© Aron Hsiao / 2006
The entire point of political systems is to sublimate street-level conflict and turn it into stodgy process.
That’s the only reason it exists: because at some point, humans decide they’re tired of, or would like to avoid, open warfare.
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So now we’re to have hundreds of thousands (millions?) of people marching in the street to protest Trump, objecting to his “blatant disregard for our system of government and institutions.”
How ironic and paradoxical.
Activism is what opened and opens the door for Trump. What does anyone think activism is, but “blatant disregard for our system of government and institutions” carried on by the public at large? One doesn’t want to work through the system the right way—running for office, engaging in persuasion, etc.—so one takes one’s positions to the streets and attempts to essentially blackmail the public, one inconvenienced person at a time, into doing what one wants. It is an end-run around the system.
Or, one doesn’t like what the system hath wrought and decides that its outcomes are unacceptable. The decisions of the voting public and the institutions about which they vote are to be disregarded. Again, take to the streets.
Activism is itself a profound rejection of the democratic process. It is the subversion of the processes of running for office, launching ballot initiatives, persuasion, etc. A few activists may think they’re engaging in “persuasion,” but the sorts of persuasion in which they tend to be engaged are the sorts that mafia enforcers use (again, “persuasion”), not the sort of deliberative discussion that is essential to democratic practice.
Evidence for this can be seen in what activists want people to do—not merely vote. They never march in support of the vote, or even in support of a particular voting position. They march for “change,” they march for “protest,” they march “to be heard” and so on. They don’t run for office. They don’t invite neighbors to events to create a space in which dialogue can occur.
Activists are activists because they have a blatant disregard for our system of government and institutions.
© Tony Webster / CC-by-SA 2.0
This culture, of course, spreads, because it is effective. Democracy is notoriously fragile; it requires conscious maintenance. And it was only a matter of time before it spread to every office in the land, including the presidency. The activist does not take “no” for an answer. The activist “never gives up.” The activist does not “accept the unacceptable” to themselves, even if it is an outcome duly decided by democratic processes.
And these days, everyone is an activist. The question is no longer ever “are you an activist,” but rather “what are you an activist for?”
Activism in general is considered a moral good, on both sides of the aisle. Nobody seems to notice that this means that anti- or post-democratic understandings of society are now by implication considered moral goods as well. So sure, march. March in the streets some more! The right-wing activists could not understand that Obama’s executive overreaches and rhetorical flourishes (many of which they disliked) were part and parcel of an activist culture and an array of activism(s) that everyone, including the president, could not just be expected to have, but would be applauded for having by anyone on their side. Now the left-wing activists can not understand that by marching in the streets, they reify the parts of the culture that they find most distasteful when embodied in someone from the other side.
How do you get the other side to stop crossing lines and return to pure ballot box and congressional floor activity, following historical norms? You don’t.. You can’t control others’ behavior. But so long as you are crossing lines and refusing to rely on the ballot box, congressional floor activity, and historical norms, the other side is unlikely to grant you a monopoly on this highly effective form of behavior.
Much has been made of whether other nations that we’ve engaged with have a culture that is “compatible with democracy.”
I’m going to stand up here and question whether or not we any longer have a culture that is “compatible with democracy.”
In fact, I’m going to say that we don’t.