Protesters Hold A Rally Outside The U.S. Capitol Building Calling For A Ceasefire in Gaza

Protesters stage a demonstration in support of a cease fire against the Palestinians in Gaza in the Cannon House Office Building on October 18, 2023 in Washington, DC.

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Why Dissent Is the Heartbeat of Democracy

As we oppose demagoguery and authoritarianism, we must recognize that our ability and right to dissent remains crucial to our commitments.

What does it mean to say dissent develops democracy, especially when we are menaced by homegrown authoritarianism?

Bolstering democracy against authoritarianism surely requires more than dissent. Needed reforms of our political institutions and procedures already have been discussed previously here and here. But the ways and means of dissent also are key to resisting tyranny. Just as demagoguery usurps deliberation, dissent revitalizes political discussion and debate.

Democracy is a politics of contesting differences of perspective. Agreements, when reached, are provisional. Unity is partial and impermanent and is more a matter of bridging differences than dissolving them. The process is vulnerable to frustration and thus to the authoritarian undertow of demagoguery.

What makes dissent democratic?

Dissent is democratic in opposition to authoritarian demagoguery. Whereas demagoguery is a dehumanizing discourse of hatred and violence, dissent operates democratically within the sphere of values such as freedom, equality, tolerance, inclusion, and justice, advancing its claims nonviolently and with respect for the humanity of adversaries. Whereas demagoguery promulgates falsehoods, prejudice, and closemindedness, dissent advances political arguments necessarily grounded in probabilities and therefore subject to critique.

Dissent is deliberative to the extent that it creates openings, consistent with democratic values, for considering claims on behalf of otherwise ignored, marginalized, or suppressed interests. It widens perspective.

Demagoguery polarizes complicated political situations by portraying adversaries as evil, observes Patricia Roberts-Miller. It does not argue policies based on the premise of fairness to all. Instead, it insists that truth is obvious and that harboring uncertainty over complexities is tantamount to cowardice; and it propagates fallacies while reducing political questions to “us versus them.” The challenge, especially when tyranny seems imminent, is to avoid regressing to demagogic means.

What makes democratic dissent deliberative?

Deliberation is an act of considering, via discussion and debate, reasons for adopting or rejecting proposed, often controversial, policies on pressing matters. Reasons pro and con are expressed variously in arguments, tropes, narratives, gestures, and images.

The policies proposed are advanced in answer to troubled questions such as: Should automatic weapons be banned? Should abortion be legalized nationally? How quickly should fossil fuels be replaced by renewable energy? Should the size of the House of Representatives be increased substantially? Should term limits be set for Supreme Court justices? Should the US send more military aid to Ukraine and/or Israel?

Deliberating issues such as these is a fully human practice that is not necessarily sedate but instead is often spirited, rowdy, and even rancorous. Regardless, the basic premise of deliberation is that “political decisions are best made in the light of day with everyone watching.”

Dissent is deliberative to the extent that it creates openings, consistent with democratic values, for considering claims on behalf of otherwise ignored, marginalized, or suppressed interests. It widens perspective.

What is the double gesture of democratic dissent?

Given that deliberation can become dysfunctional if it is either too sedate or overly rancorous, dissent requires a double gesture of disruption and affirmation. “A sharp edge is needed to challenge prevailing attitudes, beliefs, and policies, and a corresponding affirmation of sanctioned ways of thinking and feeling is necessary to avoid alienation.” The double gesture leverages cultural capital in an act of nonconforming solidarity. It works to realign the commonsense of the community to make democratic polemics productive.

For example, when Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented in 2007 from the Court’s decision to uphold the constitutionality of the George W. Bush administration’s ban on partial-birth abortion, she attacked the decision as patriarchal by reframing the question of abortion from a generalized notion of privacy into a matter of women’s equality and their right to reproductive control, and she did so while wearing the legitimizing robes of the highest court in the land.

The double gesture of dissent is a way of avoiding a head-on confrontation with adversaries. It critiques from an oblique angle by linking its disruptive claim to culturally legitimizing images. Dissent from war, for example, might draw on metaphors of waste, greed, and rot to challenge militarism by linking it to economic decline and environmental degradation. Metaphors of partner, family, neighbor, and ecology might also be deployed to express relations of interdependence that invest the broader community in avoiding imperial warfare.

Similarly, Donald Trump’s demagogic trope of racial warfare might be resisted by drawing on healthy figures of democratic polity. Stacey Abrams’ reply to Trump’s 2019 State of the Union address, for example, advanced an image of racial complementarity within a complex of values of inclusion, fairness, hard work, opportunity, community, justice, and mutual benefit.

A Case of Dissent for Democratic Renewal

Dissent’s contribution to democratic renewal is illustrated in the discourse of the new Poor People’s Campaign as examined by Stephen Rahko and Byron Craig. Rahko and Craig focus on the value of equality and the use of the biblical genre of the Jeremiad as a form of prophetic dissent, specifically resistance to Christian nationalism.

The featured voice of the campaign is Bishop Dr. William J. Barber II. He speaks on behalf of the new Poor People’s Campaign, a 21st century pursuit of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s vision of rescuing people relegated structurally to poverty. Barber’s sermon, “We Are Called to Be a Movement,” delivered on June 3, 2018, launched the initiative.

Christian nationalism, deeply embedded in US history and culture, is linked to Trumpism and its supporters, including evangelical Christians, white nationalist terrorist groups, and insurrectionists. It operates at the cultural epicenter of illiberal populism, fusing “American identity with a narrow and ultraconservative strain of Christianity” to glorify white, heterosexual patriarchy and impose ethnocentric restrictions on “legal citizenship and cultural belonging” of others.

According to Christian nationalists, America was founded as a Christian nation; its chosen people are those who adhere to the orthodox teachings of the Christian church. This is God’s covenant with America. Cultural pluralism and secularization constitute a falling away from the covenant, a perversion of atheists and infidels marked by sexual depravity, abortion, murder, and single-parent households, resulting in the displacement of real, natural-born, white, culturally conservative Christians. Christian nationalism’s battle of good over evil “baptizes authoritarian rule” and the righteous violence that entails.

Barber’s dissent from Christian nationalism treats the story of Israel as a metaphor of universal significance for bondage and suffering, whether it occurs, as Rahko and Craig report, “under Egyptian slavery, American slavery, colonialism, or capitalist wage slavery.” Drawing on the metaphor of bondage, Barber advances the biblical lesson that “God uses the rejected to lead the moral revival of nations.” Barber’s history of rejected and oppressed peoples in the US includes “indigenous Native Americans, slaves and their Black descendants, women, poor whites, immigrants and ethnic minorities, and sexual minorities.” These are God’s chosen people suffering from a legacy of violence and united across multiple differences in a covenant of equality.

God’s chosen people are the rejected, not their privileged oppressors. An unjust political system allows the rich and powerful to prey on the poor. The list of indictments, as summarized by Rahko and Craig, includes “extreme wealth inequality, lack of healthcare coverage, assaults on voting rights and immigrant communities,” and “excessive military spending at the expense of public education and healthcare.”

In terms of the biblical Jeremiad, this list of indictments amounts to a falling away from God’s covenant. It is Christian nationalism’s heresy that threatens American liberal democracy, which can only be redeemed by redoubling the country’s fidelity to the real covenant through funding universal healthcare, providing housing, protecting voting rights and civil rights, and revising tax codes to end extreme poverty and extreme wealth inequality.

Democracy by Dissent

Here we see an example of dissent’s double gesture. The sharp, disruptive edge of Barber’s dissent is an indictment of cultural heresy, of perverting a covenant with God. The reassuring refrain of Barber’s dissent is a call to redeem the country’s political soul by renewing its commitment to equality and dedicating resources to social justice for the displaced people of God’s covenant. Barber’s dissent articulates a tenuous but potentially augmented opening for considering claims on behalf of otherwise ignored, marginalized, or suppressed people consistent with the democratic value of equality. His dissent cannot stand alone as a barrier to authoritarianism. Its value in the present context, though, is as an example of dissent on behalf of democratic renewal.

Barber’s Jeremiad is one example on one topic of dissent from authoritarianism—no more, no less. Not everything democratic reduces to race and poverty and associated issues of marginalization, nor is sermonizing the only vehicle of resistance to tyranny. Democratic dissent’s double gesture extends broadly to topics, cases, and genres throughout the tortured landscape of authoritarian demagoguery.

The double gesture of dissent resists polarization and promotes deliberation by creating openings in a mindset otherwise closed to reevaluation and revision. That is its function; it does not always succeed. Without it, though, democracy gives way to authoritarian demagoguery. In the final analysis, dissent is the heartbeat of democracy, and resistance to authoritarianism is democracy’s ongoing struggle to survive.

For footnotes, please see a version hosted by the author here.

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