What motivates people to demonstrate in central squares, day after day and week after week, against repressive regimes at the risk of life and limb? It's a question raised most recently by events in Ukraine and Venezuela.
The leaders and backers of the Viktor Yanukovych regime in Ukraine and the Nicolás Maduro regime in Venezuela have had a ready answer. The demonstrators are fascists, neo-Nazis, and criminals.
Backers of the Venezuelan regime, headed by Hugo Chávez’s chosen successor, Maduro, say that the street demonstrators are selfish rich people and fascists trying to launch a coup d’etat.
Others see the crowds differently. Timothy Snyder and Anne Applebaum, distinguished historians of Eastern Europe, stress that the Ukrainian protesters include Russian- as well as Ukrainian-speakers, people on the political Left as well as the Right, Christians and Jews and Crimean Tatars.
In Venezuela, the New York Times reports, protesters include many with modest incomes, frustrated with horrific violent-crime rates, people worried not about investment portfolios but about shortages of milk and toilet paper.
From a distance, it’s impossible to gauge the motives and backgrounds of all the protesters, and surely there are among them some whom almost all Americans would consider repugnant.
But it’s noteworthy that they are taking grave risks — dozens died in Kiev’s Independence Square and many have died in Venezuelan cities — to oppose governments with roots in the political Left.
The protests against Yanukovych began when he shifted from away from the European Union and toward Russia's Vladimir Putin, who characterized the dissolution of the Soviet empire as the greatest tragedy of the 20th century (a title for which there is vigorous competition).
American mainstream media, nostalgic for Vietnam War protests, tend to regard protests as the province of the political Left.
They hailed the Occupy Wall Street encampments, despite their violent crime and gauzy pronouncements, as heralding an uprising of the virtuous 99 percent.
Despite such encouragement, Occupy fizzled and polls showed that the demand for redressing “income inequality” was so weak that, contrary to advance word, President Obama scarcely mentioned the phrase in his State of the Union address.
Certainly the protesters in Ukraine and Venezuela are not seeking the left-wing goal of income redistribution. The Ukrainians are not seeking a larger welfare state and the Venezuelans have learned from hard experience that Chávez's policies produced not redistribution but economic destruction.
But you run up against a paradox if you see the demonstrations as a demand for electoral democracy. In Ukraine, they resulted in the ouster of a leader who was in fact elected.
Chávez and Maduro also won elections, though there is plenty of evidence of fraud and intimidation.
I think it’s more helpful to see the protesters as rebelling against the absence of the rule of law.
Ukraine, like Russia, saw the gobbling up of state property by oligarchs in the 1990s. Venezuela has seen the destruction of a free press and systematic plundering of the private sector. Both have seen leaders tearing up constitutions.
And the protesters can see in their own neighborhoods alternatives to Yanukovych’s patrons in Russia and Chávez’s and Maduro’s beloved Cuba.
Venezuelans (at least until Maduro jammed Colombian TV) have nearby the example of Colombia, which subdued the narcoterrorist FARC guerrillas and now is enjoying economic growth and the rule of law as well.
Unfortunately it may be as difficult for protesters to reach these goals as it has been for those who flocked to the squares in the Arab Spring.
Ukraine still suffers from Soviet-era lassitude and fatalism, and Venezuela from the curse of supposing oil deposits guarantee a comfortable life.
Russia may still move into Ukraine’s Russian-speaking Crimea and industrial east. Castro goons may keep killing in Caracas.