A New Standard of Citizen Action is Emerging. Should We Be Conflicted?

The Supreme Court nomination hearings of last Thursday and Friday were long on drama. I felt as though I was watching a combination of The West Wing and the whole Watergate saga, all rolled into one. It was a period of exceptional highs and lows for about everyone who gave a damn, on both sides of the nomination. Hang on – more to come. Much more.

The most powerful moment was when two young women, Ana Maria Archila and Maria Gallagher, confronted Senator Jeff Flake as he entered the elevator to go to the Friday session. The power and the passion (“Look at me when I am talking to you.”) was overwhelming. It surely was a major factor in the decisions Senator Flake made that day. Watch his face as the session began and as Senator Chris Coons spoke. You are watching a man deep in thought and in conflict.

Like so many other people (let the record show, not all people), I admired what these two women did and saluted their courage. They may well have been the difference in how that day went and what is yet to follow. That hundreds of others were all over Congress with similar messages is not a background detail. They provided the canvass on which this outcome was painted. They made possible that moment in the elevator.

I agreed with confronting the Secretary of Homeland Security when she went out to dine at, of all places, a Mexican restaurant, while forces under her direction were taking children away from their parents, hundreds of whom remain unaccounted for to this day. It was a shameful process and a moment of crisis. No one gets a pass.

This is citizen activism out of the #Me Too movement and others who find much of what is going on unacceptable.They are faced with public officials that will not hold town meetings, will not take meetings in their offices, and ignoring those they disagree with. People have decided to up the ante in confrontation. Citizens will not be denied. Those citizens are also running for office to replace those they find unworthy. November is likely to be a midterm unlike any we have seen in our lifetime

But this new spirit of confrontation is not a black and white good thing. It is a tactic with real risks and downsides that deserve reflection. For starters, this cuts both ways. Should anyone in government expect to be berated every time they go out in public for a family dinner? Will being in office or appointment mean that the left or the right will stalk you without relief? I don’t see how that as a blanket approach supports the common good. So, how do we draw the line?

Everyone will have to make their own judgement, of course. For my own analysis, the following works (at least for now):

If there is a genuine urgency in time (critical votes being taken immediately, families being separated with no plan to ever reunite them), then anyone in authority is fair game to be approached. Power comes with responsibility – expect to pay your dues.

If I disagree with a policy or a political philosophy, I don’t automatically have the right to shout at you and your friends at a concert. I have ways to make myself heard. There is a caveat. Do you run an operation that does not give citizens reasonable access? Then you force people to be uncivil to get your attention. You have a responsibility to ensure citizens have access, even if not as much as big contributors do.

I don’t know the full answer to this conundrum. We are presented with a classic Aristotelian dilemma. There are no absolute rules or guidelines in this. Judgement is required in every case.

In general, I think this increased citizen activism is a good thing. I have done a bit of walking the halls of Congress and the government in efforts to influence policy myself. I have often thought on those occasions that the halls of power were entirely too empty and too quiet. Those days may be behind us.

Can we build a better model? Can we empower citizens and still make service in government feel like service and not a siege? Can we pick our battles and have a civil society?

We are finding out even as this is being written. Where we will be in five years? Good luck to us all.

      Bill Clontz

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  1. Thank you for the backstory on Sen Flake’s demeanor as I only saw clips of the hearing and wondered what happened to him. Not to be flip or disrespectful to these hearings, but wake me when it’s over. Since the FBI is involved now, can a do-over be done on the Clarence Thomas’ hearings regarding Anita Hill and have FBI investigate her claims against Clarence? I know the answer, and it’s good she’s been interviewed recently to get her views on the current proceedings.

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