movements found that whenever at least 3.5 percent of a population have taken to the streets to demand political change, governments have been unable to resist their demands. Here in the U.S., Transparency International found that the number of Americans who see “direct action,” including street protests, as the antidote to our corrupt political system has risen from 17 percent to 25 percent since Trump took office, far more than Chenoweth’s 3.5 percent. Only 28 percent still see simply “voting for a clean candidate” as the answer. So maybe we are just waiting for the right catalyst to strike a chord with the American public.

In fact, the work of progressive activists in the U.S. is already upsetting the neoliberal status quo. Without the movement-building work of thousands of Americans, Bernie Sanders would still be a little-known senator from Vermont, largely ignored by the corporate media and the Democratic Party. Sanders’ wildly successful first presidential campaign in 2016 pushed a new generation of American politicians to commit to real policy solutions to real problems instead of the vague promises and applause lines that serve as smokescreens for the corrupt agendas of neoliberal politicians like Trump and Biden.

We can’t predict exactly what catalyst will trigger a mass movement in the U.S. like the ones we are seeing overseas, but with more and more Americans, especially young people, demanding an alternative to a system that doesn’t serve their needs, the tinder for a revolutionary movement is everywhere. We just have to keep kicking up sparks until one catches fire.


Medea Benjamin, co-founder of CODEPINK for Peace, is the author of several books, including Inside Iran: The Real History and Politics of the Islamic Republic of Iran and Kingdom of the Unjust: Behind the U.S.-Saudi Connection.

Nicolas J. S. Davies is an independent journalist, a researcher for CODEPINK, and the author of Blood on Our Hands: The American Invasion and Destruction of Iraq.

Comments

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  • Alexistori Gonzalez
    followed this page 2020-05-03 06:04:05 -0400
  • Jah-mau Naeem
    commented 2020-02-10 15:56:55 -0500
    Uprisings are indeed happening. The Neo-Liberal establishments are in free fall everywhere. The real question is, do you really want Americans to rise up?

    Britain has elected Boris Johnson and left the EU. Brazil has elected Bolsonaro. Ukraine has elected Volodymyr Zelensky. The Philippines have elected Rodrigo Duterte.

    You’re right only in that Americans still trust their public institutions, and have elected a populist economically protectionist president.

    Globally, progressives are not succeeding. They’re losing ground. Younger generations are tilting backwards into centrism and conservatism.

    If Americans were to rise up, it could possibly be to put the final nails in the globalist agenda and false left that it masqueraded as.
  • Ray Pratt
    commented 2020-02-02 13:13:08 -0500
    If I were to stand up and do something, I would want it to be where my talent, insight and education would give me the greatest advantage. I believe that I would be most effective in civil-rights litigation because I did with some measure of success while I was a maximum-security prisoner. See, e.g., Pratt v. Sumner, 807 F.2d 816 (9th Cir. 1987)(a published pro se appeal that I won). I also won other appeals, and lost other appeals, but only the one was published. I studied classical logic to get better at legal argument, but I ended up learning the hard way that there is actually no such thing as law that is any more than the human beings who make it happen. When a new prisoner would say to me, “They can’t do that! That’s illegal!” I would stop talking to him for two years because that is about how long it takes for a new prisoner interested in law to get over his illusions. After that, you play a game, corrupt courts and officials versus you getting lucky with an honest panel on appeal. I quit litigating in Nevada’s federal district court because even if I did win an appeal, I would come back to the same corrupt court and officials, and they would just find new ways to play games. Moreover, you cannot always get an honest panel of judges on appeal. For example, in the published case that I won, the federal district court simply refused, sub silentio, to have the lawsuit served by the U.S. Marshal for an in forma pauperis litigant (I was a poor boy). That is not a discretionary act, it is a mandatory duty for anyone who qualifies for in forma pauperis filing and service of a lawsuit. So, I submitted a petition for a writ of mandamus to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, and it was simply denied, and the corrupt district court continued to refuse to have the lawsuit served, sub silentio. No order, no appeal. In sum, I despise our judicial system for many reasons and examples more. But, a public voice would change that. Corrupt losses could become social wins, grounds for public condemnation and change. I recognize that nothing is free and that I need to become wealthy enough to fight on my own. There is no consistent money to be earned in civil-rights litigation in our corrupt court system. I have to fund my life, litigation, and publicity on my own. That’s my challenge, and I am slowly working towards that goal. Some of the pieces are already in place: I have an AAS-Legal Assistant degree, with honors, through an ABA-approved course of study, and, of course, I have over 15 years of pro se litigation experience. We can all fight, one way or the other.
  • Jeanne Johnston
    commented 2020-02-02 12:36:26 -0500
    Because people in America aren’t suppressed like they are in countries where socialism has infiltrated and ruined their economy and now there isn’t enough rations to go around….yet
  • Karim Zidan
    commented 2020-02-02 02:43:19 -0500
    Daniel Philips thinks Trump protects the US
    Truth is since this idiot took office we in the middle east are more hostile towards americans and you will realize this too late
  • Karim Zidan
    commented 2020-02-02 02:41:27 -0500
    Interesting I think of Trump loses the right wing militias will rise against the people and then you will have a civil war not mass protests
  • Daniel Phillips
    commented 2020-02-01 10:30:47 -0500
    Trump is protecting our country. Why cant people understand even with protest people can die from terror threats. Racist? Um b look back unemployment is at a all time low. Wow b.c. brainwashed writer.
  • Tony Lohnes
    commented 2020-02-01 07:23:03 -0500
    https://www.facebook.com/Save-Our-Sundays-102221753225986/?ref=bookmarks We should be waking up and taking on Climate change. Reducing store hours, closing on Sundays and all holidays including Christmas Eve and New Years Eve at 4 pm. In so many ways the corporations and media have brainwashed you so it benefits them.
  • Patricia Knudsen
    commented 2020-02-01 06:39:27 -0500
    Love these words. A very small group shut down the fresh kills landfill in staten island in the mid 90s then the largest in the world! We prevented 8 garbage incinerators in nyc by blocking an A shfill. Lots of public speaking and who do bono attorney, my then husband. We won in the courts of law AND public opinion.
  • William Clark
    commented 2020-02-01 05:49:11 -0500
    You don’t see anyone in our government who makes only 50k a year. Not with Trump, not with Obama, not with Bush and not with Clinton. It’s true that all big players in Washington stem from the rich and powerful ever since the Supreme Court legalized bribery in the 70’s, but previous cabinet members were at least appointed in part on merit. Appointees in past administrations had actual credentials in the field they were being appointed. DeVos has 0 educational background, Tillerson has 0 diplomatic background, Pruitt denies climate science, etc, etc. Every single one of Trump’s appointees are there simply to gut the government.

    Our country has been under siege ever since the Nixon administration adopted the southern strategy. Nixon was the catalyst in the rise of right-wing Christian fundamentalism and appointed 4 of the justices that legalized bribery in Buckley vs. Valeo. Betsy Devos has been doing her best to plunder the public educational system in Michigan for years and now she has been turned loose on the national system. #45 and his swamp creatures must be stopped. She grew up in money and married money. She’s never worked a real job, never attended public school. Now her brother wants to start his own private spy network to spy on the “deep state,” and Trump has been seriously considering it. http://www.cnn.com/…/erik-prince-private-spy…/index.html
  • Alexander Oliveira
    commented 2020-02-01 03:55:29 -0500
    Because we need it so much more and our government has such a monopoly on information and power that we’re afraid. You can speak against the establishment and hold signs, but the minute you become an actual threat to the oligarchy you either disappear or go to jail, or best case scenario your life turns to shit because you seemingly randomly lose your job, home, security system, insurance, etc.

    Most of this country wants to riot. Most of this country wants to tear down the system violently while screaming dissent to the heavens. But our justice system follows the law even though it hurts the people, our politicians are bought, and our freedoms only exist superficially. We just can’t organize without being put in a cement cage and left to rot for years on end. As though we can even afford to financially. Revolution requires funding. Which, because of the oligarchy, we don’t have.
  • Ray Copeland
    commented 2020-02-01 03:53:29 -0500
    Your a dam moron idiot
  • Donovan Hicks
    commented 2020-02-01 03:43:47 -0500
    In 2011 the occupy movement in America came to a screeching halt when police made an immense show of violent force & scared citizens into passivity by:

    rounding up rich kids protesting on unit campuses, tied them up, & pepper sprayed their faces by the thousands.

    Dispersed crowds in areas of people of color by the thousands using batons and bullets, rubber & real.

    All this was captured on video & used as fear tactics.

    Police are the henchmen of the elite in America, & they have beaten citizens into submission violently.
  • Drágo Black
    commented 2020-01-31 23:39:48 -0500
    most of usa citizens work multiple jobs while trying to keep their families safe, most of us are tired, scared, have no energy, and feel powerless to do anything other than vote and sign petitions.
    if it wasn’t for our fight for survival, there would be plenty of people taking PTO and days off to march in the street, which in recent years has been made it illegal to do and many places have authorized the legality of vehicular manslaughter and excessive force during pedestrian street blockage and protests).
    the protest of the south dakota oil pipelines was a public example of those with money can do by hiring mercenaries. if people rised up by the Billions to the doorsteps of corrupt politicians and government building….it would be a massacre with military and mercenaries using leathal force mowing hundreds and hundreds possibly drone bombing the protesters only doing little damage as a militia of idiots and trump supporters armed with guns gunning people down in the name of trump and the republican party, the DNC would be playing ignorance and blaming it on the republican party while the GOP would be blaming the DNC as they both revel in the destruction of the uprising and fill their pockets. it would all be broadcasted as internal terrorist attacks justifying their massacre and racist trigger happy morons would be getting medals…the usa people don’t know how to deal with this other than due legal process and money handling
  • Seth Pogue
    commented 2020-01-31 22:28:04 -0500
    This is perfectly written, I was one of 4 thousand veterans who went to standing rock to defend, support and stand with our native brothers and sisters and family from all over the planet. Over 200 flags from different American native tribes and many other countries around the world, all came together in solidarity as a nonviolent protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline. That protest actually seemed to be the catalyst for this real world change that we are seeing.
    https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/sep/12/north-dakota-standing-rock-protests-civil-rights
  • Deryk Banks
    commented 2020-01-31 21:50:10 -0500
    We did rise up during the Occupy movement. Since then we have been getting scares like zika, ebola, SARs, H1N1 to distract us. We have been fed divisive information to keep us from uniting again in that way. Protest has been labeled trouble making, unpatriotic,
    Anti-American, against the military and more. It is being systematically discredited as valid. This has pushed people to decide not to participate.
  • Butch Schexnayder
    commented 2020-01-31 19:32:02 -0500
    This is bull$#@$ we do not have a
    Corrupt racist billionaire for a President,we have a very inteligent
    Man for the greatest President the U.S.A. ever had in the last decade!No one wants to read this crap….
  • Mattriarchy Wasson
    commented 2020-01-31 12:58:07 -0500
    One small problem One Canadian, is the fact that not only do the people of my nation, but foreigner’s do not understand that this nation has never been a democracy It’s a constitutional republic. To have any nation like china or russia to run this world with how much foreign aid and security is insane since ww2 is nuts. We are human. Our country contains humans, which means we make mistakes, but to say that our nation would have been better off if we went by the rules of the nations we give everything too is insane.
  • One Canadian
    commented 2020-01-12 18:48:45 -0500
    Travelling through the south of the US I was astonished and confused by the miseducation of the people I talked with. So many hurting ( financially, spiritually, emotionally and mentally) Americans still believe that Trump and his neo liberal cronies actually have their best interest in mind ( can’t say heart … because I am not sure they have one beating in their chests … instead they are sustained by the drums of war and the click clack of their money printing presses … but I digress). How can this be so ? I do not know? I do hope that Americans wake up to the erosion of their democracy that is happening literally right under their noses thanks to Cambridge Analytica vía Facebook. It’s still happening people don’t be fooled again! Look up and Live free! Signed , one little Canadian looking in.
  • Ariel Herbez
    commented 2020-01-11 09:26:19 -0500
    What a unfair article. The day when communist countries will start having visa applications from people from USA trying to move there, that day we can start talking bad about US people. Meanwhile shut up and watch how socialist and communist countries continue to fall and watch how those citizens keep trying to get in to USA. What an stupid article, lack of common sense, lack of information and full of hatred against the people in USA. Vary racist article
  • Dennis Couch II
    commented 2020-01-10 01:36:24 -0500
    After reading this junk I was thinking it was written by one of those socialist fascist antifa punks. Look you don’t like our republic please leave we are not going to change we are not going to bend over backwards to conform and give up our God given rights that make us free and help keep us free. There are plenty of shit hole socialist countries you can go too. Me and other true Americans value our freedoms. Trump 2020.
  • Kevin VanGoethem
    commented 2019-12-01 09:46:58 -0500
    So sad that an otherwise terrific post has to be tainted with the same old crap, and amazing how some people think that they know all of the problems but have no answers. How is CODEPINK for Peace is preaching revolt? How about CODEPINK for Reform? Make sure your message matches what you claim to be…
  • Bonnie Havens
    commented 2019-11-28 19:18:14 -0500
    Why? Because we work paycheck to almost paycheck. We have to work multiple jobs just to survive. Our educational system has been dumbing down the masses for nearly 40 years. People are ill-informed and therefore believe the lies we are told every minute of every day by mass media and on our social feeds. Our smart phones have enslaved us, and imaginary differences espoused by our leaders have divided us. Why don’t we stand up in protest? We can’t. Corporate greed poisons us, mind body and soul. We can no longer see beyond this day’s fight just to breathe with the yokes they have placed around our necks. Why don’t we protest? Really? Our current situation has been decades in the making. It has been a systemized, orchestrated erosion of our values and beliefs as Americans, so we no longer have the will to think for ourselves, let alone stand up and fight for ourselves.
  • Marshall Gwynn
    commented 2019-11-26 03:48:20 -0500
  • Marshall Gwynn
    followed this page 2019-11-26 03:48:14 -0500
  • Ian James
    commented 2019-11-25 10:37:44 -0500
    What a great article. American’s must be exhausted. You have a bizarre system that sees virtual non-stop elections that are won or lost based largely on the amount of money spent with very little regard for the quality of the politician as an effective leader. The rest of the world gets it done in 6 about 6 weeks and all that money stuffing is banned. The author is right on, American citizens are living in a bubble… all 330,000,000 million of them… and it won’t end well when they finally realise the king is naked and the rest of the world has moved on.
  • Elizabeth Everett
    commented 2019-11-23 17:26:15 -0500
    What exactly is your alternative to neo-liberalism? Neo-liberalism conquered the world because thinkers such as Ayn Rand, and Milton Friedman, put forth arguments for it that were never refuted by anyone in academia or the media. They just reacted to these ideas with negative emotions. In the end, most of our left-wing and progressive institutions ended up embracing the Greed is good ideology of neo-liberalism. Our universities charge outrageous tuitions, clearly the profs are in it for the money. Unions are all about the Wall Street investments in their pension plans.

    We can get people out to protest neo-liberalism but, are they willing to live in a world without usury and without rule by corporations that are duty bound to maximize profits for their investors? We could create a world like that but, it would be a world without anyone earning any interest on any investment. So, no 401ks or IRAs, no reason to invest in a pension fund because the money would just sit their without earning any interest.

    I went out to Zuccotti Park in the heart of the New York City Financial District, to protest with Occupy Wall Street. Neo-liberal darling Peter Schiff came out carrying a sign saying: “I’m the 1% Let’s Talk”. In just an hour, Schiff had the protesters eating out of his hand, and the majority raised their hand when he asked them if they are pro-capitalist. The whole thing was caught on Reason TV.
  • Emily Chatfield-Lusto
    commented 2019-11-23 16:29:00 -0500
    This is a terrific analysis of the situation as my friends and I have discussed it over the last several years. Many of us do more than click our protests, but taking to the streets and protesting is more than a full time job—and physically exhausting. Moreover, without glimpses of light beyond the rock we are steadily pushing up the hill, it is also emotionally exhausting. We are definitely looking for the right spark or sparks to bring more people out. Thank you.
  • Tin Bell
    commented 2019-11-22 14:40:24 -0500
    We should come together in every city and start protesting for what is right. We do need to get up a do something. I would be happy to. Who is with me?
  • Thurmond Jones
    commented 2019-11-22 06:34:43 -0500
    FUK YOU YOU TRYING TO DIVIDE OUR COUNTRY< MUTHA FUKING BYTCHES KISS MY AZZ