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This summer promises protests – so spring is a good time to brush up on civics

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This summer promises protests – so spring is a good time to brush up on civics

May 21, 2024 | 4:55 am ET
By Tyler Pare
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This summer promises protests – so spring is a good time to brush up on civics
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Columbia University students participate in a pro-Palestinian encampment on their campus last month. (Stephanie Keith | Getty Images)

It is warm, and college students are off from classes. Restlessness from the winter lends itself to gathering outside at an annual high. Summer presents the perfect protest conditions for individuals who feel disaffected or passionate about a political cause. This trend is true historically and has played out over the past few summers in America. Summer 2024 is poised for protests given recent riots on college campuses, and a contentious presidential election around the corner. There is a chance that these protests will devolve into violent riots and potential insurrection.  

Most Americans do not want a summer of roiling protests that quickly turn into riots chock-full of damage to homes, businesses, public parks, and government buildings. These Americans support peaceful protests that adhere to time, place, and manner restrictions. Additionally, these Americans grow increasingly concerned with the vitriolic nature of our political rhetoric. To act as a bulwark against the potential prevalence of these riots, it would behoove these Americans to brush up on the fundamental rights and responsibilities they have under the Constitution. Therefore, they can effectively access the constitutional means to end the riotous behavior that comes at the expense of meaningful political progress. The same type of progress that was once the result of nonviolent protests like the Montgomery Bus Boycott. 

Below are a couple pertinent civic concepts to brush up on as spring gives way to summer. 

Democracy is a work in progress

Until 1776, the standard practice for political rule was monarchy. The reason is simple. Monarchies are easy to facilitate for those in power. Listen to what this person says or it is off to the dungeon or worse. Yes, this is a strawman summation of monarchical rule, and there are several historical examples of benevolent monarchs. However, compared to the intricate moving parts of democracy, monarchies pale in comparison to the level of precision needed to make governance work.  

Democracies are complex. It is a modern attempt to solve the oldest political problem – how do governments balance the public good with the good of the individual? The framers of the Constitution were astutely aware of this problem. When drafting the Constitution in the Philadelphia summer heat of 1787, they debated several plans of government that reflected a capacious knowledge of 2000 years of political history. 

Democracy is not completely modern. It had been tried several times in the ancient world, each time resulting in failure. These failures occurred because it was applied too excessively or too deficiently. In its excesses, democracy devolved into mob rule where the majority tyrannically abused the minority. In its deficiencies, democracy morphed into tyrannical rule by demagogues. To illustrate the potential faults of democracy, the Federalist Papers enumerated several examples of individuals and the public good being subsumed by tyranny in the ancient world.

Noting these historical outcomes, George Mason of Virginia proposed the Bill of Rights to guarantee the foundations of democratic rule in the modern world – individual liberty to stifle the  excesses and deficiencies of government.

These rights are the foundation upon which America has been held accountable throughout its history. Every time a generation has violated the rights of a specific group, the next generation has been willing to declare these violations as wrong and demand that we strive toward a “more perfect union.” 

President Barack Obama underlined this asymptotic approach to American justice during his farewell address when he stated, “… that’s what we mean when we say America is exceptional – not that our nation has been flawless from the start, but that we have shown the capacity to change and make life better for [all].”

What is a right?

The Bill of Rights outlines the basic package of protections each American has from a tyrannical government. These rights set limits as to what the government can and cannot do to its citizens. While this might seem like the establishment of immutable “no trespass zones,” the practical implementation of these rights is far more complex and limited than one might think.

An individual’s rights do not exist within a vacuum. As George Costanza would say, “We’re living in a society!” Consequently, democracies are constantly trying to balance where the rights of one individual end and the safety of another individual or the public begins. 

There are a near infinite number of scenarios that help illustrate this delicate balance. What is most helpful when trying to understand this balancing is to examine the language of the Bill of Rights. This language acknowledges the balancing act existing within stark limits.

Consider the The First Amendment. It reads: “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech.” Prima facie, it would appear that the First Amendment guarantees unlimited speech. After all, it literally states that the government cannot abridge “freedom of speech.”  However, if this is the case, why did James Madison not write the First Amendment as “abridging speech”? Why did he condition speech with the adjective of “freedom”?  This was done by Madison to indicate that only certain types of speech qualify as free speech. Chief among these free types are political speech and the ability to criticize the government. 

Two hundred and thirty years of laws and constitutional interpretation bear out Madison’s conditionalizing of speech. This is why you are not legally allowed to use free speech to threaten government employees, or harass someone based on his or her race or religion under Title Six of the Civil Rights Act.

Will a civics refresher help?

Acutely, a civics refresher will have little to no impact on the individuals who are locked in the recalcitrant tribalism of contemporary American politics. This brand of politics dismisses and even cheers illegal behavior as long as said behavior advances a particular tribe’s viewpoint. This allows those who demand law and order to fail at calling out their own supporters when they act violently or illegally. Both sides of the American political spectrum are rife with examples of this selective cognitive dissonance.

In the long run, cooler heads on both sides of the political spectrum must engage in a recommitment to the study of civics for the sake of future generations. A study of civics that not only incorporates institutional knowledge about the structures of American government, but the examination of constitution language. Language that reflects the virtues and vices of human nature, and the safeguards needed to balance the oldest political problem.  

Generations Z and Alpha are watching how we speak and act towards each other. These observations will become their behaviors and form their character. If all they witness is a society that engages in virulent language, castigating individuals with different political opinions as evil, what will their character be? What will democracy become? After all, the character of a democratic nation is the character of its citizens.