Was I wrong about rallies? As a political consultant who worked around the world, I long down-played the importance of mass-demonstrations, viewing them more as flashes in the pan than enduring movements. But looking at a photo of 200,000 Czechs in the streets of Prague this morning, I’m questioning my old thinking.
A little less than two years ago, I myself was in Prague trying, less successfully, to gin up opposition to the same prime minister at whom the famously stolid Czechs are now showing their displeasure in record numbers that remind of the spring of 1968. It doesn’t matter that I was right about Andrej Babis, what matters is that I might have been wrong about the best way to oppose him.
Around the globe, I diminished rallies. In Nigeria in 2015, I sheepishly watched on television from the safety of my hotel room as millions of feet pounded the earth in the country’s north in support my client’s opponent, hoping it was just a regional thing (it wasn’t, my client was decisively defeated). In Congo in 2016, I tried to come up with ways to let some of the air out of the balloon that had spilled over into violent clashes on the streets of Kinshasa. All the time failing to head the fact that the generic name for political parties many Francophone Africans adopt is “Rassemblement” (for this or that), which literally means “rally.”
Several times, I parachuted into the former Soviet countries of Ukraine and Georgia on the tail end of mass demonstrations that shook those governments, and in one case toppled it. Maybe this had something to do with my prejudice. It is easy to pour onto the streets and grumble loudly, but fixing the underlying problems is harder, I thought, and that should be the real focus of peoples’ energies.
Maybe it was also a disdain for the hoi polloi who bubble over with emotion one moment only to go flat the next. Or maybe it was more personal, and a denial of my own emotions, having always preferred rationality to exuberance or bemoaning. Compounded with the fact that I am an introvert, it makes sense that emotionally-charged crowds have a way of irritating and frightening me. Given this, it is perhaps odd that I’ve been drawn to politics. As Richard Nixon once sardonically observed: “Politics would be a great business, if it weren’t for the fucking people.”
Also an introvert, Nixon brings the rally question home. After all, his tarnished presidency was often marked by mass protests against him. But in the run-up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election, my pro-Trump uncle told me “it’s like 1968 all over again.”
More poignantly than in any other instance, I was wrong about rallies when it came to our last presidential election. Why was Trump running around the country holding rallies when the real conversation was online, or in the media, I wondered. Was he just trying to buck up his spirits in the face of an inevitable defeat? The smart pundits agreed with me and were quick to ridicule Trump rally-goers as mean-spirited, racist rubes. Indeed, the TV cameras were keen to cherry-pick such examples, but was that all the rallies were about? Or did some folks go either to learn something or affirm that they were not alone?
Re-wind ten years to the birth of the Tea Party movement. There too, the media was quick to denounce the movement as a racist backlash to the first black president, but even observing it from considerable distance in Eastern Europe, I got the distinct sense they were missing something. The arguably inchoate movement came first –organically, and was then followed by charlatans like Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck attempting to put themselves in front of it, but to no apparent avail. Middle class Americans who had worked hard their whole lives and saw their savings wiped out by the financial meltdown of 2008 were angry, that’s what I saw in the Tea Party when I looked more closely.
Translating mass protests into organized political movements is difficult, especially when the movement itself is a rebuke of a broken political system. The passions of rallies may be quick to burn out, whereas professional politics is a day-in, day-out grind, which sets up another incompatibility. But I was wrong to downplay rallies, and I’m not embarrassed to say so. Now if I can just find my pitchfork…