Monday 12 December 2022

Public Protest Is Not A Democratic Thing To Do

When people take to the street to protest this is often supposed to be a sign of democracy in action. People who believe that their concerns about the climate change, Covid lockdowns, racism and so on are not being adequately addressed by the political system make a public display of how many of them care a lot about it so that we are all forced to hear about their complaint and the government is put under pressure to address it.

But what about this is democratic?

In a democracy we are supposed to accept the outcome of the democratic process, involving reasoned public debate and free electoral competition for positions of public power. The fact that people protest when they don't accept the outcome of the democratic process is a rather clear sign that protests are a non-democratic activity at best, and at worst an attempt to override and undermine democracy itself. I have in mind particularly the recent climate change related protests in the UK which seem to be spreading and becoming increasingly aggressive, but also recent events like farmers blocking roads in the Netherlands, truck drivers blockading Canadian cities and borders, and so on.

At best public protest is merely non-democratic. It aims to get attention (primarily from the news media) and thus to use non-democratic means to get the protestors' complaint higher up in the political agenda - the things the government is expected to have an answer to. Success depends on the quantity of attention the protestors can attract, and this is proportionate to the amount of drama they can cause rather than the quality or the popularity of their complaint. It is thus a kind of democracy hack, like the search engine optimisation that companies engage in to get higher on Google's search results and so get more attention from potential customers.

At worst protest is anti-democratic. It rejects liberal democratic principles, processes, and institutions in favour of feelings of righteousness. Whenever democracy delivers something less than people believe they have a right to this is taken as evidence of democracy's failure and illegitimacy. But democracy is a system for achieving compromises between people who disagree on many things. It can never give everyone what they want, and its functioning and survival requires a citizenry who recognise that fact and are reconciled to inevitable disappointment. The idea that being disappointed with democratic outcomes justifies rejecting them and demanding that they be changed is to reject democracy itself.

The standard justification for street protest is that some group of people have a complaint that isn't being taken seriously by the political system. This views democracy as merely a political machine for identifying and acting on reasonable complaints (rather than as a system whose outcomes define which people and ideas should have the right to rule). But even under this profoundly limited view of democracy the case for protest is incoherent. 

I organise the rest of this essay around the flaws in 3 frequently made arguments for the democratic justification of public protest.

1. Our complaint is objectively correct, so a democracy ought to recognise it, and if it doesn't it should be made to.

2. Our complaint is objectively correct, and those who (think they) disagree are objectively incorrect and therefore their opinions ought not to be counted.

3. Our complaint is objectively correct, and if only we could make the democratic majority hear it properly they would understand and agree.

1. Perhaps the protestors' complaint is not as good as they think it is

An obvious explanation for the democratic injustice detector failing to recognise and address some group's complaint is that the detector is working perfectly well and the complaint is simply mistaken. A major problem with the justification for protests is that protestors' evaluate whether their complaint is valid and important by the strength of the emotions they feel about it. But a strong feeling of righteous indignation is not a test of truth, or Trump's Big Lie would be true. The basic problem is that evidence that your complaint has not been taken very seriously by many of the other people in your society is not evidence that it is a reasonable complaint that deserves to be taken more seriously. It is not evidence that the democratic injustice detection system has failed. 

Many people passionately believe absurd and awful things, for example that Covid is a government conspiracy to control people or that Muslims can't be loyal citizens of America. We should note the obvious danger in adopting the maxim: "whenever you feel like you are in the right, laws and moral norms don't apply to you". Remember, people with views you don't approve of can block the roads just as easily as the people you do like, and impose their righteous indignation on the rest of us by preventing people getting to work and lorries from delivering food to supermarkets (or storming Congress). 

The general point is that whether someone is willing to undertake some effortful or even illegal action as a result of a belief is a measure of how important it is to them, but not a measure of how likely it is to be morally or factually correct. This is obviously easier to see in other people than ourselves, but the distinction is one that we should be willing to apply to ourselves.  

It should be noted that epistemic humility also helps us see that complaints can be right in part, but not altogether. Many policy issues are intertwined with others (and with the policy decisions of other governments) and cannot be addressed separately from those entanglements, trade-offs, and constraints. It might for example be true that climate change is a great and present danger to human societies and natural ecosystems (we can trust the expertise behind the IPCC reports on that!). But that does not automatically mean that it is true that our government ought to be doing more things - or more obvious things - about the problem than they already are. That is not the kind of thing that can be read off from an IPCC report. One can agree that climate change is important without concluding that our governments ought to be making policy on it as if nothing else matters.

2. In a democracy other people's disagreement matters because other people matter

Protestors are always sure they are right, and, for the sake of argument, let us suppose they actually are right in some particular case like climate change. Even so, their protest would not be democratic.

This is because they are not the only people with views on the matter and the question of which group's views are correct is not what liberal democracy is about. In a democracy we are supposed to respect other people's views even when they are objectively wrong. Divisive questions are not settled by technocratic or philosophical argument about truth, but by discussing and then voting. Deciding by voting is not a way of determining the correct answer, but a way of deciding our persistent disagreement in the fairest possible way, i.e. in a way that demonstrates the fundamental liberal principle of respecting the moral equality of all. The philosopher Jeremy Waldron puts this very well in a noted article.

The method of majority equal weight to each person's view in the process of selecting one view as the group's. Indeed, it attempts to give each individual's view the greatest weight possible compatible with an equal weight for the views of each of the others.

Protestors seem to mistake the theoretical legitimacy of their views (their truthfulness) for practical legitimacy (what should determine political action). By insisting that their views about the right government policy should determine that policy merely because they are correct (and remember, we are supposing for now that this hubris is justified), they disrespect the institutions of liberal democracy and the commitment to moral equality on which they rest. They are not taking seriously the value that other people's opinions should have merely because other people are just as morally important as themselves. 

Sometimes protestors will claim that the rich and the powerful have co-opted the government with the aid of nefarious lobbyists and corrupt politicians, and so they are not protesting against democracy after all but against its corruption. Such reflexive conspiracy theorising is unfortunately widespread in protest movements. The environmentalist movement, for example, frequently assumes that the best (only?) explanation for every case in which the 'wrong side' wins a political battle in a democracy are the sinister forces of dark money and lobbying by the fossil fuel industry. Behind this attitude is a denial of the possibility of honest disagreement on which the idea of democracy depends. Those who appear to disagree with the protestors are to be seen as merely the puppets of a handful of real but wicked moral agents. Evidence that others disagree with you thus comes to be seen - absurdly - as evidence that those who disagree with you should not be listened to, and of the importance of overcoming the wicked manipulators. 

Of course it is undeniable that there are groups who seek to influence policy-making 'extra-democratically'. However, the protestors are themselves one of these groups (!), and so this fact does nothing to support their democratic legitimacy. As a justification for protestors' behaviour it would be rather more plausible if protestors acted as if they were trying to defend democracy itself rather than to bring about particular political outcomes they prefer. Yet protests against lobbying are rather rare. Indeed, one has the distinct impression that most protestors only 'discover' that democracy's institutions are corrupted when they fail to deliver what they want, and that if they themselves had access to such mysteriously all-powerful lobbyists that could short-circuit democratic politics they would happily use them to achieve their favoured result.

Given this underlying disrespect for their fellow citizens and democratic institutions and norms, it is not surprising that protestors often see their governments and fellow citizens in a mainly strategic way, as more or less helpful things, to be manipulated or coerced so that they can get their way. Hence the ease with which protest groups convince themselves that they have the right to impose costs on their society and threaten increasingly uncivil and violent action until they get their way. Consider the recent wave of climate protestors damaging famous paintings, the logic of which seems to go something like this:

"Hey, I hear you people don't agree with us about climate change policy even though we are right. Well, if you don't care about the environment in just the way that we do, then we are going to start destroying the things that you value until you change your mind. Here's a demonstration"

This is straightforward extortion. It demonstrates an aggressive contempt towards anyone who dares to disagree with the protestors, and hence also a deep contempt for the idea of a society in which people who disagree can still get along. The unsurprising result is deeper polarisation of society around that issue, and reactive disgust from those targeted. Such polarisation undermines the functioning of democracy, its ability to separate moral from political questions and to successfully manage a diversity of moral opinions. The lines become fixed, for persuasion of others across such a divide is unlikely. 

To insist on the priority of truth over democracy is to put liberal democracy itself at risk, together with its intrinsic value and its value as an instrument for detecting and addressing injustices and misgovernance. Protestors rarely ask themselves whether their cause is worth that much.

3. In a democracy there are better ways to persuade others than being deliberately disagreeable

Finally there is the idea that the majority of fellow citizens and members of government would be persuaded to adopt the protestors' views if only they could be 'made aware' of them. 

In a non-democracy like China or Russia this claim has a lot of plausibility. In those countries not only is factual knowledge about key policy issues deliberately suppressed (as a state secret), but also even knowledge about the extent to which other people support the rulers and believe their lies. The only way to find out what your fellow citizens really believe may be to take the bold action of holding up a placard in a public square (or a piece of white paper). Thus, in a non-democracy, protest can indeed be a pro-democratic act - an attempt to seize democratic political rights for the people. This is also the case for places and times where political rights have been real but partial, such as Jim Crow America. 

However, actual democracies aren't like this. Information and discussion is not suppressed, so it is very likely that everyone who is interested has already heard about the protestors' complaint. More importantly - even if the cause is somehow new to us - we are unlikely to find an attention seeking public protest particularly informative or persuasive. What public protest in a democracy communicates is not facts or arguments, but degree of righteous indignation. It is a deliberate effort to dominate the public space, an inherently coercive project.  (This is why it is so common to see counter-protests on divisive issues, attempting to block the first protest from demonstrating  the unchallenged domination they seek.)

Domination and coercion are obviously not appropriate forms for communicating with fellow citizens in a democracy. Protest is not a good way of trying to persuade others of the reasonableness of a complaint. It is the same rule of the shouty angry people that we rightly criticise on Twitter and other spaces, but in real life is even more obnoxious and harder to escape. Citizens in liberal democracies have extensive freedoms to express and share their ideas and opinions with each other, and to found real political movements and organisations that can participate constructively and respectfully in democratic decision making. It is simply disgraceful for self-righteous loudmouths to take over our streets and public squares in order to demonstrate to the rest of us the degree of their indignation and the peculiarly self-serving claim that their obvious contempt for their fellow citizens is itself evidence that their complaint deserves more weight in our democratic politics.


We have confused the fact that under a liberal democracy people have a right to public protest (at least of the noisy but peaceful sort) with the idea that protesting is itself a democratic thing to do. To the contrary, a democracy is exactly the context in which aggressively attempting to take over public space or cause public nuisance is least justified. People who live in a democracy ought to accept that their passionately held moral beliefs have no special claim to political authority or attention.


An earlier version of this essay appeared on 3 Quarks Daily