An excellent essay about different degrees of putting pressure on a government. It's by Orion.
I have an intuition that one of the most important things for a functional society to do is to get everyone on the same page about who the legitimate authorities are, or if that's impossible, at least prevent them from literally fighting about it. Conflicts over leadership or state legitimacy have pretty much unlimited stakes and can thus escalate almost without bound. I have a much more relaxed attitude toward conflicts over policy. I think that a society can withstand a great deal of conflict over which policies the authority ought to adopt. People sometimes use illegal or even violent means to try to stop the authorities from implementing a policy they find objectionable, but even when it comes to that, the conflict still has limited stakes to prevent it from escalating uncontrollably. Accordingly, my analysis of various ways people act on their disagreements with government involves a look at both the immediate damage or consequences involved, but also at the extent to which it undermines state legitimacy or consensus about who is in authority. I think pretty much all the options that citizens have when they're angry with their government can be categorized as some combination of protest, resistance, and challenge. I'd characterize the riots we had over the summer as a particularly sustained and destructive form of illegal resistance. I'd describe Trump's people storming the capitol as a relatively mild and unserious form of illegal challenge.Protest
: "Pure" protests are not really a thing that can exist in the wild, except maybe when you post an open letter to your government on your personal blog. More or less all actually-existing forms of protest are in fact also a form a resistance. I think of protest qua protest as communication. You address the authorities, express your displeasure, and request a change of policy. On the damage/consequences side protest in itself can't really do any harm. When it comes to legitimacy, I tend to think that properly-addressed protests* actually strengthen the system. The more we cultivate the habit of calling our senators to complain about their decisions, the more we reinforce and normalize the idea that the senators get to decide. For these reasons, I think protest is clearly the least problematic option.Resistance
: Resistance is any attempt to prevent or deter the authorities from implementing their policies. Resistance can come through legal means like malicious compliance, or private actions that mitigate the impact of a policy, or through illegal means like civil disobedience. Resistance can mean stopping the objectionable policy directly, like surrounding a house to prevent an eviction, or it can mean causing chaos or damage elsewhere as deterrence, like gathering in large groups to shut down major roads or to block access to important buildings. Most public "protests" are really primarily about resistance. Gathering a a bunch of people to yell and wave signs outside a government building makes it more stressful and time consuming for the authorities to go about their daily business, doing it in a commercial district suppresses the economy and effectively takes businesses hostage, and so on. Looting and burning a target is a more extreme application of the same principle: impose costs wherever you can impose costs in hopes of getting leverage over your policy interests.
I'm obviously using "Resistance" to cover an extremely diverse range of activities here, from the legal and innocuous all the way up to certain types of domestic terrorism, so it's hard to generalize about the category. Obviously some acts of "resistance" are very bad indeed. Nevertheless, I feel that it is still valuable to distinguish between resistance and challenge, even when looking at more extreme resistance. As far as I'm aware, the left-wing violence this summer was all or almost about violent resistance, not violent challenge. Some "abolish the police" people are willing to burn and destroy to achieve their goals, but their expressed goals are to get city council to vote to dissolve the police. Some are willing to go to an elected officials house and intimidate them to achieve their goals, but their goals are to get that official to change a policy they dislike. In Seattle they were willing to occupy a whole neighborhood and set up an "autonomous zone," but AFAIK there was no suggestion of erecting a People's Hall and selecting a People's Mayor to overturn the real mayor's edicts. Which brings us to challenge.Challenge
: Challenge, in my view, is any activity that denies that the authority is an authority, or seeks to destroy or deprive them of the trappings of their office, or personal violence targeting authorities; also anything that proclaims or supports alternative authorities or tries to enforce their edicts. Like "resistance," "challenge" is a broad category that includes things legal and illegal, violent and non-violent. Challenges probably also have an effective/symbolic axis that's analogous to the protest/resistance distinction. A plot to assassinate the president is an illegal violent challenge, stealing a podium or ceremonial mace would be illegal but non-violent, filing an election lawsuit or holding an impeachment hearing is legal and potentially effective, wearing a "not my president" t-shirt is legal and purely symbolic. For any permutation of these properties, you could create a challenge and an analogous act of protest or resistance, and in all cases I think there is something more reckless and potentially corrosive about the challenge.
I think Democrats have become way too cavalier about legal and symbolic challenge. I've spent 4 years fuming about how "not my president" is a dumb and destructive slogan. I've pointed out to many Democratic acquaintances that even if it were true that all of Trump's voters were duped by fake documents distributed by foreign hackers, they wouldn't forfeit their right to vote, and Trump would still be the legitimate winner. The whole thing is childish and destructive. Also: Democrats are too cavalier about violent resistance, as has been covered extensively on this board. But there's one line that I can still comfort myself by saying mainstream Democrats haven't crossed, and that's encouraging violent or illegal challenges for authority. (We've have had a gut-wrenching series of lone-wolf terrorists, the kind I was always told only came from the right: the guy who tried to shoot Trump, the guy who did shoot Steve Scalise, the neighbor who assault Rand Paul, and so on; we probably have not done enough to try to discourage that, either) I'm sure that the various right-wing bogeymen the media trots out to scare me with (sovereign citizens, boogaloo boys, militias, q-anon, "posse comitatus," whatever that is) objectively did a lot less damage this year than left-wing rioters, but despite that they do scare me more viscerally. Because the far-left may say "we will burn cities until the government does what we want," but the far right appears to say "the government is not the government," and in the unlikely event that they got anywhere with that it could get much worse than mere riots.
I would agree that objectively speaking, a few hundreds people storming the capitol and then milling around until dispersed would not ordinarily be a big deal. If they had done this on a day when Congress was scheduled to pass some left-wing bill, I'd be about 1000% less concerned. Same if they did it the day after Biden's inauguration just to put him on notice that they don't intend to be pushed around. That would be a fairly harmless bit of good illegal-resistance fun. But doing it to prevent his election from being certified converts illegal-resistance into illegal-challenge. Was it effective enough to call it an attempted coup? No, that seems hyperbolic. But I think it signals coup-friendliness, creates common knowledge that people are thinking positively about the idea of a coup, tests the waters, and could function as a dress rehearsal. I'm reminded of Scott's line about being nice until you can coordinate mean-ness, and I think it's reasonable to look at this as one step toward building capacity to coordinate meanness.
*I forgot to come back to the idea of "properly addressed" protests in the original version of this post. Basically, calling on an official to do something is good for the system if the official actually has the authority to do the thing, but if they don't have that authority, it's effectively not a protest but a challenge -- an attempt to proclaim an alternate authority. Protesters demanding that Mike Pence or Mr. Raffensberger overturn the certified election results are undermining the integrity of the system, whether they realize this or not.
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