Conflict exhaustion or democracy renaissance? The age of in-your-face activism

Alex Brandon/AP
Protesters chant as Capitol Police officers make arrests outside the office of Sen. Susan Collins (R) of Maine on Capitol Hill Sept. 24, over the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh as a Supreme Court justice. Senator Collins cast the deciding vote to make Kavanaugh the 114th justice.
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On the day before the Senate voted to confirm Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court, the atrium of the Hart Senate Office Building plays host to both opponents and supporters of the beleaguered justice. Alison Turkos, a rape survivor who spent the days leading up to the vote confronting senators in and around Washington, says she has no intention of slowing down her activism. It’s the only way to get lawmakers to listen, she says. Laura Murphy, who came to the Capitol to rally behind Justice Kavanaugh, calls the harrying of lawmakers shameful. Liberal protesters, she says, have no respect for authority or civil discourse. Welcome to the new normal: a potent mix of public outrage, political polarization, and broadband-speed publicity combining to create a deeply partisan protest culture that is seeping into every corner of American life. American democracy was always built to allow space for dissident and minority groups to air their grievances. The question now is whether the current period of highly charged political engagement will result in a stronger democracy or further split people apart. “Seeing people be politically involved is a very good thing,” says Diana Mutz, a politics professor at the University of Pennsylvania. “It’s just unfortunate that the grounds of consensus have become so small.”

Why We Wrote This

Democracies aim to turn political passions into protests and activism. Living through such a time, however, draws on civic reservoirs of patience and goodwill.

They showed up at restaurants. They rallied outside senators’ homes. They dogged officials at elevators and airports, they crowded hallways and offices on Capitol Hill, and they broadcast everything in real time on social media.

And although in the end Brett Kavanaugh became a Supreme Court justice, the activists who protested for weeks ahead of his confirmation have shown few signs of slowing down or changing their strategy.

Already Republicans are accusing them of promoting anarchy by employing “mob tactics” against conservative officials. Activists say they only want to hold those elected to represent the people accountable for their decisions and are using every tool at their disposal to do so.

Why We Wrote This

Democracies aim to turn political passions into protests and activism. Living through such a time, however, draws on civic reservoirs of patience and goodwill.

Somewhere in the middle are the bewildered casualties – like the the D.C. restaurant where protesters confronted Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas last week, or the Virginia community where one restaurateur declined to serve White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Average citizens are finding themselves suddenly caught in the center of pitched partisan battles.  

Welcome to the new normal: a potent mix of public outrage, political polarization, and broadband-speed publicity combining to create a reactionary and deeply partisan protest culture that is bleeding into every corner of American life. “It feels like a political crisis on a day-to-day basis,” says Diana Mutz, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Institute for the Study of Citizens and Politics.

We’ve seen some of this before. The country is only about 50 years removed from the turmoil and rioting that marked the civil rights movement – a chaotic era that ultimately affirmed fundamental rights for women, African-Americans, and other disenfranchised communities. American democracy was built to allow space for dissident and minority groups to air their grievances.

But social media has propagated and intensified what in the 1960s would have been covered almost exclusively by daily newspapers and nightly news programs. It has encouraged the public to participate in politics in new and exciting ways, even as it further drives a partisan wedge between them. 

The question, political analysts say, is whether the current period of highly-charged political engagement and high-profile protests will result in a stronger democracy – or further undermine the nation’s institutions and split its people apart.

“Seeing people be politically involved is a very good thing. Seeing them care enough to do these kinds of things is very positive,” Professor Mutz says. “It’s just unfortunate that the grounds of consensus have become so small … that we’re all experiencing a sense of sheer conflict exhaustion.”

'I don't know what else to do'

The Thursday before the Senate voted to confirm Justice Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, Alison Turkos took the 6 a.m. train from Brooklyn to Washington. For the next 30 hours, she all but slept on Capitol Hill: One minute, she was at the offices of Sen. Susan Collins (R) of Maine to urge the lawmaker to vote against Kavanaugh; the next she was chanting with fellow protesters on the steps of the Supreme Court.

One video shows Ms. Turkos confronting Sen. Joe Manchin (D) of West Virginia – the only Democrat to vote to confirm Kavanaugh – at an elevator, asking him why he was supporting the nominee. “How do you know how I’m going to vote?” he responds before disappearing into the lift.

On Friday morning, Turkos sits on a bench at the atrium of the Hart Senate Office Building. Her sharp black blazer and bright red lipstick project strength, but Turkos – a rape survivor – admits to feeling broken. She’s devastated that the senators put Kavanaugh on the bench. She questions putting herself through the agony of retelling, and reliving, her own trauma.

Jessica Mendoza/Christian Science Monitor
Alison Turkos of New York wears a pink button supporting Christine Blasey Ford, the Palo Alto University professor who accused Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault in testimony during his confirmation hearings, at the Hart Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C.

“But I don’t know what else to do,” Turkos says.  “The only option that’s left is for me to come to them.”

Her experience, echoed by other activists, is central to the strategies that organizations like the Center for Popular Democracy have been honing for the past year. Their idea is to train people, mostly women, to create situations where they can confront their elected officials about their concerns and broadcast the exchange to the world.

Called “bird-dogging,” the tactic draws from civil rights-era civil disobedience strategies and is meant to both hold lawmakers accountable in public spaces and empower individuals to stand up to authority.

“What you see is women who are tired of being ignored and using tactics that refuse to allow people in power to make decisions that impact our lives without looking in our eyes and recognizing us as human beings,” says Jennifer Epps-Addison, the center’s co-executive director.

From a big-picture perspective, this blend of sit-ins, street marches, and in-your-face confrontations – all amplified by social media – could be a good thing, political observers say. It motivates people, and when people are motivated, they participate in the processes that strengthen a democracy. Some exchanges, like the one between Sen. Jeff Flake (R) of Arizona and a pair of activists at an elevator, even seem to lead to direct change. The senator later agreed to give a “yes” to advancing Kavanaugh to a full vote only on the condition that the FBI conduct an investigation on the sexual assault allegations against the judge.

But Senator Flake, who is retiring, is the exception, not the rule.

“Most people, if they’re confronted in a way that they don’t expect or in a way that they don’t feel is appropriate, they’re not receptive to the message,” says Laurie Rice, a politics professor at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. “Their guard goes up. It’s, ‘How dare you do this?’ ”

Both sides dig in

Minutes before Turkos walks into the Hart Building’s foyer, Laura Murphy wanders in, wearing a navy T-shirt that proclaims, in big block letters, “I stand with Brett.” Her take on the events leading up to the justice’s confirmation? “It’s shameful,” she says. “I see a lot of disrespect for authority. I don't see civil discourse.” 

She adds that the antagonism from liberal activists has only served to fire up Republicans ahead of November’s elections, when Democrats are expected to turn out in record numbers in a bid to retake the House. Conservatives, Ms. Murphy says, “are going to come out and vote in the midterm elections. They don’t like what they see on the side of the left.”

Jessica Mendoza/Christian Science Monitor
Laura Murphy shows her support for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh with a shirt and button as she's being interviewed on Oct. 5, 2018, at the Hart Senate Office Building in Washington.

That surge underscores one short-term consequence of confrontational activism, especially when magnified by social media: Both sides tend to dig in their heels, further shrinking the odds of meaningful conversation or compromise. Some conservatives warn that by harrying public officials, protesters are endangering the very notion of representative government. “The only way that we have any power is if our members of Congress are free to act according to the wishes of their constituents,” writes political historian Jay Cost for the National Review.  

Lawmakers themselves have spoken out. Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida tweeted in defense of Senator Collins, whose decisive vote in support of Kavanaugh was met with everything from disappointment and derision to vulgar calls and violent threats. Kentucky GOP Sen. Rand Paul’s wife, Kelley, wrote in a CNN op-ed that she now keeps a loaded gun by her bed after violent encounters with protesters, including at a D.C. airport last week. Majority leader Mitch McConnell described Republican senators as being “literally under assault” during the hearings.

The Republican response has in turn further enraged the other side. Ms. Epps-Addison, who was among the protesters who confronted Senator Paul at the airport, says it’s not activists’ job to make lawmakers or even fellow citizens feel comfortable. Not when there are people suffering because of the decisions public officials make.

“Maybe they do feel attacked,” Turkos says of senators. “But guess what? I feel attacked. And if the worst attack you’re going to feel is me approaching you in an elevator, that’s the greatest thing for you.

“I have been kidnapped and raped,” she adds. “You don’t know what that’s like.”

'People don't feel heard at all'

As yet, there’s hardly incentive for anyone to back off. With the midterms a month away, candidates and supporters are doubling down on their positions. They’re using social media to boost the us-versus-them mentality, and – because the most extreme, emotional, and moralistic proclamations are often the ones with the biggest payoff – pushing the narrative that democracy itself is at stake. 

Other observers point to the fact that political participation on the upswing is ultimately strengthening, if painful, for the country.

“People are engaging. Wherever you fit on the political spectrum, we’re seeing a renaissance of democracy,” says Dana Fisher, a sociologist at the University of Maryland and author of the coming “American Resistance,” a book on Trump-era activism. “That’s got to be good.”

But it’s a political culture that leaves little room for the kind of patience or self-reflection that lead to thoughtful decisions or compromises. The pace of technological development, and therefore political churn, has made it impossible to stop and ask what the standards of our interactions with one another should be, much less set those standards. Which then leads to more shouting, less listening, and more division.

“People don’t feel heard at all,” says Deana Rohlinger, a professor of sociology at Florida State University. “’Til [our leaders] can figure out ways in which people they’re representing feel empowered, we can expect a lot more interruptions at dinner and confrontations in the elevator.”

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