The Unwisdom of Crowds

Kiev’s mass anti-government protests are a thing of the past, but the barricades remain, a shrine to the victims. Visitors trickle through the site, paying homage to the Heavenly Hundred, those murdered in the final days of the struggle. The martyrs’ names are taped to the trees, their photographs covered in mounds of flowers. Children holding little Ukrainian flags pose for photographs in front of these monuments. They don’t smile.
They will remember coming here for the rest of their lives, for this is how nations are built: on legends, on emotions, on stories of heroes. Tales of those who stood for months in the square will be told and retold. But that doesn’t mean that the protesters will necessarily have triumphed. On the contrary, Ukrainians are about to learn that the exhilaration of “people power”—mass marches, big demonstrations, songs, and banners—is always an illusion. And sooner or later, the illusion wears off.
This is not to deny the emotional force of the protests. Anyone who has ever attended a rock concert or a football game knows how much fun it is to be part of a roaring crowd. The experience is far more intense when you are standing in a crowd that might change history. Since the eighteenth century, philosophers have tried to describe the hallucinatory power of a mass movement. When Michael Walzer interviewed American civil rights activists they all told him the same thing about protests: “It was like a fever. Everyone wanted to go.” It is precisely because he understands the euphoric power of crowds—and especially because he understands how they can embolden people cowed by an unjust state—that Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, is so determined to prevent Ukraine’s revolution from spreading.
Yet a successful street revolution, like any revolution, is never guaranteed to leave anything positive in its aftermath—or anything at all. In the West, we often now associate protests with progress, or at least we assume that big crowds—the March on Washington, Paris in 1968—are the benign face of social change. But street revolutions are not always progressive, positive, or even important. Some replace a corrupt tyranny with violence and a political vacuum, which is what happened in Libya. Ukraine’s own Orange Revolution of 2004–2005 produced a new group of leaders who turned out to be just as incompetent as their predecessors. Crowds can be bullying, they can become violent, and they can give rise to extremists: Think Tehran 1979, or indeed Petrograd 1917.
The crowd may not even represent the majority. Because a street revolution makes good copy, and because it provides great photographs, we often mistakenly confuse “people power” with democracy itself. In fact, the creation of democratic institutions—courts, legal systems, bills of rights—is a long and tedious process that often doesn’t interest foreign journalists at all. Tunisia’s ratification of a new constitution earlier this year represented the most significant achievement of the Arab Spring to date, but the agonizing negotiations that led up to that moment were hard for outsiders to understand—and not remotely telegenic
Equally, it is a dangerous mistake to imagine that “people power” can ever be a substitute for actual elections. On television, a demonstration can loom larger than it should. In both Thailand and Turkey, an educated middle class has recently taken to the streets to protest against democratically elected leaders who have grown increasingly corrupt and autocratic, but who might well be voted back into office tomorrow. In Venezuela, elections are not fair and the media is not free, but the president is supported by many Venezuelans who still have faith in his far-left rhetoric, however much his policies may be damaging the country. Demonstrations might help bring change in some of these countries, but if the change is to be legitimate—and permanent—the electorate will eventually have to endorse it.
As we often forget, some of the most successful transitions to democracy did not involve crowds at all. Chile became a democracy because its dictator, Augusto Pinochet, decided it would become one. In early 1989, well before mass demonstrations in Prague or Berlin, the leaders of the Polish opposition sat down at a large round table with their former jailers and negotiated their way out of communism. There are no spectacular photographs of these transitions, and many people found them unsatisfying, even unjust. But Chile and Poland remain democracies today, not least because their new leaders came to power without any overt opposition from the old regime.
It would be nice if these kinds of transitions were more common, but not every dictator is willing to smooth the path toward change. For that reason, the post-revolutionary moment is often more important than the revolution itself, for this is when the emotion of the mob has to be channeled rapidly—immediately—into legitimate institutions. Not everybody finds this easy. In the wake of the Egyptian revolution, demonstrators found it difficult to abandon Tahrir Square. “We won’t leave because we have to make sure this country is set on the right path,” one protester said at the time. In fact, he should already have been at home, back in his neighborhood, perhaps creating the grassroots political party that might have given Egyptians a real alternative to the Muslim Brotherhood.
In Kiev, it is already past time for the young men in fatigues who were living in the “tent city” in the center of town to pack up. To their credit, many in this city understand this very well. One of the most positive events in Kiev last week took place not at the barricades, but in the gaudy conference room of the Intercontinental Hotel where hundreds of economists, bankers, and members of parliament gathered to hear advice from politicians who had been through equally dramatic revolutions. A former Georgian economy minister told the audience that the fight against corruption requires one crucial element: jail, for those who break the law. A Slovak told his Ukrainian colleagues to prepare fundamental reforms and to prepare to be really unpopular. The suited Ukrainians in the room, none of whom looked remotely revolutionary, all asked the same kinds of questions: What laws do we need? What rules must we have? How can we make sure that this time the changes are real? That conversation won’t attract photographers, but it holds out the promise of something permanent.
Across town from the hotel, another group of Ukrainians—these in t-shirts and blue jeans—are contemplating another form of institutional change. Their online TV station, Hromadske TV, operates out of a tiny studio without sets or massive lights. For months, Hromadske’s journalists have been out on the barricades, filming events as they happened, gaining hundreds of thousands of viewers simply by being authentic: No fake presenters with fake hair, no censorship. Crowdfunding—thousands of small donations from the public—pays the salaries.
Because of the trust it won through its coverage, authorities have approached Hromadske to ask if it will produce programs for one of the discredited state channels. But Hromadske doesn’t yet want a leading role. Nataliya Gumenyuk, one of the station’s presenters, explained to me: “The point is to change the system, not just to change faces.” Hromadske’s team wants new laws on public broadcasting, independent boards of directors, state television that cannot be influenced by politicians. In the long term, Gumenyuk wants to live in a country with a robust free press of a kind Ukraine has never had, where journalists are protected and free speech is guaranteed. But to achieve this goal, lawyers and a legislative process are needed, not “people power.” The journalists, like the new economy ministers, need time, not euphoria.
Ukraine may not get that time. And it might now prove impossible to direct Kiev’s crowd energy into anything but self-defense. The young men in the square are heading for recruitment stations. Gumenyuk says, only half-laughing, that she has heard from Ukrainians who want to crowdfund the purchase of a helicopter for the Ukrainian army. A longtime anti-corruption activist, Svitlana Zalishchuk, fears that it might not be possible to offer the nation’s leaders constructive criticism if the nation is fighting for its very existence: “If we are at war, how do we keep the government accountable?” This isn’t the first time that a post-revolutionary state has faced an immediate military threat, but this particular post-revolutionary state is poorly equipped for that challenge. It was begun by people who dream of free-trade zones, not military tactics.
Post-revolutionary Kiev does have some advantages. Unlike the participants of so many street revolutions, the diverse protesters in Kiev’s Maidan did agree on a few key points: the primacy of the fight against corruption, the deregulation of a badly run economy, constitutional reform that will prevent future presidents from grabbing power. If their revolution is not immediately undermined by Russian aggression, Ukrainians might even wind up—for the first time since 1991—with leaders who are actually interested in the fate of the nation and not in personal gain. In the end, Ukraine’s post-revolutionary success depends only partly on the behavior of the Russians and not at all on mystical notions of national spirit. Its fate will also be determined by the speed with which Ukrainians can discard the revolutionary romance, choose rigor over spontaneity and analysis over emotions. The crowd had its moment, and that moment has now passed.

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