Liberal Democracy in Question

U.S. Political Scientists: Teach About Dissent and Civil Resistance

A great many of my political science friends and colleagues recently signed an open letter declaring that, as political scientists, they considered Donald Trump to be a threat to democracy and they opposed his election.

I have long believed this, and have worked hard, with many others, to oppose Trump.

And Trump won the election.

And many of us are shocked, frightened, and deeply concerned.

What can we political scientists who share this concern and fear do?

There are of course many things to do. We are already analyzing, and arguing, and acting.

There is so much to say, and many ways to act, to organize, as like-minded colleagues and as fellow citizens.

Yet here I want to make one simple point: in the coming weeks and months and years, one very important thing that we political scientists of all persuasions can do is to make the topics of dissent and civil resistance central to our teaching.

This is not a deep argument, and I think it is a point easily made.

Trump’s ascendancy, his rhetoric, his promised policies, and the “movement” that he has mobilized pose serious threats to constitutionalism, to liberal, pluralist democracy, and to the human rights of Americans, whether they legally are citizens or not.

This is clear.

It is also clear that there will be and ought to be resistance to Trump. It has already begun and it will continue. It will take many forms. And one of the scariest things about Trump is that he hates criticism and disparages independent journalists and the media and has a history of silencing and bullying his opponents.

Trump as candidate is one thing. Trump as President-elect is another thing. Trump as President, as Chief Executive, and Commander in Chief, is something else entirely. For come January 20, President Trump will have at his disposal a veritable monopoly on the use of force. And he will also have at his disposal a compliant media, and his Twitter account, whereby he can reach his millions of follows at a moment’s notice — as he very sharply, and ominously, observed in his recent CBS “60 Minutes” interview with Leslie Stahl.

There will thus be dissent and there will be protest and resistance and there will be repression.

And as political scientists, who teach hundreds of thousands if not millions of undergraduates every year about politics, we have a responsibility to educate our students, and perhaps broader publics as well, about the history and legality and productivity and dynamics of dissent and civil resistance, which are absolutely central features of modern politics.

Our students who will dissent and protest deserve to be seriously engaged, and educated, about the history and politics of dissent and protest.

Our students who support Trump, and who will oppose the dissent and the protest, deserve to be seriously engaged, and educated, about the history and politics of dissent and protest.

All political scientists know that these things are important. But in fact most of us do not treat these themes as central to our teaching. And that is because most of us, most of the time, center our teaching on the workings of political institutions and on the empirical and normative requisites of citizenship under the legitimate authority of a state. We teach about institutions of government, and voting, and interest groups and parties, and bureaucracies. We teach about militaries and transnational advocacy groups. We teach about public policy. And as we teach about these things, some of us also incorporate discussion of the politics of dissent and civil resistance to constituted authority. But few of us regard this as central to everything we teach about politics.

Fact: dissent and civil resistance to constituted authority are increasingly central features of the political world, everywhere.

Fact: dissent and civil resistance is likely to assume greater importance in American politics in the age of Trump than they have in decades.

Fact: our President-elect disparages constitutional democracy and has mobilized a mob mentality that frightens and endangers those citizens inclined to dissent and to protest.

Value: If we are to be responsible educators in these dark times, we need to make dissent and protest central and not peripheral to the way we teach everything that we teach about politics. Whether we teach American politics or comparative politics or international relations or political theory or any other subfield topics, if we teach about politics, then our courses should include serious attention to dissent and protest.

Of course in the classroom we are teachers and not activists. Of course we must avoid prosletyzing our students, and respect the different perspectives and opinions of our students. And of course, all teaching involves an engagement, and a kind of enlightenment, and at the heart of this enlightenment is questioning. We ought to model a questioning spirit, and respect questioning, and teach about the ways that throughout history people have questioned about, written about, and acted as dissenters and protestors.

Our students need to know that dissent and disobedience is, has been, and hopefully always will be central to our political and legal traditions, our constitutional system, and our evolving history as a democratic society.

This is not the only thing that can be done. Indeed, in a political sense, my proposal is a fairly modest one.

But in our professional capacities as political scientists, we are above all writers and teachers.

And the most important, palpable, and powerful way that most of us reach others in the broader public is through our teaching and in our classrooms.

We know that dissent and disobedience are very important in a democratic society and are sure to become more important. We fear that in the coming weeks, months, and years, our political system will become more authoritarian. And we know that dissent and disobedience will become more important than they have been in a long time, and that a Trump administration is not likely to welcome this.

Let us thus do our part as educators to teach about dissent and disobedience in serious, fair, compassionate, and urgent ways.

Also for you:

Jeffrey C. Isaac

  • Emily Ritter

    Given increasing attacks on the tenure system and academic freedom in general, this may be easier said than done.

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