When some politicians, in the days after January 6, 2021, defended the mob that invaded the Capitol Building as just good Americans exercising their right to dissent it compelled me to reflect deeply on the nature of dissent. How does it work? How should it be expressed? What does it mean for democracy? Why did the founders include the right to dissent in the First Amendment?
The United States was founded as an experiment to see if a people could rule themselves within a democratic/republican form of government. The framers of the Constitution wanted to ensure all Americans that their rights would be protected in the new republic. If their rights were violated, the people had the remedy to protest for those rights, and thus they wrote “the right of the people peacefully to assemble and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances” in the First Amendment. Dissent was viewed as an essential part of the process for moving the United Sates in the direction of a “more perfect union,” a more perfect democracy. Thus it is essential that the practice of dissent coincides with the bedrock principles enumerated in the Constitution. If it does not, if its purpose is to deny constitutionally-guaranteed civil and personal liberties to any segment of the population, then it endangers democracy. Dissent that expands democracy, that moves us closer toward being the nation we proclaim and aspire to be, is legitimate.
However, dissent that establishes elites, empowers the powerful, and prevents portions of the population from enjoying political and civil rights is contrary to the United States’ core principles.
There is a difference between dissenters whose goal is to create a more just society by expanding the rights of the disempowered, and those who are only interested in reducing or even denying those rights. Dissent in the United States must be an agent for strengthening democracy. Otherwise, it is anti-American. It is not acceptable just to protest for self-interested ends that deny the rights of citizenship to others or seek to maintain the power structure that is based on white supremacy. On January 6th , thousands of Americans, believing the misinformation and lies they were fed, stormed the Capitol in an effort to overturn an election. They were not fighting for rights that were denied them. They were fighting an illusion, a chimera. It was a scene evocative of Don Quixote charging windmills. January 6th was not much different from the Ku Klux Klan after the Civil War. The Capitol Hill invasion was meant to instill fear and terror, not inspire political discourse. It was a violent means to resist the change that the participants detested.
So, what is American dissent? For more than twenty years this is a question I have researched, written about, taught every semester, and organized weekly teach-ins for dissenters to give voice to grievances. I thought I knew what dissent was. And wasn’t. But the events of January 6, 2021 and the MAGA Republicans’ (even those who were taking refuge in the Capitol’s cellar as the mob stormed the Senate and House of Representatives seeking to overturn the election) characterization of the invaders as merely patriotic Americans exercising their right to dissent compelled me to reevaluate everything I’ve thought about dissent in America. Dissent is protesting against the status quo, minorities fighting for rights, the disempowered opposing the powerful, concerned citizens resisting arbitrary laws and opposing policy decisions of lawmakers. But January 6th caused me to pause and forced me to rethink how dissent is defined at the present moment, even to question my own definition of dissent. My new book, American Patriots: A Short History of Dissent, is the result of that reconsideration.
The United States is a product of dissent. In the seventeenth century thousands of religious dissenters, Puritans, Quakers, and others, left England and founded colonies in North America. And as early as 1636, in Massachusetts Bay Colony, dissent rose up against the Puritan authorities. Roger Williams was one of the first of these dissenters protesting for separation of church and state and freedom of religion against the implacable intolerance of the magistrates and ministers of the colony. During the eighteenth century, as the colonies expanded, political dissent against the arbitrary rule of king and parliament ignited the fires of the American Revolution. With the establishment of the United States and the ratification of the Constitution, the founders made sure that the right to dissent (along with separation of church and state, religious liberty, and freedom of the press) was guaranteed in the First Amendment. Ever since, dissent has been a central feature of the American experiment in democracy. And most dissenters, believing deeply in the founding principles, sought to expand democracy. Women protested for the right to vote. Workers protested for the right to organize. Abolitionists protested against slavery. Indigenous people protested against encroachment on their lands. Every war in American history has had its protesters. And during the twentieth century every minority group in the United States protested to gain equal rights: African Americans, Latina/o peoples, Native Americans, LGBTQ+ individuals, Asian Americans, undocumented immigrants. On top of that there have been dissenters who have protested against the values and moral standards of their time: transcendentalists and utopian visionaries in the nineteenth century, “Beatniks” and “hippies” in the twentieth. Dissent, in many ways, has been the fuel for the engine of progress. Yet every dissent movement has also produced its own dissenters as many of their fellow citizens protested against the changes wrought by activists: anti-suffragists, nativists, the Ku Klux Klan, the pro-life movement.
So, how do we define dissent? On the most basic level, dissent is going against the grain. It is speaking out and protesting against “what is,” whatever that is is. But it is more complex than that. Religious dissenters have protested against restrictions on their particular beliefs, particularly in the debates over school prayer, abortion, capital punishment, and laws compelling them to observe LGBTQ+ rights. Political dissenters have protested governmental policies and laws: abolitionists against laws supporting slavery, isolationists protesting Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Lend/Lease program, civil rights activists against the Jim Crow Laws. And cultural and social dissenters have protested against the prevailing assumptions and values of their times and demonstratively “do their own thing.” Most often dissenters cite the nation’s founding documents as the authority to back up the legitimacy of their protest. In their fight for more equality, more moral rectitude, or more freedom they have pushed America to live up to what it had committed itself to on paper. They view the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution as binding contracts between the people and the government and when the government fails to fulfill its obligations they have protested.
Clearly, dissent in a country that purports to be a democracy must embrace the lofty ideals that the United States has proclaimed in its founding documents. Authentic dissenters believe they are acting to make sure the United States is truly a democracy that protects everyone’s natural rights. And even conservative dissenters, like those who have protested against abortion rights, are legitimately concerned with America’s noble ideals. Conservative dissent plays the positive role of forcing us to slow down the process of change and think carefully about whether that change is good or might have unanticipated negative consequences. However, there are those who use dissent as a smokescreen to conceal their true design of limiting democracy for their personal benefit. Reactionaries have historically resisted change and fought to maintain the special privileges and supremacy of their class or race or gender. Some have wanted to turn back the clock to a simpler, more “trouble-free” time. A prime example of this was the rise of the Ku Klux Klan at the end of the Civil War. Members of the Klan protested against the new reality of a slave-free society by finding ways to maintain white supremacy. But this was not dissent. In a campaign of terror and violence, Klansmen rode through the South threatening and murdering freedmen and creating a climate that kept Black people subservient for a century. This was terrorism, pure and simple. The Klan was not interested in the moral issue of extending democracy to all Americans. Its motivating force was to constrict democracy by making sure that African Americans were denied equal rights and thus strengthen their own dominance. If dissent is defined merely as opposing the status quo, challenging the way things are without regard to broader moral issues, then the Klan could be categorized as a dissent organization. The post-Civil War status quo was that former slaves were legally free and equal. The Klan opposed the rising status of Black people and sought to restore white supremacy. But white supremacy was always at the heart of social relations in the South. Turning back the clock in this way is therefore not a “legitimate” form of dissent. It is simply a disguised continuation of the effort to defeat the original dissenters who opposed slavery.
The history of the United States can be regarded as the steady expansion of Jefferson’s phrase “All Men Are Created Equal” to embrace all men, women, ethnic, racial, gender, and sexual minorities. As we grew as a nation political and civil rights have expanded from propertied white men to include groups that were not regarded as equal in 1776. This process is the defining characteristic of the past 250 years. Reactionary, fascist terrorization does not fit into this picture. Dissent in America must have a higher purpose. Because the right to dissent is in the Bill of Rights, it is essential that it coincides with the bedrock principles of the United States. If its purpose is to deny rights to others, then it is unconstitutional. It is un-American. True, backlash against dissent is legitimate, to a point, but when it becomes terrorism or violent white supremacy, this is no longer dissent, it is an attempt to overthrow democracy.
Ralph Young is Professor of Instruction in History at Temple University. He is the author of American Patriots: A Short History of Dissent, and the editor of Make Art Not War: Political Protest Posters from the Twentieth Century and Dissent in America: The Voices That Shaped a Nation.