The Left's Foolish Romance with Mass Protests

The Left has had a long romance with mass popular protest, even and sometimes especially protests that break the law. The latest enthusiast is David Leonhardt who lamented yesterday in the New York Times that the resistance has not taken to the streets to try to end the government shutdown. He also hopes for a strike by government workers even though such a strike is illegal. Leonhardt is representative of a growing tolerance on the left for law breaking. Black Lives Matters is now often lauded for shutting down key thoroughfares to protest perceived police brutality.

But these kind of protests do not advance the workings of democratic order. Even legal protests mostly dumb down democracy. They feature simplistic slogans and an absence of argument. Volume, not reason, is their essence. And when they are conjoined with illegality, they undermine respect for the rule of law. Sometimes those acts are defended as civil disobedience, but civil disobedience is only civic when its participants willingly go to jail, which many modern protesters disdain. And even then, civil disobedience is not necessarily wise.

It is generally not wise when democratic means are open to address the protesters’ concerns. The civil rights protests of the 1960s had a stronger justification because so many African Americans were denied the right to vote and even those protests created a polarizing backlash.

Moreover, America is a working democracy, with the House of Representatives now controlled by the Democratic Party, a powerful vehicle for pursuing the protesters’ policy preferences. To be sure, politics requires compromise and nuance where protest does not, but meeting in the middle is essential for democracy. Patience is also a necessary personal virtue for democratic citizens. Another election is less than two years away and may well return politicians more sympathetic to the protesters’ positions. A politics of protest may be exhilarating at the moment but it often leads to polarization and even stasis as important reforms become harder to make.

Leonhardt notes that if a government shutdown happened in Europe, people would be taking to the streets. But the record of European nations with the most vigorous streets and greatest propensity for illegal strikes is a very unhappy one. France is the prime example, and as a result of its tradition of social ferment and extralegal actions, it seems unable to renew itself with reforms. The consequence is persistent economic stagnation that makes its citizens poorer than our poorest state and high unemployment rates which are a great source of human misery. Italy is the other European land of perpetual strikes. It is a political basket case with the worst record of economic growth in the industrialized world and is now in the hands of populists who are making a bad situation even worse.

It is hardly surprising that countries with a tradition of street protests and illegality should lurch toward a populism that is a counterproductive for solving real problems. Mass protests are a kind of a populism. They share populism’s disdain for compromise and expert evaluation of the causes of social difficulties, like persistent unemployment. Leonhardt’s column shows that he does not object to the social costs of Trump’s populist style—only the destination of his policies.