February 15, 2003, the day 10 million or so people in hundreds of cities on every continent demonstrated against war in Iraq, will go down in history as the first time that the people of the world expressed their clear and concerted will in regard to a pressing global issue. Never before–not during the Vietnam War, not during the antinuclear demonstrations of the early 1980s–had they made known their will so forcefully by all the means at their disposal. On that day, history may one day record, global democracy was born.
Several elements unexpectedly (isn't the spontaneous expression of a people's will always unexpected?) snapped into place, like the components on an assembly line. One was a concatenation of opinion polls, showing that in the vast majority of the countries in which people were free to express their views, they opposed war against Iraq unless sanctioned by the United Nations. In every European country, a majority of the public supports this view. In Italy, whose government supports war, 85 percent of the public opposes it. Elsewhere, the figures are the same. In Thailand, for example, 75 percent oppose a war. In Uruguay, the figure is 79 percent. In Pakistan, it is 60 percent. Even in the United States, where poll results were mixed, a New York Times poll showed that 56 percent of the public favored war only with UN sanction. The news brought by these polls is political dynamite. Once upon a time, public opinion polls were of only secondary importance. Now, as every officeholder knows, they have moved to center stage. They are a prime currency of power: Poll numbers in the political realm are the equivalent of stock prices in the corporate realm. Polls are, in effect, periodic off-year elections, which not only may predict the real elections on which continuation in power depends but also affect the moment-to-moment ability of leaders to pass legislation, to rally the public to a cause and so forth. Their importance in the present context was revealed unmistakably when Gerhard Schröder of Germany and Roh Moo-hyun of South Korea won the leadership of their countries on peace platforms.
The worldwide demonstrations put faces on these numbers. It was as if the antiwar majorities around the world were saying, "You have heard about us in the opinion polls; you have seen our views expressed in percentages and graphs: how many are against war under any circumstance, how many against it without a UN vote, how many think it's all about oil and so forth. Well, here we are–in our millions, yet each of us a visible individual, carrying an individual sign, often homemade (in New York, one read, My Planet, Right or Wrong), as if some global schoolteacher had given us all the following assignment: Say what's wrong with the war on Iraq in ten words or less." The shift from answering a pollster's question at dinnertime to marching on the street was a critical one. Of all the possible forms of participation, giving your view to a pollster is probably the least active. Indeed, poll respondents must not be governed by self-propulsion, which is the essence of political participation; they must be chosen and contacted at random by the pollster. Otherwise, the result will be biased. Marching in a demonstration, by contrast, is among the most active forms of participation in political life. Demonstrators have bestirred themselves, put off other plans, braved the elements, flung themselves into action. They mean business. Even a passionate, engaged minority can, by appearing en masse in the streets, have a powerful influence on the body politic. When, as in the present case, the demonstrating minority is the tip of a majoritarian iceberg, the effect is multiplied many times over.