Could Civil Unrest Happen Here?

rioting and civil unrestCivil unrest seems contagious. Civil unrest in Tunisia instigated civil unrest in Egypt and Libya and Bahrain and Yemen. All unrest directed at oppressive governments, dictatorial regimes, that sort of thing. London’s civil unrest seems a little different – focused on destroying the community itself, destroying small businesses, shared spaces, their neighbors’ homes.There are factors common between London and the U.S. – factors that drive civil unrest:

  1. Unemployment or underemployment.
  2. Poverty, stagnant economies & concentration of wealth.
  3. Nonrepresentative government.
(For data on England and these factors, see the last post.)To summarize this unhopeful picture, people are unhappy because they can’t find jobs, feel pushed out of their neighborhoods, live next to increasingly wealthy groups and, in a final coup de grace, see that the government is not acting in their interests. Of course, the stagnant world economy, with collapsing economies in nearby Greece and Spain, means there’s not a lot of hope to counterbalance the bleak picture. New jobs aren’t emerging.So the real question is, what’s different between England and the United States?

What’s past is prologue

Certainly the first two conditions are true in the U.S. 9.1% of American people are unemployed and another 10 million people have given up looking for jobs or are working part time against their preference. The country’s wealth is becoming more concentrated: “As of 2007, the top decile of American earners pulled in 49.7 percent of total wages.”

The only point up for discussion is whether our government is acting in the the people’s best interest. While I would argue not, it probably doesn’t matter. What matters is how people perceive the government is acting. Clearly, satisfaction with the federal government is pretty damn low. We agree on that!

So what’s standing between us and civil unrest?

Until a year or so ago, I would have said that the American public was so distracted by wars (heroism, sacrifice), social issues (abortion, gay marriage), false dichotomies in patriotism (civil liberties, security), and social divisiveness (racism, anti-immigrant sentiment) that they were blind to the increasing inequality in our society. That we were so distracted by social issues that we didn’t notice how bad the governance was – or maybe we didn’t care.

It feels different lately. People are focused on the issues of governance- spending, budgeting, priorities – but our discourse is so distinctly uncivil, so horribly without empathy, that the histrionics prevent solutions. So the situation deteriorates, the rhetoric escalates and sensible people walk away from the discussion.

If there is civil unrest here, I predict it will be an uprising of strange bedfellows: The first, people who have been abandoned by their government. People who are poor, unemployed and disenfranchised. The second, people who believe government is inherently undesirable.Today, the second group is doing all the talking. The violence may come when the first group finds its voice.
Image credit: cyphunk on Flickr
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