Politics & Policy

Civil Disobedience: Citizens Pushing Back

Americans have some recourse against Obama’s shutdown theater.

This American government — what is it but a tradition, though a recent one, endeavoring to transmit itself unimpaired to posterity, but each instant losing some of its integrity? It has not the vitality and force of a single living man, for a single man can bend it to his will.

— Henry David Thoreau, “Civil Disobedience”

Democracy isn’t a machine — it’s a dance. And as much as we all admire Thomas More’s famous speech in A Man for All Seasons — “I’d give the Devil the benefit of the law, for my own safety’s sake!” — the fact is we ignore the law all the time: Sammy Hagar can’t drive 55, and I have a sneaking suspicion that many bartenders receiving cash tips do not report every last penny to the IRS. The people we elect to represent us come to believe that they are there to rule us, and we push back against being ruled, sometimes in penny-ante ways, sometimes more dramatically, as with the recent outburst of civil disobedience in Washington, D.C., where veterans and other righteously cheesed-off citizens tore down the barricades surrounding our national monuments and deposited them in front of the White House, as excellent a gesture of the American spirit as our increasingly docile nation has seen in years.

Every American has a little sedition in his soul, and this is a very good time to give it free rein.

There is a finely calibrated bargain at the heart of a republic: Citizens have a duty to obey the lawful and legitimate mandates of the government, including those with which they disagree, and the government has a duty to see to it that its actions are lawful and legitimate. The people have an obligation to be prudent and circumspect about engaging in civil disobedience, and the government has a responsibility to be scrupulous with its powers. That contract has been violated by the White House.

The Obama administration, which already had a well-established reputation for taking a largely arbitrary attitude toward the rule of law, has sunk further in the public’s estimation with its unnecessary, unjustified, and possibly illegal campaign to use the shutdown as an excuse to harass citizens for the sake of political theater. The barricading of monuments in our nation’s capital is neither lawful nor legitimate. It is far from clear that the administration has the legal authority to evict Americans from public spaces, it is crystal clear that there is no real reason for it to do so in a great many cases, and it is more than clear that its reasons for doing so have nothing to do with public safety or financial necessity. It is a guiding principle of government ethics that using public resources for political purposes is not only wrong but categorically wrong. It is a serious breach of the public trust. When the government is taking actions that are self-evidently wrong, it is right and proper for the people to push back.

When the mayor of Blount County, Tenn., protests the closing of a school-bus route passing through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, citing the Declaration of Independence and warning the feds not to “push the people to the line,” he is carrying on a great American tradition, as are the “trespassers” — as if we could trespass on our own land — who tweeted mocking photos from Gettysburg captioned “Catch us if you can.” And civil disobedience does not have to be destructive or disruptive: Outlaw maintenance man Chris Cox has been mowing grass and clearing leaves across the District of Columbia. And the Park Service peon who fined a jogger $100 for running through Valley Forge — as open and public a space as you will find — is exactly the sort of officious little nobody that it is our national duty to keep far away from even that modest position of power. Mark Steyn’s indictment — that the Park Service “has spent the last two weeks behaving as the paramilitary wing of the DNC” — is precisely right. Once this is over, the Park Service should be made to answer some uncomfortable questions in front of Congress about the origins of its orders and the principles guiding its actions. Heads should roll.

Since the administration has seen fit to provide the public with an ample supply of barricades, it would be an excellent thing if the angry crowds marching in Washington this week would use them to surround the White House and show President Obama what a shutdown really is. If the president wants shutdown theater, he shouldn’t get to have the stage to himself — we have a cast of thousands.

It’s a dance — but we can never let them forget who leads.

— Kevin D. Williamson is the roving correspondent for National Review and the author of the recently published The End Is Near and It’s Going to Be Awesome.


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