This last week, left-wing bullies shouted down senators in the hallways of the Capitol, stormed senatorial offices, and generally endeavored to “occupy” Congress as they once did Wall Street — all to force members of the Senate to reject Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court.
Among the many disgraces of the two weeks since Christine Blasey Ford’s accusation of sexual assault was leaked to the press, the bad behavior of protesters on Capitol Hill may seem low on the list. But it is something that we should be deeply concerned about.
The right to assemble and petition the government for redress of grievances is a cornerstone of the Anglo-American political tradition. It was enumerated in the English Bill of Rights after the Glorious Revolution, and during the period between the French and Indian War and the American Revolution, the colonists themselves made frequent use of it, writing letters to George III to protect their rights. When James Madison acquiesced to a bill of rights (for he was initially opposed to one), he made sure assembly and petition were included.
Put simply, the right to petition is the right to ask your government for things without fear that it will punish you merely for asking. Similarly, the right to assemble is the right to do so in a public forum, without fear that the government will harm you. These fit perfectly into the spectrum of rights protected by the First Amendment, which broadly establishes the unfettered formation of public opinion as the great bulwark of republican government.
But the First Amendment does not grant carte blanche to assemble and petition. In fact it is the only pair of rights listed therein that contains a limitation. We have to assemble and petition peaceably. We the people have a right to come together to voice our complaints to our elected officials, but we do not have the right to behave like a mob.
And a mob was what we saw in Congress over the last ten days. Demonstrators were rude, crude, and abusive. They got in the faces of members of Congress and disrupted the business of the national assembly. Thank goodness there was no violence. Were it not for the superlative work of the Capitol Police, there probably would have been.
This is not republican government in action. In fact, it is the just the opposite.
Direct access to members of Congress is a good thing. And when controversial pieces of legislation are under consideration, there are no doubt going to be high passions. Back in 2010, conservative Tea Partiers protested vociferously when Obamacare was passed. That is all well and good, and insofar as progressives were behaving likewise, there is nothing objectionable. But look at how protesters confronted senators like Jeff Flake, Orrin Hatch, and Susan Collins on Capitol Hill, or how they got in Mitch McConnell and Sonny Perdue’s face at the airport. That is something different than 2010.
In a country of more than 330 million people, only a relative handful of us have the ability to assemble around the Congress and engage directly with members of the legislature as they go about their days. That unique privilege is reserved mainly for those who live in the metropolitan Washington area. The rest of us must rely on our duly elected representatives from afar, allowing them to serve as our agents in public affairs.
When protesters interfere with the legislative process in the reckless fashion they did this week, they are thus harassing not just members of Congress but all of us, for our interests in government cannot be realized if our members are being harried and bullied. This is the line between the benevolent rule of the majority, which the Founders thought was essential for republican government, and the clamor of the mob, which they knew was a threat to it.
Moreover, we should all be deeply concerned about the new tactic of harassing members of Congress in their personal lives. Recently, protesters shouted at Ted Cruz until he fled his dinner in a D.C.-area restaurant. A Democratic legislative staffer revealed on the Internet the personal information of Republican senators who supported Brett Kavanaugh. Such behavior likewise endangers representative government.
The salary we pay members of Congress is incommensurate with the high level of work they perform. The main benefits that accrue to them are the enjoyment of power and esteem. These are important inducements to get good people to participate in government. They will be less likely to do so if they cannot enjoy a quiet evening out, or if they worry that their family’s personal information is not secure.
What is especially concerning is that high-level liberals are encouraging this kind of behavior. As the Kavanaugh battle raged, ThinkProgress editor Ian Millhiser took to Twitter to encourage his followers to “confront Republicans where they eat, where they sleep, and where they work until they stop being complicit in the destruction of our democracy.” This was exactly backward: Petty harassment of legislators and mob-like behavior in the halls of government are themselves destructive to our form of government. Since ours is a representative republic, the only way that we have any power is if our members of Congress are free to act according to the wishes of their constituents. If they are getting bullied by malevolent protesters, they aren’t free. And if liberals intend to employ such bullying as a regular tactic, then they are the threat to our form of government, not the policies and people they are protesting.