Protests in Democracy: Lessons for Leaders and Participants

Protests in Democracy: Lessons for Leaders and Participants

The recently-concluded presidential campaign was characterized by a range of surprising and, at times, troubling things. One was the tendency for each side to personalize matters of policy and to switch position unabashedly when events turned in new directions.

I touched on one of the more obvious examples of this in an earlier blog post: comments about the character of FBI Director James Comey.

We’re seeing what appears to be that switching of positions again, though this time by folks we only know because we see them marching in the streets of some of our major cities.

You may recall, dear reader, some concern expressed in certain quarters when now President-elect Trump suggested that the election might be stolen from him by intrigue and corruption. I think it is fair to say that most of us – right, left, center and those on a completely different dimension – were troubled by such comments. Many leaders on both sides of the aisle, as well as many voices in the media, objected to the rhetoric and insisted that candidate Trump pull back the comments and respect the process.

Well, now the shoe is on the other foot.

The protests that have occurred in various cities since election night have, for the most part, been peaceful. There has been violence in a few cases, most notably (at least from mainstream media reports) in Portland, Oregon.

One ought not overstate these events. I’m not enough of an historian to assess how large the contrast is between this election and other presidential elections in recent memory. There were demonstrations in late 2000 and early 2001 during and after the mess that our own fair state made of ballots and ballot counting. But one could argue that those demonstrations had considerable justification: the process by which that election finally was resolved was unclear, confusing and largely technical.

Otherwise, at least in recent history, demonstrations haven’t been that common immediately post-election.

In the aftermath of one of the most bitter presidential campaigns in a hundred years, one ought not be surprised that segments of our society are frustrated, frightened, and to some extent angry. I’m not.

But I am concerned about what these demonstrations may be saying about our understanding of and respect for our form of democracy.

To the protesters and those who feel strong sympathy for them, I’d like to suggest an important question: exactly what is being protested?

I understand deep disappointment, even shock, at the outcome. More deeply and more importantly, I appreciate the fear, anxiety and sense of loss being experienced by members of our diverse national family who have been, or certainly seemed to be, targets of the campaign of the president-elect.

But to protest the election of Donald Trump is an odd thing for Democrats and for believers in American democracy to do…and I presume that most protesters are members of one or the other of these groups.

Nothing about the actual process of this election raises fundamental and unique concerns about process. The fact that the president-elect won in the Electoral College, but not in the popular vote, is far from an historic event.

So what is there to protest at this moment, if not simple dissatisfaction with the outcome? And what is the point of the protests? “I’m upset that Trump won.”

Okay. Got that. And so…?

I suspect there will be a time when today’s protesters will find more legitimate cause to protest. Mr. Trump over the weekend proposed the immediate deportation of one to two million illegal immigrants; that, whether I agree with the policy or not, understandably could bring protesters into the streets.

But that was Sunday…nearly a week after the protests started.

Any version of government that relies upon the consent of the governed also relies upon the governed to accept the process by which their consent is secured. Democracy, in other words, is about process more than outcome. Only if we agree that there is a legitimate process (legitimate in part because, today, it is the law) that we will honor can we have democracy. It’s that simple.

If I’m only willing to abide by the outcome of an election if I agree with that outcome, elections become meaningless. Worse, such an attitude very nearly assures that our long history of peaceful transitions of power will come to a tragic and violent end.

Whether that end is the disruption of the transition and open conflict between rival political factions, or the repression of people’s First Amendment rights by a government with a legitimate claim to power and an illegitimate desire to silence opposition, I can only guess.

But neither is the America I believe in. Neither is the America I hope my children and grandchildren will receive from us.

Not for one moment would I seek to tell the demonstrators that they can’t demonstrate because their cause is problematic. I’m not doing so now.

I am urging respect. Respect for the rights of protesters (which it appears public safety officials across the country generally have done an excellent job of doing). Respect as well for the process that gives us an orderly transition of power and for the right of the people to choose their leader by that process.

I’m not saying that Donald Trump was, or was not, my preferred candidate.

I’m simply acknowledging, and asking that we all acknowledge, that he is, or soon will be, our president.