Why Do Americans Like Revolutions?
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Why Do Americans Like Revolutions?


As many of my colleagues have pointed out, last week China celebrated Mao Zedong’s birthday. Mao was many things to many people. For me, he was first and foremost a revolutionary. Mao was at least as significant to revolutions in the 20th century as Vladimir Lenin, and Mao’s model of revolution—building support among the peasantry before moving to the cities—was widely emulated by anti-colonial leaders throughout the world. During his time in power, Mao also gave material support to many of these anti-colonial movements.

For these reasons, Mao’s birthday seems like an apt time to ponder why Americans are so fascinated and supportive of revolutions. Although often times despising their outcomes, Americans—particularly American elites—are predisposed to generally support revolutionary movements. This inclination has endured across time. Many American elites—particularly Thomas Jefferson—initially looked very favorably on the French Revolution. Jefferson at times even defended the French rebels’ later excesses, writing to one American critic of their actions: “Time and truth will rescue & embalm their memories, while their posterity will be enjoying that very liberty for which they would never have hesitated to offer up their lives. the liberty of the whole earth was depending on the issue of the contest, and was ever such a prize won with as little innocent blood?”

Americans similarly initially cheered the onset of the Arab Spring (although none of these uprisings have produced genuine revolutions to date, the general feeling in the beginning was that they would). There was almost no reason for the U.S. to be hopeful about U.S. policy in an Arab world in which publics had a greater say, given the widespread dislike of America among Arab populations. While some in the U.S. recognized this reality, they generally cast aside these concerns. Typical was former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s response, who implored that in Egypt, America should “trust that in the long arc of history those shared beliefs will matter more than the immediate disruptions that lie ahead and that, ultimately, our interests and ideals will be well served.”

It seems to me that Americans’ support for revolutions is entirely misplaced. To begin with, as a status-quo power in the international system, the U.S. has little geopolitically to gain from the instability and large-scale changes that are the hallmarks of modern revolutions.

More importantly, even the normative considerations that undergird Americans’ support for revolutions are based on misperceptions. For example, many Americans look favorably on revolutions today because America itself won its independence from England in a war that became known in the U.S. as the American Revolution. Since the American Revolution is unanimously seen as a positive, many Americans assume that revolutions today will also improve the societies in which they occur.

Despite its name, however, the American Revolution was not a revolution. At most, it was a war of national liberation. For the better part of a century before the war, American colonial elites effectively ruled the colonies under the British policy of salutary neglect. As England’s fiscal woes worsened following the French and Indian War, the Crown tried to crack down on the colonies in order to extract more benefits from its ownership of them. Most of the colonial elites objected to these policy changes, such as having to pay higher taxes to the monarch, and eventually convinced most of the colonial population to fight a war to free them from England’s increasing demands. Following the independence war, however, the same elites who governed under salutatory neglect effectively resumed ruling the now independent United States. Little of the underlying socioeconomic order was changed by the war, save for England’s nominal overseer role. And in the years that followed the American elite created a socioeconomic order that in many ways was modeled on England.

The other reason Americans support revolutions is because they believe they will transform autocracies into democracies. But this again is mistaken. Although the initial protesters may be seeking democratic changes, they almost never achieve them. This is certainly true of the major revolutions of the 19th and 20th centuries—namely, the French, Russian, Chinese and Iranian revolutions.

Although some of the 20th century national liberation movements led to democracies, the vast majority only replaced the colonial powers with local strongmen. Furthermore, those national liberation movements that did lead to democracy were not very revolutionary at all. India, for example, won its independence from Britain without a major violent struggle against London. The system it adopted maintained many of the institutions of British India. Perhaps the most successful revolutions with regards to democracy were the uprisings against the Soviet Union and its satellites, which in some cases produced partially free, albeit unstable democracies. Still, the former Soviet bloc is hardly considered a beacon for democratic governance today.

The reason why revolutions do not produce stable democracies has less to do with the greed of revolutionary leaders than the nature of revolutions themselves. The rapid overhaul of political and socioeconomic orders—what Marx called the superstructure—will almost by definition need to overcome fierce resistance from those who have interests in the existing order, as well as those who have a different vision for the future. In nearly every case, this resistance can only be eliminated in the short term through violent means. Thus, one of the most common characteristics of modern revolutions is widespread bloodshed. Mao and Stalin, for instance, almost certainly killed more people while imposing their socioeconomic orders in China and Russia than died globally from World War II.

And this is why revolutions don’t produce liberal democracies. Societies torn apart by widespread violence and strife are hardly fertile grounds for democracy. For democracies to function over the long term there needs to be some shared consensuses among the major social, political, and economic actors in these countries. These necessary consensuses take time to develop and tend to only grow in relatively peaceful and stable societies. Thus, the strongest democracies today—including America’s—tended to come about as a result of evolutionary, not revolutionary, social and political change.

If the U.S. wants a world full of democracies, it must do a better job at formulating and sustaining long-term policies promoting evolutionary changes within societies, instead of holding out for widespread mass unrest to immediately replace authoritarian states with full-fledged democracies.

January 3, 2014 at 09:21

Mao’s Cultural Revolution wasn’t a revolution at all. It was an act of consolidating powers by CCP as the only political organization. In order to achieve democracy, citizens within the nation need to shed own tears and sweat (and many times, blood) with civil wars in order to gain the sustainable patriotism over the ideology and religions. China and Arabs, or any second/third rated nations has not yet experienced this “everyone within the border has to be united for survival” moment.

January 3, 2014 at 04:42

Interesting how many comments glorify the US as ˝beacon of democracy˝ but when you start exporting that democracy of yours it usually comes in bombs.

I’m sorry people, but it’s been to long since the Cold War, it’s time you get a bit more realistic. I don’t know about the American people, but your government certainly doesn’t support revolution out of the kindness of their hearts. They do it to make sure the winner will be under their influence. It sort of soft-core colonialism.

And about the whole ˝America, NZ, etc. are the best places in the world to live˝, it’s pretty simple, you guys have money and it’s stable, that’s why everybody moves there. You should see how much western immigrants are coming to China ever since the US and EU economy went to hell. They just come to make money.

Norma Brown
December 31, 2013 at 21:05

True enough; once things turn ugly, it is the controllers and the authoritarians who rise to the top, not the clueless do-gooders.

Michael Harvey
December 31, 2013 at 20:17

The Rose Revolution in Georgia did result in several positive outcomes including 1) the recent peaceful and democratic election in which President Saakashvili stepped down from power, handing over the presidency to the opposition 2) the diversification of Georgia’s export market away from Russia, opening new export markets in Europe and 3) the elimination of petty bribery from local police forces. I don’t think these and other changes can be simply dismissed or ignored. In Ukraine, we are witnessing an organic political expression of self-interest as many Ukrainians chafe at their President’s decision to steer an economic course towards Russia rather than the West. Russia is using its oil-gas might to coerce economic alliance from former Soviet states and people in Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia and elsewhere are naturally adverse to being shaken down and forced into an alliance with a Russia run by Pres. Putin’s corrupt administration.

Little Helmsman
December 31, 2013 at 05:33

Americans like revolutions because most Americans reflexively support the cause of the little guy fighting against injustice and oppression. It’s part of America’s DNA. Americans are also composed of people who fled from tyranny and oppression and yearn to live in freedom. I have personal friends who are Czech, Hungarian, Cuban, Vietnamese, Laotian, Hmong, Persian, Armenian, etc. who had fled the strife of the old country and settled in the US.

Even if it was against the interest of the US in the Middle East in case of Mubarak in Egypt, ordinary Americans were sympathetic to the cause of Egyptians seeking to end Mubarak autocratic rule. He simply stayed too long and did not allow a viable civil society to take hold in Egypt. Any reasonable person can see that 3 decades was a long time.

The color revolutions of Ukraine, Georgia, etc. was another example of why Americans were sympathetic to the aspirations of those peoples. If Americans were to live in corrupt societies as Ukraine, they too would want to change the status quo.

It is a sense of contrast with what we have here in America versus what other people don’t have that makes us sympathize with the cause of the oppressed and dispossessed.

December 31, 2013 at 08:12

And this is why people like you are disgusting and are causing more death and destruction in the world than all dictators combined.

Supporting EITHER of those current revolutions, or even trying to incite new ones, will NEVER result in any form of freedom, but in another, even worse tyranny with the added effect of widesprad civil war.

The ones you are pretending to help to achieve their “freedoms” are the ones who will suffer and die at your hands.
I wouldnt be surprised if many of those “freedom fighters” you support in wrecking their own countries, will murder thousands of innocent people, whose last dying breath will not be the words of gratitude towards you, but would be “death to america”.

The USA supports revolutions because of their ideologic fervor. This is pretty much the same as the Communists demanded the world revolution for the “salvation of humanity”.

In the absence of the commie-bloc, the US has taken over the role of supporting equally bloody and destructive revolutions to further their geopolitical goals and to stroke their ideologic, missionary ego attached to their quasi-religious worship of “democracy” as the new age Jesus that has to be spread with sword and fire.

Insofar, the USA is not only like the old communist block, but rather like radical islamic fundamentalistm, demanding the beaheading (bombing, invading and regime-changing) of all infidels (independent, non-vassal countries) for the sake of their 72 Virgins (world hegemony and the “american century”).

The only difference here is; the Islamists at least have the guts to blow themselves up for their ideals, while the USA are too much of a coward for that, resorting to drone-killings, hacking and inciting “color revolutions” where other people bleed for your enjoyment on CNN to watch.

Mr. Schadenfreude
December 31, 2013 at 14:13

From the summation you’ve made, it’s clear you’re not American. And with this you don’t see nor live the ideals that American citizens strive for.

From my standpoint, you’ve never tasted freedom and probably never will. Sad but true.

January 2, 2014 at 14:13

absulotely agreed. the seed of democracy can only take hold and sprout in a fertile soil of national consensus regarding the those values americans have held so deeply. u can simply expect elites to pack up and cede their control of institutions to revolutionaries, most of whom have been gotten their agenda concealed in the bag of liberties for all. one does nt need to taste the blood to abhor the murder, nor do they need to embrace the democracy or unversial liberity to want them. howerver, the name of it is misnomer for they fail to add culture, social or economical factors to the equation. simply wanting democracy in others or even going to the great length to engineer or instigate one when the circumstances are right will not result in the establishment of it, but rivers of blood, perenial civil wars and lasting social strifes. americans, u dont have to look far before u find the ruins, bullets holes or mass killings of ur late handy work.

January 3, 2014 at 12:08

It is a common misconception about the Western democracy, western democracy is “freedom for themselves but slavery to everybody else, “ or academics call it “local democracy but global tyranny/authoritarian.” It is historical fact from Athenian Democracy to current western democracy, Western democracy are most aggressive, destructive and dictatorial when they are the strongest. Athens wedged longest and most destructive Peloponnesian War while it was a democracy. USA and all its “allies” are identical as Athens, destructive and totalitarian globally.

American believe they have democracy so its government also behave democratically globally, it is a fallacy of composition, American ignorant about their government is a tyrant globally is a sign of nationwide mental fallacy.

“Siding the weak” is an age old imperialist tool to inject itself into others’ business uninvited, it is not any good cause to support the small guys, nor any part of America’s DNA; besides the small guys always end being colonized by the American after the “siding the weak.”

Doug M.
December 31, 2013 at 00:45

Your article would have been better served if your final paragraph was your working thesis. It is your most salient point, and an original one as far as I know (and I’ll be adopting it into my worldview), but you took too long to get there.

December 30, 2013 at 01:46

The American elite enjoy revolutions because it suits their purposes and the American people enjoy them because they are largely voyeuristic and naive.

As a status quo power, the US benefits greatly from the disorder revolutions bring because democratically-speaking, win, lose, or draw, the US wins. If the resulting new regime is a friendly, Western-oriented one, we gain an ally (read “client state”) who will doubtlessly need our support to survive.

If the new regime is unfriendly, we gain a reason to continue lavishing massive amounts of resources onto our military. It’s a wonder no one has brought up the fact that we spend only slightly less adjusted for inflation today trying to contain Iran as we did the Soviet Union.

And the revolution fails to produce a new government, the existing one will likely be so weakened that it will no longer pose a threat to us, if it even did in the first place.

The reasons for the American people supporting revolutions are far less cynical, but about as monstrous in their lack of compassion. Americans view most things as a spectator sport, especially warfare. Having been insulated from its effects both physically by geography and mentally by the romanticized versions of it we see on TV and the movies, warfare is something we boast about endlessly, but rarely engage in personally. As such, it is the height of convenience to pledge support to the poor underdog rebels battling the evil tyrant, but in this country our speech is free. It costs nothing to voice an opinion and costs even less when we comment on the affairs of foreigners.

So in a nutshell, we love revolutions because it either suits our crass national policy or because it gives us something to talk about when it isn’t baseball season.

December 31, 2013 at 16:20

So finally what do you want MORON ? Whenever people around the world still desperately want to migrate to USA,EU,Canada,Australiaand NZ .that mean those countries are much better all other countries around the world in any aspects.
If you find living conditions in US is not what you sesire.Why dunt you migrate to somewhere else that you think it’s the best place to live.
No one on earth can PLEASE everyone even God.You are just a few of 330 millions American who displease with USA cuz you might be a mental disorder.
One famous politician ,a PM of South Viet Nam government before 1975 has written a book about American Revolution and he has concluded that :In the last few centuries ,only American Revoluiton was completely successful because it was leaded and governed by the Rich.The American revolutonists succeced as they have learned from French revolution in 1789 also known as the “Common Revolution ” .
The French Revolution was miserably fail due to its leaders were from working class.Therefore, when they were in power, their first priority is how to get rich first, French populace is second priority.
Russian Revolution in 1917 and China 1949 inevitably followed the same path of French revolution as their government officials were from
HUNGRY JACK background.So that they had to fill their stomaches first before they thought of their people.

9 dashes, 4 dishes, 1 soup
January 1, 2014 at 00:29

TDog’s reasoning is usually sloppy. He presents conclusions as facts and his own opinions are presented as somehow being representative of the vast majority of Americans.

Unfortunately, the reasoning in Z. Keck’s article is just as sloppy as TDog’s. I am American. I support some revolutions. I don’t support others. And I don’t care either way about some revolutions.

I do not purport to speak for “Americans”. Why? Because delusional idiots and demaogues tend to think that way. I am neither one. But that type of reasoning can arise from one’s over-estimating his or her intellect and self-importance.

Actually, one opinion I’ve formed based on reading TDog’s posts, is that he actually does not know very much about America.

This is a very disappointing artincle by Keck though. The logical fallacy is called over-generalization.

January 3, 2014 at 15:08

That’s an interesting idea. Are there really no other revolutions where that were lead by the rich. Take Venezuela if the rich had ousted chvez with a military coup would that have worked out.

December 29, 2013 at 18:18

Perhaps another reason is the abundance of political rhetoric coming off the airwaves about how “the oppressed” are breaking free from tyranny and they will look towards America, the beacon of liberty and democracy as the example to follow. Senator McCain comes into mind as one such person that wishfully brings out the rhetoric wherever he goes.

Things are changing now. The Arab Spring is a major turning point, when many Americans embraced realpolitik over idealism when they realised that a revolution in an US-supported autocracy would result in a public hostile to American interests.

December 31, 2013 at 20:15

Result in a public hostile to America? They were hostile before and will be hostile after. They hate us yet want to come here, and bring their cesspool of culture with them. Until we champion Western Civ and teach it, they will not understand freedom. And BTW, we are not a democracy thank God. We are a republic … if we can keep it.

January 1, 2014 at 00:15

Championing Western Civ is true on. The problem is, the left is increasingly obstructing that instruction here. Making it less easy for us to keep a republic.

Oh, and sure. The US is just a British clone. Sure.

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