So let’s assume, as I considered in an earlier post, that there’s a relatively stable hierarchy of political needs among voters in democracies like the United States — a rough ranking of concerns that tend to determine voting behavior, especially in presidential elections. And let’s assume that in this ranking, “national security trumps economic policy, and economic policy trumps other issues, such as civil liberties, or campaign finance reform, or more altruistic goals like saving future generations from the consequences of severe climate change…”
That means that voters will tend to vote based on how they perceive the economy to be doing — unless there is a perceived threat to national security, in which case voters will tend to support the candidate or party that is perceived as strongest, or at least will only support candidates that are perceived as sufficiently strong, on national security. Maybe there’s something that trumps even national security — something like honor, identity, or recognition — but I’ll set that aside for the moment.
What if you, the engaged citizen, want to bring about change on some issue that is beneath the economy on the hierarchy of political needs? What if, for example, you want to see the federal government change its policies on carbon emissions? Is this a hopeless dream?
It seems to me that there are several mechanisms in our democracy for getting around the hierarchy of political needs.
First, there’s lobbying. Environmental interest groups — and their opponents — are free to try to influence the votes of legislators and the behavior of agency administrators, using a combination of financial carrots and sticks (campaign donations and threats of attack ads, etc.), attempts at persuasive reasoning (ideally drawing on subject-matter expertise that the legislator or administrator lacks), appeals to tribal affiliation (“as a [progressive / Christian / North Dakotan], you should support this…”), and so on. I assume this is how most issues end up getting addressed through government action despite having never become a pivotal issue in an election.
Lincoln famously said, “With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed.” But without public sentiment, you can still get what you want through lobbying, at least on issues that are too peripheral to show up prominently on the mass public radar.
Second, you can try going to the courts for a solution to your problem — although, if what you’re looking for is an as-yet-unrecognized constitutional right, you might have to start a social movement before judges, even ideologically sympathetic ones, will begin to take seriously your legal claim.
Third, as an alternative to courts and lobbying, there’s civil disobedience. If lobbying is the most effective tool for wealthy groups and individuals to influence government action on issues that the public doesn’t especially care about, then civil disobedience may be the most effective tool for marginalized, relatively powerless groups to do the same. As I mentioned in a recent post on Gene Sharp, civil disobedience can be a way to use opponents’ power against them. It’s a tool of political jiu-jitsu, or asymmetric political warfare. By provoking a highly visible response, such as mass arrests or mob violence, nonviolent demonstrators can draw attention to their cause, show how much the cause matters to them, and ideally force the government to address their concerns in order to bring the embarrassing protests and unsavory responses to an end — as happened in the case of the civil rights struggle in the 1960s.
Civil disobedience: the poor man’s lobbying.
Of course, there are important differences between lobbying and civil disobedience. Lobbying can work just as well for small, one-off initiatives as for large, long-term ones, while civil disobedience seems particularly suited only to the latter. Also, civil disobedience may gain its effectiveness by forcing an issue onto the public agenda — as though an issue were being pushed up the hierarchy of political needs — while lobbying often circumvents the public entirely. As I’ll discuss in a future post, one of the interesting features of civil disobedience is the necessity of attracting media attention, while lobbying thrives, like a fungus, in dark corners, protected from the scrutiny of the media.
Still. Civil disobedience, lobbying, and impact litigation all appear to be ways to provoke government action on issues where the public — or at least the contemporary American public — tends not to care very much, or at least not enough to force action from elected officials through voting.
I guess I was thinking about the similarities between civil disobedience and lobbying because of the issue of climate change, which is notoriously difficult to address because the vast negative consequences of carbon emissions will be suffered by people in the future and elsewhere, not by the voters who have the power to reduce emissions today. The idea of a hierarchy of political needs suggests that elections aren’t generally decided by voters’ commitment to altruistic issues like climate change. But viewing civil disobedience and lobbying as ways of circumventing or altering the hierarchy of political needs suggests that the situation is not hopeless.
In fact, climate change may be an issue where the relative potential of civil disobedience and lobbying will be tested, because one side (petroleum interests) relies primarily on the latter, while the other (environmentalists) relies primarily on the former.