Canada's "Freedom Convoy" started three weeks ago, with truckers converging on Ottawa to protest a law requiring that they be vaccinated to come back into their own country.
Given that well over 80 percent of the truckers are vaccinated, what exactly are they protesting? As one reporter who talked to dozens of demonstrators put it, it's less about mandates per se and more about "a sense that things will never go back to normal, a sense that they are being ganged up on by the government, the media, Big Tech, Big Pharma."
Truckers complain about inflation and about being demonized as dumb and irrational. They feel underappreciated by elites who depend on them to literally deliver the goods but then tell them what to do without giving them any say in their own lives. One protester gave eloquent voice to populist resentment, saying, "There's a group in power that always manages to create panic among the masses and siphon off public funds."
The trucker protests remind me of the Tea Party in 2009, Occupy Wall Street in 2011, the Women's March in 2017, and Black Lives Matter protests after the police killings of Michael Brown in 2014 and George Floyd in 2020. Whatever specific event ignited each of those movements, they all quickly took on greater proportions and expressed a vast, generalized anger not simply at overspending, bailouts, income inequality, sexism, and police brutality but at governments and cultural elites that seems at best indifferent to ordinary people's lives and at worst downright malevolent.
These movements typify what former CIA analyst and current visiting fellow at the Mercatus Center Martin Gurri wrote about in The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium. Governments and elites have lost the trust and confidence of the people they supposedly serve. Social media and other forms of communications empower protest movements that are authentic, decentralized, and leaderless, at least at the beginning. Such protests are much better at articulating rage and anger at the status quo than they are at proposing anything like concrete proposals for reform. As a result, contemporary protest movements tend to fizzle out after making a big entrance.
That was certainly the case with the Tea Party, which started as a revolt against wild spending and bank bailouts during the financial crisis. The movement brought hundreds of thousands of protesters to the streets all over the country, including massive demonstrations in DC. It captured the libertarian imagination with its simple message of controlling government spending and holding businesses and individuals accountable for bad decisions. Capitalism is a system of profit and loss, Tea Party people stressed, pushing back against the idea of "privatizing profits and socializing losses" for giant firms like GM and neighbors who overbought when it came to housing.
The Tea Party got a handful of people elected to Congress in 2010 and 2012, including Sen. Rand Paul (R–Ky.), who is cheering on the Canadian truckers and even calling for an American version of the Freedom Convoy. But the Tea Party ultimately faded into insignificance and impotence, in large part because it mostly only channeled frustration and negativity. It was quickly absorbed into a Republican Party that failed at every step to reduce the size, scope, and spending of government.
The Canadian Freedom Convoy will likely suffer a similar fate—and its American counterpart may never even materialize. Some of the other recent protest movements have been more successful in pushing an agenda, but all have lost urgency and effectiveness as they became more centralized or enmeshed with partisan politics. Just like the heads of the governments they were protesting, some leaders of Black Lives Matter, the Women's March, and Time's Up abused their power, lost their moral authority, and damaged their causes.
But that doesn't mean new protest movements don't matter. Far from it.
Even if they don't succeed at achieving their stated goals, they are blows against the status quo whose cumulative force will make governments and elites become more accountable to the very people they ultimately rely on. As with the collapse of communism, eventually there comes a tipping point where the seemingly impossible becomes the inevitable.
In a country where arbitrary COVID policies still run rampant; trust and confidence in government, business, and organized religion continues to fall; inflation is at a 40-year high; and just 17 percent of us are satisfied with the way things are going, expect new movements to keep rising up.
As a society, we're like the Marlon Brando character Johnny Strabler in The Wild One. "Hey Johnny," a woman asks him, "what are you rebelling against?" His laconic, iconic response: "Whaddya got?" We may not know the best way forward exactly but that won't stop us from pushing into the future.
Written by Nick Gillespie. Video editing by Regan Taylor.
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Music Credits: "Another Round of Glory," and "Once And For All," by Ian Post, via Artlist.io