It's only coming to my attention -- which probably isn't a good sign for the new "Democracy Spring" movement -- that more than 1,000 people were arrested in Washington D.C. last week for protesting outside the U.S. Capitol. It only came to my attention because some celebrities, most notably Ben and Jerry of ice cream fame, were among those arrested. Democracy Spring wants to start a mass civil-disobedience campaign across the country, disrupting campaign fundraisers and the like in order to force their two main issues, the reversal of the Citizens United decision and the rollback of perceived vote-suppression laws, onto the election agenda. While the group cites a number of American models for their movement, not all of which can be called successful, their name -- I asked myself why it isn't "American Spring" and my cynical answer was that someone must have thought that sounded like bottled water -- is meant to evoke all the "Spring" movements, not all of which can be called successful, either, that have appeared around the world since the Prague original in 1968. In practice, the intent seems to be to combine the passive resistance of the Civil Rights Movement, embodied in members' willingness to get arrested, with the fervor of the "Springs," the "color revolutions" and other "people power" movements. It all seems very naive.
"People power" would have a hard time catching on in the U.S. no matter what the cause behind it, because the legitimacy of "people power" in other places is based on the absence of "rule of law," "civil society," etc. in authoritarian or totalitarian countries. That is, the legitimacy of people power is inversely proportional to the availability of other options for expressing and organizing dissent. Where civil society does exist, or is declared to exist, you'll find that any mob is just a mob. Such a mob can be dismissed by the casual observer and the determined opponent alike, each of whom can call the mob sore losers because they can't get their way at the polls or in the courts. It may call itself "Democracy Spring" but it will be seen as a threat to democracy itself, as many if not most Americans understand the term. The civil-disobedience side of the movement is meant, presumably, to shame Americans into recognizing an injustice so glaring that people are willing to be jailed, or worse, to protest it. But while many Americans outside the south in the Sixties could plead ignorance of the racist injustice down there until the footage from Birmingham and other places got on TV, many Americans now are well aware of the injustices Democracy Spring is protesting, and doesn't see them as injustices. They see the potential for fraud at the polls as sufficient reason to demand photo i.d. from voters and remain suspicious of those making excuses for those without i.d. They see the commodification of political speech as a necessary (if not necessarily harmless) counterweight to the self-interest of the state and the iron law of incumbency. They are unlikely to be swayed from their own beliefs by the sight of kids and celebrities in handcuffs. Groups like Democracy Spring need to realize that they're up against not just money and power but belief, and that nothing they do will amount to an argument against that belief. If they're really radical, they may decide that the crisis is past the point of argument. They may decide that the belief that money is speech is not to be refuted but suppressed. If they're seen as a threat to democracy, and if they really believe in democracy, their main challenge is to show that democracy doesn't mean what the other side thinks it means, but more than Citizens United might get overturned in the process. Democracy Spring's agenda seems like small potatoes compared to the stakes involved in other people power movements, but let's reserve judgment until we see how ambitious they really are.