The revolt in Egypt is being driven by disaffected middle-class youth angry about the lack of economic opportunity. Likewise, in Tunisia, unemployment and high food prices were at the core of the people's complaint with their government. Such is generally the case - economic stagnation leads to political unrest.
In America, too, the economy drives political volatility. Upset about 10% unemployment, the American electorate threw out the Democratic House of Representatives in 2010; in 2006 and 2008, declining household incomes and an economic collapse led Americans to push Republicans from power. While American political angst is delivered differently - at the ballot box and not in the streets - the economy, again, creates political change.
This analysis may seem simple, but it's factual - political scientists have found a strong correlation between income and both Presidential approval rating and congressional seats won in mid-term elections. Political volatility is an inevitable result of a bad economy, and the volatility is generally accompanied by anger. People feel a bad economy and get angry about whatever they didn't like to begin with-they just do it louder.
This isn't to say that there aren't other issues that matter to citizens; there are. Egyptians were furious that Mubarak planned for his son to succeed him. Health care, civil rights, immigration, and fiscal issues, to name a few, are important to Americans. But the economy is like no other political issue because it's not just about sharing values or agreeing with a candidate's principles. "The economy" actually means the real quality of life enjoyed by a country's people. When people's economic well-being declines, when opportunity no longer presents itself, the body politic gets angry, and that anger is manifested politically. In dictatorships, governments get overthrown; in democracies, they get voted out. If the Egyptian economy were thriving, Mubarak would likely still be in control of Egypt. And if the American economy were thriving, we'd have seen far less volatility in the last three elections, less angst about deficits and debt, and likely no Tea Party. (We'd be in the 1990's, when items such as school uniforms topped the agenda.)
So what do regular people want? Simple: they want leaders who are responsive to their overriding concern - the economy. Oddly, this most basic political fact isn't always acted upon. Hosni Mubarak should have done more than replace his cabinet with new faces when people's complaints are about a lack of opportunity. Conversely, it's no surprise that the President's State of the Union address won high approval ratings - he talked about people's economic problems and his plan to create a better economy.
Ultimately, the politics and the policy have to meet - political leaders must have a plan for the economy and that plan must actually work. That's why, if incomes, housing values, and job prospects for everyday Americans improve before the 2012 elections, President Obama will in all likelihood be reelected. And, if other autocracies with miserable economies fail to improve in coming years, Egypt and Tunisia will mark just the beginning of a string of similar incidents of political unrest.
Update - 2/1/2011: Jordan's King Abdullah II has fired his cabinet due to protests. The New York Times reports that economic issues are driving popular discontent:
Recent demonstrations in Jordan marked the first serious challenge to the decade-old rule of King Abdullah, a critical American ally in the region who is contending with his country's worst economic crisis in years....Banners decried high food and fuel prices and demanded the resignation of the prime minister, appointed by the king.
Cross posted on the NDN blog.