Understanding the Public Sphere - Issue #6: A Contested Space

In 2018, the Trump administration’s Department of Homeland Security began implementing a “zero tolerance” policy for asylum seekers at the border that forcibly separated parents and children (some of whom have still, four years later, not been reunited). The policy, though vigorously defended by CNN contributor Sara Isgur, was deeply traumatizing to the children, creating unnecessary fear and pain during an already dehumanizing process of awaiting judgement on asylum claims.

In the midst of this policy, a group of protesters confronted DHS Secretary Kristjen Nielsen as she, rather pointedly, ate at a Washington, DC Mexican restaurant.

At the time, some businesses were denying service to Trump administration officials, like when Sarah Huckabee Sanders was politely asked by the manager of a restaurant in Virginia to eat elsewhere. Or, when senior Trump aide Stephen Miller, famous for his vehement attacks on Latino immigration, was reportedly called a fascist while also eating at a Mexican restaurant. Even pro-Trump media figures like Tucker Carlson faced people chantingoutside his mansion in Washington, DC, for a night.

Many media figures denounced these acts of public protest. Using calls to civility, saying eating in public should be off-limits from protests, many professional commentators in the media claimed that these incidents demonstrated an alarming decline in civic virtues in the US.

An Asymmetry of Outcry

Of course, such outcry never accompanied the rather vicious incivility demonstrated by the President and his team, both toward media figures and often toward private individuals.

The issue of civility seemed to vanish during the pandemic, when conservatives issued promises of violence and death threats to public health officials, election officials who did not join the right wing election lie, and school board members. The wave of violence included beatings, family harassment, and rape threats… all to mostly silence by the same media commentators who were aghast that an official was yelled at while she ate dinner. This happened even as the Republican Party became increasingly defined by its reliance on threats of violence while pursuing its political agenda at the local level, using such violent rhetoric to push non-compliant officials out of public life.

After the Supreme Court voted along partisan lines to overturn 50 years of abortion law, protests appeared outside Brett Kavanaugh’s house to hold signs and chant slogans. The response from Congress was swift: within days, a bipartisan bill to increase security for the Supreme Court justices passed by large majorities.

Just like the outcry over Trump officials being protested at dinner, the outcry over Justice Kavanaugh’s house being protested ignored the decades of threats, disruption, violence and terrorism – to include morethan one mass shooting and at least one assassination (at church!). These ongoing acts of violence simply do not garner the same amount of hand-wringing, condemnation, and blanket media coverage as disrupting an official’s dinner does, perhaps because the targets do not have the profile and rolodex to garner the same degree of coverage.

Now, this week Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh was confronted with protests over his role in denying abortion access to millions of women, as he ate dinner at a DC-area Morton’s Steakhouse. The owner of Morton’s was outraged, citing a “the freedom at play of the right to congregate and eat dinner” and saying the protest was “devoid of decency.”

The “decency” of using specious, contradictory argument to overturn decades of women having a say in whether they are pregnant or not, of course, goes unremarked upon.

Public Sphere, Public Protest

The reason the figures mentioned above – a DHS secretary, a White House spokesperson, a White House aide, a Supreme Court Justice – were subjected to public protest is because they have enormous power over a public that has no way of holding them accountable. Supreme Court Justices are on the bench for life, and absent a highly unlikely vote of impeachment and conviction, will never be removed unless they choose to. Aides and officials can set policy while lying to defend them, and the public cannot vote them out except indirectly at quadrennial elections.

In ordinary times, the presumption of good faith in democratic systems makes this insulation from direct accountability manageable: after all, if a politician wants to be re-election, then in theory that politician would cull staff who become too controversial or who whip up too much public anger. But, when one of the two major parties in the US adopts bad faith as a guiding principle – no reasoning, just power – then this indirect process of accountability breaks down. When people revel in being unaccountable bullies, it becomes hard to figure out what to do about it.

This is the role that such public protests play. In the ordinary course of doing business, the public has no means to directly speak to federal officials who are abusing their power to oppress people – the women who are being denied life-saving medications because they might be abortifacients can’t exactly pick up the phone to tell Justice Kavanaugh what he’s doing to them. The barriers erected around the Supreme Court prevent people from showing up to a traditional protest to make their voices heard – and besides which, wouldn’t change the ruling anyway.

A public sphere relies on what’s called a dialogic process – two (ish) parties, with equal chances to speak and be heard. Removing huge policy decisions from the democratic process, a consequence of the breakdown of Congress and the concentration of power in the executive and judicial branches, removes opportunities for the general public to make its needs known. It is a breakdown of the public sphere.

That is one way to understand why protests against national officials garners so much media attention, while violence against non-officials garners almost none: the media who made decisions about what events get publicized see their role in the public threatened when someone else assumes the power to hold them to account. A group of partisans attacking private individuals does not threaten that power. The stakes feel different from the editor’s desk in New York or Washington, DC.

But more importantly, these public protests (there is no right to privacy during dinner out in public) are examples of the public sphere reasserting itself. They are various spheres of American life, whether immigration rights, reproductive rights, or whatever other group is shouting to be heard, demanding that the public figures who discard their perspective listen. It is a reminder to them that they do not rule in a vacuum, but in a society… one that can fight back, if it’s bad enough.

So while there will be the inevitable hand wringing about the “end of civility” or what have you, I see these protests are something much more hopeful: people in the US are not abandoning democracy, as many like to fret. Rather, they are demanding democracy, demanding that they not be ignored when isolated people make decisions about them they do not consent to.

It is the sign of a healthy public sphere… or at least, the demand for one.

comments powered by Disqus