by Thomas R. Wells
When people take to the street to protest this is often supposed to be a sign of democracy in action. People who believe that their concerns about the climate change, Covid lockdowns, racism and so on are not being adequately addressed by the political system make a public display of how many of them care a lot about it so that we are all forced to hear about their complaint and our government is put under pressure to address it.
But what about this is democratic?
In a democracy we are supposed to accept the outcome of the democratic process, involving reasoned public debate and free electoral competition for positions of public power. The fact that people protest when they don’t accept the outcome of the democratic process is a rather clear sign that protests are a non-democratic activity at best, and at worst an attempt to override and undermine democracy itself. I have in mind particularly the recent climate change related protests in the UK which seem to be spreading and becoming increasingly aggressive, but also recent events like the farmers blocking roads in the Netherlands, the truck drivers blockading Canadian cities and borders, and so on.
At best public protest is non-democratic. It aims to get attention (primarily from the news media) and thus to get the protestors’ complaint higher up in the political agenda – the things the government is expected to have an answer to. Success depends on the quantity of attention the protestors can attract, and this is proportionate to the amount of drama they can cause rather than the quality of their complaint (i.e. its reasonableness). It is thus a kind of democracy hack, like the search engine optimisation companies engage in to get higher on Google’s search results and so get more attention from potential customers.
At worst protest rejects liberal democratic principles, processes, and institutions in favour of feelings of righteousness. By doing so it contributes to the general undermining of democracy whenever it delivers something less than people believe they have a right to. But democracy is a system for achieving compromises between people who disagree on many things. It can never give everyone what they want, and its functioning and survival requires a citizenry who recognise that fact and are reconciled to inevitable disappointment. The idea that being disappointed with democratic outcomes justifies rejecting them and demanding that they be changed is to reject democracy itself.
The standard justification for street protest is that some group of people have a complaint that isn’t being taken seriously by the political system. This views democracy as a flawed system for identifying and acting reasonable complaints rather than as a system whose outcomes define what counts as a reasonable complaint. The problem is that evidence that your complaint has not been taken very seriously by many of the other people in your society is not evidence that it is a reasonable complaint that deserves to be taken more seriously. It is not evidence that the democratic injustice detection system has failed. Here are some of the salient possibilities.
- Your complaint isn’t a good one, or isn’t as objectively important as you believe it to be because other issues matter more.
- Your complaint is objectively correct, but it isn’t taken seriously by other people because they have the wrong beliefs or value scheme.
- Your complaint is objectively correct, and the democratic majority will agree with you once they hear about it.
1. The complaint isn’t a good one
An obvious explanation for the democratic injustice detector failing to address your complaint is that it works perfectly fine and you are simply mistaken. A major problem with the justification for protests is that protestors’ evaluate whether their complaint is valid and important by the strength of the emotions they feel about it. But a strong feeling of righteous indignation is not a test of truth, or Trump’s Big Lie would be true.
Many people passionately believe absurd and awful things, for example that Covid is a government conspiracy to control people or that Muslims can’t be loyal citizens of America. This is obviously easier to see in other people than ourselves, but the point is one that we should be willing to apply to ourselves. The fact that we are willing to undertake some effortful or even illegal action as a result of a belief is a measure of how important it is to us, but not a measure of how likely it is to be morally or factually correct.
Note that this also goes for issues where we may be right in part, but not altogether. Many policy issues are intertwined with others and cannot be addressed separately from those entanglements and trade-offs. It might for example be true that climate change is a great and present danger to human society and natural ecosystems, but not true that our government ought to be doing more things – or more obvious things – about the problem than they already are.
2. Other people’s disagreement matters in a democracy
Protestors are always sure they are right, and, for the sake of argument, let us suppose they actually are right in some particular case like climate change. Even so, their protest would not be democratic.
This is because they are not the only people with views on the matter and the question of which group’s views are correct is not what liberal democracy is about. In a democracy we are supposed to respect other people’s views even when they are objectively wrong. Divisive questions are not settled by technocratic or philosophical argument, but by discussing and then voting. Deciding by voting is not a way of determining the correct answer, but a way of deciding our persistent disagreement in the fairest possible way, i.e. in a way that demonstrates the fundamental liberal principle of respecting the moral equality of all. The philosopher Jeremy Waldron puts this very well in a noted article.
The method of majority decision….gives equal weight to each person’s view in the process of selecting one view as the group’s. Indeed, it attempts to give each individual’s view the greatest weight possible compatible with an equal weight for the views of each of the others.
The protestors seem to mistake the theoretical legitimacy of their views (their truthfulness) for practical legitimacy (what should determine political action). By insisting that their views about the right government policy should determine that policy merely because they are correct (and remember, we are supposing for now that this hubris is justified), they disrespect the institutions of liberal democracy and the commitment to moral equality on which they rest. They are not taking seriously the value that other people’s opinions should have merely because other people are just as morally important as themselves. It is not surprising therefore that protestors often see their governments and fellow citizens in a strategic way, as obstacles in their path to be manipulated or detered. Hence their frequent willingness to go beyond noisy but civil protest and attention grabbing stunts to attempting to impose costs on the society for continuing to disagree with them – blocking roads and public transit systems and throwing paint at things, for example.
To insist on the priority of truth over democracy is to put liberal democracy itself at risk, together with its intrinsic value and its value as an instrument for detecting and addressing injustices and misgovernance. Protestors rarely ask themselves whether their cause is worth that much.
3. There are better ways to persuade others
Finally there is the idea that the majority of fellow citizens and members of government would be persuaded to adopt the protestors’ views but somehow they have not had the chance to hear them explained properly. In a non-democracy like China or Russia this claim has a lot of plausibility. In those countries not only is factual knowledge about key political issues deliberately suppressed (as a state secret), but also even knowledge about the extent to which other people support the rulers and believe their lies. The only way to find out what one’s fellow citizens really believe may be to take the bold action of walking along the street with a piece of white paper. Thus, in a non-democracy, protest can indeed be a democratic act – an attempt to return politics to the people.
However, actual democracies aren’t like this. Information and discussion is not suppressed, so it is very likely that everyone who is interested has already heard about the protestors’ complaint. More importantly, even if the cause is somehow new to us, we are unlikely to find a street protest particularly informative. What public protest in a democracy communicates is not facts or arguments, but degree of righteous passion. It is a deliberate effort to dominate the public space, an inherently coercive project. (This is why it is so common to see counter-protests on divisive issues, attempting to block the first protest from establishing the unchallenged domination they seek.)
Domination and coercion are obviously not appropriate forms for communicating with fellow citizens in a democracy. Protest is not a good way of trying to persuade others of the reasonableness of a complaint. Citizens in liberal democracies have extensive freedoms to express and share ideas and opinions, now made easier than ever by the self-publishing possibilities of social media.
We have confused the fact that under a liberal democracy people have a right to public protest (at least of the noisy but peaceful sort) with the idea that protesting is itself a democratic thing to do. To the contrary, a democracy is exactly the context in which aggressively attempting to take over public space or cause public nuisance is least justified. People who live in a democracy ought to accept that their passionately held moral beliefs have no special claim to political authority or attention.
Thomas Wells teaches philosophy in the Netherlands. He blogs on philosophy, politics, and economics at The Philosopher’s Beard.