When citizens in a democratic society participate in public demonstrations, they reveal the intensity of their preferences for a political outcome. In short, they are passionate about a cause. When opponents simply dismiss demonstrators as “hired protestors,” they negate their citizenship and nullify democratic engagement.
During the past few weeks, I have written about the strategy of the current incumbent of the White House and supporters of denying the legitimacy of institutions that normally check the exercise of authority in a democratic system. I have argued that this approach goes beyond the deep partisanship that has become the norm in American politics in recent decades.
I’ve illustrated the argument with reference to the media – the most obvious case — and the civil service (aka “Deep State”), including the Bureau of Labor Statistics that produces unemployment data.
The argument extends to citizen protest. Intense partisanship would involve making the case that the protestors are misguided, misinformed, or simply wrong. But labeling them “fake” – hired actors rather than motivated citizens – eliminates the need to present substantive counterarguments. The exercise of citizenship rights by the protestors is simply erased in one sweeping gesture: fake.
The most prominent recent example concerns the student protestors from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, who organized the “March for Your Life” rally earlier this year. But the approach was already deployed in response to Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson, Missouri.
In both cases, as it turns out, those on the right valuing control of power above democracy amplified the impact of their message by pointing to George Soros as the source of payments to protestors, simultaneously nullifying legitimate protest and appealing to their clutch of “anti-globalist”/antisemitic followers.
The tactic is a close kin to the frequent use of the “outside agitator” label deployed in response to labor organizing in the 1920s and ‘30s as well as in response to civil rights demonstrators in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
In his 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King excoriated members of the clergy for invoking the “outside agitator” argument to oppose civil rights organizing in Birmingham, advancing in an assertion of both social justice and democracy that “Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial ‘outside agitator’ idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.”
Ironically, the tactic has been employed to powerful effect in Russia, where in 2011 and 2012 Vladimir Putin’s regime pronounced that Russian citizens protesting electoral fraud were paid by the West — AND incited by an “outside agitator,” U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton (Timothy Snyder, The Road to Unfreedom, p. 55).
The approach has now fully blossomed, as indicated by the declaration of the current occupant of the White House at a recent rally in Kansas City that “what you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.”
Sources reporting on this stunning negation of reality underscore the affinity with George Orwell’s 1984, in which the ruling totalitarian party “told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears.”
In the chapter of 1984 from which I’ve quoted above, Orwell notes that the logic of the totalitarian regime that controls all “truth” would lead it to command that “two and two made five.” He concludes that chapter with this: “Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two makes four. If that is granted, all else follows.”
Insist that two plus two makes four we must.
The dangerous campaign to delegitimate alternative centers of power – the media, the politically neutral civil service, dissenting citizens, and, of course, U.S. intelligence agencies – will continue. We’ve seen the effort to delegitimize democratic institutions applied to the electoral system, with the claim that the system is “rigged” employed to, well, rig the system.
It is not possible to overstate the stakes of November’s election, which very possibly include the fate of American democracy.
This is not a partisan issue; if the party currently in power retains control of Congress, the administration will perceive license to follow in the recent footsteps of governments in Hungary and Poland and enact concrete measures (beyond those already underway, such as the systematic removal of FBI and potentially Justice Department officials involved in investigating the misdeeds of the current incumbent of the White House) to permanently weaken countervailing institutions.
After all, if the institutions are illegitimate, why not remove their authority?