Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Rethinking Populism: Iran

I haven't touched on this subject for a while, but here goes.

I've been seeing a bit of lefty pushback on Twitter against the overwhelming support for the Iranian "Green" movement. People snarking about whether Americans would be supporting the Iranians if it was Ahmadinejad who had had the election stolen from him, saying they "don't know who the good guys are," etc.

First off, by talking about whether we'd support Ahmadinejad, they miss the point. The regime in power is the only one who has the power to steal the election and then enforce the decision. Maybe the party out of power, the loosely-defined "Reformist" group, could steal a city or two, but they would have no power to send the Revolutionary Guard into an area to consolidate their own power. A revolt in the streets is almost necessarily a revolt against the regime in power. Even after the coup in Venezuela, for instance, the popular rising that put Chavez back in power was against the junta that had already taken control.

The result is a populist revolt in the streets, with thousands and even millions of people pouring out to support their candidate, even though by some accounts it is less about Mousavi than it is about getting rid of Ahmadinejad. Robert Dreyfuss at the Nation notes:

The anti-Ahmadinejad coalition is deep and broad. It includes conservative, Old Guard founders of the Islamic Republic, who view Ahmadinejad with disdain and who resent the coming to power of his coterie of Revolutionary Guard commanders; the large and growing majority of Iranian clerics and senior ayatollahs, many of whom have long viewed the Leader, Ayatatollah Ali Khamenei, as an upstart and usurper since he was elevated to his position 20 years ago; nearly the entirety of Iran's business class, especially those involved in high-tech, aviation, oil and gas, and heavy industry, who blame Ahmadinejad for his catastrophic mismanagement of the economy and for the crippling economic sanctions; the entire class of Iranian reformists, from more liberal-minded clerics like former President Khatami to more centrist ex-officials such as former Prime Minister Mousavi, the presidential candidate; a large contingent of Iranian women, energized by the role of Zahra Rahnavard, Mousavi's wife, who I met in Tehran, who campaigned vigorously for her husband and for women's rights; and of course, the educated elite of Iran, including students, artists, filmmakers, intellectuals, writers, and musicians.

It is, in other words, not about one particular candidate, but about the promise of change. The word was derided here in the U.S. as empty rhetoric, but it means something. And so trying to lump the people in the streets into one group, or darkly warning that they're not as progressive as we'd like is both wrong and misses the point.

Americans thrill to the sight of Iranians in the streets not because we have deep personal feelings about Ahmadinejad, but because of a simple feeling of solidarity with a people pushing back against their corrupt regime. A simple feeling that if thousands of people are willing to take to the streets to proclaim their rights, we should support them. It's basic populism.

The handwringing over Mousavi not being a Western liberal or even much of a reformer is also beside the point. Mousavi is not so much leading this revolution as he is forced to keep up. The people in the streets are in charge, and with the lack of a central communications structure, there is no mechanism for him to control the crowds. People are communicating with each other, and the fact that huge crowds are coming out every day in spite of the government's best efforts to shut down communications speaks to the level of popular anger and the effectiveness of peer-to-peer networking, to use a new-media-wankish term.

Personally, I'm in love with the rising in Iran because it represents the type of populism I want to see: the people demanding their rights from a repressive government. It doesn't matter if I don't agree with the government they choose: it is not my decision. It is their decision, and though they all don't agree with one another on every point (much like, well, people in this country or any other don't agree on every point with the candidates we elect), they are fighting for the right to make that decision. That's a movement I can support with a clear conscience.