Protest, tolerance, and stability

Liberal democracies adopt some degree of tolerance for organized protest.  Demonstrations of hundreds of thousands on the Washington Mall are permitted, protected, and scheduled.  They take place routinely with no threat to the stability of the Republic.  This was, as I pointed out this weekend, part of Madison’s design for stability.

It’s not something to take for granted.  This weekend’s reporting also features two stories of national governments grappling with their, more limited, boundaries of tolerance.  Authorities in India, the world’s largest democracy, launched a preemptive campaign of  arrests, taking anti-corruption activist Anna Hazare and 1,200 of his supporters into custody before Hazare could start a hunger strike and stage demonstrations.  According to the New York Times, most of the would-be demonstrators were released in relatively short order, but Hazare remains in prison because he refuses to promise not to start a fast.  Indeed, he’s begun a hunger strike in prison.  (On fast politics, see this and this.)

And in China, which continues to negotiate how much economic liberalization can take place without significant political openings, officials have announced a harsh security crack-down in Xinjiang, a western province with a separatist movement.  As the New York Times reports, human rights activists say the national government’s efforts at repression and political indoctrination have, unsurprisingly, fed the separatist movement, and strengthened the resolve of the regime’s opponents.

But it’s not just separatists.  More than 12,000 demonstrators assembled in Dalian to call for the shut-down of a chemical plant.  More generally, they were demanding more responsive governance.  And, at least presently, that’s a threat to China’s Communist Party.

Contrast either case with comparable issues in the United States.  Hunger strikers are often ignored by the general public.  If they are prisoners, they can be forcefed.  Public protests against what people see as environmental threats are, if not ubiquitous, certainly common.  In the best of cases for activists, policy responses are, uh, measured.  Usually, it’s less than that.

Madison’s insight, as discussed in the previous post, was that tolerance of dissent and the messiness of popular politics was a better route to stability than repression.  (Note: US officials haven’t always remembered this.)

About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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