Is civil disobedience undemocratic?


A few cases demonstrating when democracy can break down are illustrated here. Representative democracies will not necessarily mirror the characteristics of the electorate which causes particular groups to be misrepresented. Voting systems neither take into account the intensity of a group’s preferences. The classic case of the 40-60 outcome where the 40 feel very strongly about the issue and lose to an apathetic majority justifies civil disobedience as it demonstrates the power of the minority’s resentment. Furthermore, other groups in society may not benefit from democracy and are therefore left out.

This is demonstrated through children and animals who are submitted to obey the law although have no say in its creation. The acts of animal activists or adults participating in civil disobedience on behalf of children are acceptable as these groups may not have their voices heard otherwise (Hoffman and Graham, 2009: 436). Therefore due to the flawed nature of democracy, civil disobedience is completely legitimate. The true nature of civil disobedience is to try and ‘fix’ democracy through either two actions: the reform of a law or the complete removal of it (Brownlee, 2004: 346).

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Most importantly the civilly disobedient must have attempted all legitimate processes to overturn a law before partaking in civil disobedience. By going through this process, it shows that the actors have respected the system which has failed to find a solution (Van Dusen, 1969: 124 & Thoreau, 1849 as cited in H. A. Bedau, 1991: 33). Markowits (2005: 1929) outlines this in his essay, promoting the idea of ‘democratic deficit’ which results from the pure practice of democracy.

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These deficits are often the object of civil disobedience as the civilly disobedient target these areas and force a change of opinion through the members of government by appealing to the sense of justice of the majority. A new phenomenon known as electronic civil disobedience exemplifies a new form of civil disobedience with the same traditional aims of past movements. Here the notion of ‘hacktivism’ has bread a new form of civil disobedience as democracy, and its flaws, have further propagated themselves through the use of technology such as the internet.

Electronic civil disobedience targets these areas which would previously have been inaccessible to ‘fix’ (Manion and Goodrum, 2000: 15). The flawed nature of democracy creates ‘democratic deficits’. Civil disobedience targets these areas in an attempt to ‘fix’ them and ameliorate the system as a whole. The concept of absolutism dictates that civil disobedience is wrong, however, this claim is faced with a number of problems. Socrates pointed out in his dialogue with Crito that the notion of any form of civil disobedience towards the state greatly undermined society (Plato).

While absolutists argue that the state’s legitimacy and her laws lay in the necessity of social order, we must simply realise that not all laws are essential to social order. In this illustrated example of a Venn diagram (figure a) morals and laws remain separated from each other albeit a few areas where they cross over which are known as ‘moral laws’. It is in this organisation of laws and morals that civil disobedience may try to rectify the laws which go against moral values (Spitz, 1954: 399). By civilly disobeying a law, we hope to withdraw or alter a law which is morally unjust.

Therefore the absolutist claim that disobeying one law destroys the legitimacy of the state is wrong as laws and morals remain largely separated from each other. Another argument by the absolutists centres on the state’s legitimacy given that a transfer of power from its citizens to the political elite has taken place and that we tacitly consent to follow these conventions if we do not show any disagreement. However, if we look at Barach and Baratz’s (1962) two dimensional view of power we can see how this reasoning fails.

An individual may covertly oppose her government although she does not voice her opinion about it. This in no way shows tacit consent. Therefore, the absolutist’s claim that civil disobedience is an attempt against the entire system of order is false. Civil disobedience is a topic which appeals to the many for its practical character- perhaps because history has shown that democracy will not guarantee a fully just society due to human nature. However, civil disobedience remains and will remain a legitimate voice of opinion in any democracy.

This can be seen through the problems that democracy brings with her, the way civil disobedience attempts to ameliorate democracy and the failure of absolutism to condemn civil disobedience. Though its faults, civil disobedience is never undemocratic.

Bibliography – Barach, P. and Baratz, M. (1962) ‘Two Faces of Power’, American Political Science Review, 56:4, pp. 947-542. – Bondarchuk, Sergei (1978) War and Peace, Film. – Brownlee, Kimberley (2004) ‘Features of a Paradigm Case of Civil Disobedience’, Res Publica, 10:4, pp.337-351. – Hoffman, John and Graham, Paul (2009) Introduction to Political Theory, Second Edition, Pearson Education, pp. 429-449. – Lewis H. Van Dusen, Jr. (1969) ‘Civil Disobedience:

Destroyer of Democracy’, Journal of the American Bar Association, Vol. 5, pp. 123-126. – Manion, Rum and Goodrum, Abby (2000) ‘Terrorism or civil disobedience: toward a hacktivist ethic’, ACM SIGCAS Computers and Society, 30:2, pp. 14-19. – Markowits, Daniel (2005) ‘Democratic Disobedience’, Yale Law Journal, Vol. 114, pp. 1897-1948.- Montesquieu, Charles de Secondat Baron de (1748), (translation by Nugent, Thomas)

“The Spirit of Laws”, Public Domain Edition (1914), London: G. Bell and Sons Ltd. – N. S. Gill (no date), Aristotle on Politics, http://ancienthistory. about. com/cs/greekfeatures/a/democracyaristl. htm, accessed 8 November 2009. – Plato, Crito (translation by B. Jowett), “The Republic,” http://classics. mit. edu/Plato/republic. html, accessed 8 November 2009. – Princeton (no date), ‘Definition of Civil Disobedience’, website, available at wordnetweb.priceton. edu/perl/webwn, accessed 9 November 2009. – Rawls, J. (2003) ”

A Theory of Justice,” Revised Edition, Harvard: Harvard University Press. – Spitz, David (1954) ‘Democracy and the Problem of Civil Disobedience’, The American Political Science Review, 48:2, pp. 386-403. – Thoreau, 1849 as cited in Bedau, Hugo Adam (1991) “Civil Disobedience in Focus,” London: Routledge. – Wikipedia (no date),’Definition of Democracy’, website, available at en. wikipedia. org/wiki/Democracy, accessed 9 November 2009.

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Is civil disobedience undemocratic?. (2020, Jun 02). Retrieved from

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