Today a very silly thing happened in Washington, D.C. A group–no one is sure quite how many–of “patriots,” most identifying with the far-right-wing “Tea Party” movement in American politics, protested in front of the White House with the express intention of overthrowing the U.S. government. The organizers’ manifesto is pretty muddled, but basically it consists of the usual right wing/Tea Party grudges against government in almost any form, but especially a government headed by an African-American President. The organizers confidently predicted that 10 to 30 million Americans would show up to overthrow President Obama. Their failure to do so was widely mocked on Twitter under the hashtag #OperationAmericanSpring.

“Operation American Spring” is, of course, an egregious example of the Quixotic nature of extremists who lack political sophistication, but there are, not surprisingly, a lot of movements out there calling for revolution in one form or another, some politically rightist, others leftist. Nearly every established government in the world has faced some sort of revolutionary opposition at one time or another. Yet throughout history very few events that can plausibly be called revolutions have ever succeeded. (Note, there is a difference between a revolution and a coup, which is a change of government at the top. Admittedly the lines blur in certain cases). The truth is that very few self-styled revolutionaries really understand what a revolution is, how one works and what conditions must be in place for its success. Admittedly this is a very complex historical topic, but there are some key highlights.

sun yat sen

Revolutionary elites like Sun Yat-Sen (second from left) often spend most of their lives fermenting revolution. This picture of Sun was taken in the 1880s; he did not succeed until 1911.

The first thing to understand–and where the Operation American Spring activists fail right out of the starting gate–is that hatred of a particular political leader is never the driving force behind a revolution. Revolutions overthrow systems, not people. Almost nobody can remember the name of the dynastic ruler who was overthrown in China’s 1911 revolution (Pu Yi), and despite their hatred of the abuses of the French monarchy, King Louis XVI was actually well-liked by many people in France before their revolution in 1789. Typically, leaders of overthrown governments focus public rage in a revolutionary society, as the Shah of Iran did in 1979, but the driving force behind the Iranian revolution was rage at the system the Shah and his dynasty represented, not so much the Shah himself. This is an important distinction. Thus for Tea Party “patriots” to expect a revolution to succeed simply because they hate the person of Barack Obama–who in any event will no longer be the leader of the United States in 32 months–is silly.

The second important factor is that revolutions have leaders. However many common people in a country may hate or feel oppressed by their political or economic system, that rage, even if it’s overwhelming and almost universal (which it rarely is), cannot, by itself, sweep away an existing order unless it’s sharply directed and deftly deployed by a revolutionary elite. Sometimes the members of this elite spend the bulk of their lives clawing their way into positions of dominance and then figuring out how to use it. Lenin in Russia, Sun Yat-Sen and Mao Tse-Tung in China, and the Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran all spent most of their lives building their revolutions. The elite of the American Revolution–Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, George Washington, etc.–had to do a fair amount of career-building before the revolution got started. Successful revolutions always have leaders.

Third, and related to the second issue, revolutions take a very long time to build. The climactic moment when crowds rush through the streets or a new flag is hoisted over the capital happens at the end of the process, not the beginning. Historically you can argue that Russia’s revolution began a century before 1917, as countless revolutionary leaders, thinkers, politicians and theorists slowly built and refined the political and economic movement that took power after the Tsar was deposed. China, too, was full of revolutionary sentiment for decades before 1911; a very large war, the Taiping Rebellion, took place in the middle of the 19th century and was one of many false starts before Sun Yat-Sen brought it off. The American Revolution happened very quickly by historical standards, but even it began about 1763, almost a decade and a half before the events at Independence Hall that we commemorate on July 4. Revolutions take generations, not days or hours.

Finally, revolutions have very complex and well-developed ideologies. They must, above all, offer the people of a society a clear and positive alternative to the existing order. In Communist revolutions this has tended to be the promise of economic equality. In the American Revolution it was the promise of liberal representative democracy. In Iran it was the idea of a nation built on Islamic principles. The thinkers and theorists of the world’s great revolutions–Che Guevara in Cuba, Thomas Jefferson in the United States, Mao in China–have, in many ways, harder jobs than the military commanders who fight to defend revolutionary principles. “We don’t like that guy” or “the existing order is corrupt” is a part of the picture, but a comparatively small part. The French Revolution of 1789 went badly awry in part because it wasn’t undergirded by a coherent ideology; the same was true of the Mexican Revolution of 1910. A successful revolution must not only convince the people of a nation to say “no” to an existing order, but simultaneously to say “yes” to something else, something they must be convinced will enrich their lives.

Thus, from a historical standpoint, you almost have to pity the handful of angry people who came out onto the streets of Washington today. Building a revolution is a little more complicated than stomping around with a cardboard sign. But, as I wrote recently, some people have a very reductionist, literal view of how history works. That will probably never change, but for now, it’s no surprise that Barack Obama will still be sleeping peacefully in the White House tonight, and the sun will rise tomorrow morning.

The photo of the “Tea Party” activist is by Flickr user Tim Pierce and is used under Creative Commons 2.0 (Attribution) license.