By Kurt Weyland
Often, events in one country inspire people in other countries; just this year, the downfall of Ukraine’s corrupt, authoritarian regime encouraged protesters in Venezuela to challenge their own corrupt and increasingly authoritarian government. These demonstration and contagion effects can give rise to impressive waves of contention, as it happened during the “Arab Spring” of 2011.
Observers commonly assume that these dramatic diffusion processes are recent phenomena: products of globalization with its 24/7 news coverage and modern forms of instantaneous communication. But surprisingly, the 19th century saw similar riptides of rebellion. The unexpected success of Parisian crowds in overthrowing their king in February 1848 set in motion a veritable tsunami: Immediately, discontented people along the Rhine challenged their princes as well, and from there, contention rippled across the European continent, literally day by day. This upsurge in protest advanced faster than the Arab Spring – long before Twitter and Facebook!
While the rebellions of 1848 rarely achieved their goals, they were momentous events for citizens of all stripes. For instance, the very defeat of political liberalism stunted Germany’s democratic development for decades to come. Therefore, these failed revolutions are important events to study. And because these protests and their eventual repression affected people’s lives so deeply, many participants and observers, ranging from radical students to stodgy military commanders, left behind extensive diaries, letters or memoirs. These fascinating documents allow scholars to reconstruct the thinking and feelings, the calculations and passions of the different groupings fighting each other.
Of course, Latin America has also experienced waves of regime change, especially during the region-wide move to democratization starting in the mid-1970s: Military dictatorships fell or withdrew in many countries, ranging from Ecuador in 1979 to Chile in 1990. But as transitions advanced year by year, this “third wave of democratization” progressed much more slowly than the revolutions of 1848 and the Arab Spring, which spread day by day. Why this low speed?
Yet at the same time, democratization efforts in Latin America were much more successful. While both ‘1848’ and the Arab Spring ended up bringing little political progress, all Latin American dictatorships (except Communist Cuba) fell sooner or later. In a similar vein, the Russian Revolution of 1917 inspired a wave of protests and regime changes, which spread much more slowly than the revolutions of 1848, but prompted successful democratization in a number of countries, such as Austria, Germany, and Sweden.
These striking contrasts pose a real puzzle: Why is speed associated with failure, and slow diffusion with success? My new book, Making Waves: Democratic Contention in Europe and Latin America since the Revolutions of 1848 (Cambridge 2014), draws on cognitive psychology and organization theory to design an explanation.
Researchers have shown that dramatic, vivid events make a disproportionate impression on people; observers overrate their importance, while neglecting more “normal” occurrences. Accordingly, 9/11 had a huge impact: Many Americans switched from planes to cars, although driving is much more dangerous. The psychological “availability” of unusual occurrences distorts people’s judgments, sometimes at considerable cost.
Moreover, people draw improperly firm inferences from superficial similarities. Therefore, they see what happens elsewhere as “representative” of their own country; consequently, Venezuelans followed the turmoil in Ukraine this year, and Austrians and Prussians took inspiration from France in 1848.
These cognitive shortcuts (what psychologists call the availability and representativeness heuristics) explain the quick spread of protests in 1848 in Europe and in 2011 in the Arab World. When people saw a dramatic precedent—the ouster of the French king or the Tunisian dictator—they jumped to the conclusion that their rulers were equally weak and that challenging them held good prospects of success. These rash inferences fueled wildfires of protest.
But political conditions across Europe in 1848 and across the Arab world in 2011 were highly diverse. Whereas France and Tunisia were relatively advanced, many other nations were backward, with powerful rulers and small opposition forces. Therefore, many attempts to emulate the precedents failed. Heavy reliance on cognitive shortcuts unleashed tsunamis of protest, but brought little success.
Why, then, did contentious waves unfold more slowly, yet with great success in Europe after 1917 and in Latin America during the 1970s/80s? My book points to the organizational leadership that had arisen by those times. Political parties accumulate experience and process information more thoroughly than common citizens do. Therefore, party leaders evaluate foreign precedents more carefully and emulate them with prudence. Standing on a firmer base of knowledge, they are less easily swayed by cognitive shortcuts.
European and Latin American party politicians closely followed political developments and had good access to reliable information. As a result, these organizational leaders had a pretty good grasp of the constellation of power. They could estimate how strong opposition forces were and whether they could sustain protests.
Therefore, when a foreign ruler suffered a dramatic overthrow, organizational leaders did not rush into contention. Instead, they waited for a good opportunity – and then marshaled their supporters effectively. They weighed their chances and acted strategically. As a result, waves of protests spread more slowly, but they achieved greater success.
By contrast, there were few if any effective mass organizations in 1848 in Europe and in 2011 in the Middle East. Without political leaders to guide them, common people had to decide how to respond to striking foreign events and whether to participate in protests. Having lived under stifling authoritarian rule, citizens had little political experience and limited knowledge. Therefore, they were highly susceptible to the problematic inferences suggested by cognitive shortcuts. Many got carried away by protesters’ success in Paris and Tunis and inferred that they could achieved the same feat in their own countries. Unfortunately, this hope often proved to be an illusion…
By advancing these arguments, my book develops an explanation that weaves together insights from cognitive psychology and organizational theory – quite a novel approach for political science. And by examining several waves of contention, the study sheds light on major watersheds in the history of European and Latin America democratization.
Learn here about the book Making Waves: Democratic Contention in Europe and Latin America since the Revolutions of 1848
Lozano Long Professor of Latin American Politics
Department of Government
DISCLAIMER: The views expressed on this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position and views of LLILAS BENSON Latin American Studies and Collections.