From Coercion to Compromise

Balancing Democratic Values with Civil Disobedience

Deviations from society’s status quo have historically been ostracized, penalized, and often unable to generate the change desired when collective action is employed. The protest, a civil liberty guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, can take the form of civil disobedience and often finds itself the victim of critics for such deviations. Lewis H. Van Dussen Jr’s writing Civil Disobedience: Destroyer of Democracy says in his critique of Martin Luther King Jr’s actions that he uses coercion tactics through civil disobedience to create a threat to society that degrades the quality of democracy (123). Van Dussen believes that straying outside the workings of democracy to force change through civil disobedience leads to disorder and violence that subverts the law and undermines the democratic process through its distrust for the system (125). I argue that Van Dussens conclusion lacks soundness, and civil disobedience does not subvert democracies but instead induces growth through compromise.

I will briefly define some critical terms before moving on. By coercion, I infer the shaping of one agent’s options that may not seem permissible and imposes their deliberation of a particular outcome. By democracy, I am referring to the guidelines that define a representative democracy found in the U.S. where one elects representatives with the intended effect of insuring, very broadly, the guarantees of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all residents and citizens. These rights would fall under human law guidelines as laid out by Saint Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica.

Van Dussen’s argument is not with protest per se, but the method towards compromise it entails. When used as a form of civil disobedience, he feels that it brings tension to invoke discussion and compromise. In his opinion, King was attempting to affect the democratic process via coercion. However, Van Dussen’s argument relies on the premise of an effective functioning democracy. He believes that if democracy is functioning as defined earlier, civil disobedience disrupts this process as an overreaction and encourages violence while undermining the very democracy it intends to preserve (126). To Martin Luther King Jr., the democratic system was broken by failing to ensure all African Americans the guarantees of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These failures lay with the restrictions of civil liberties and civil rights as manifested through Jim Crow laws. Thus Van Dussen’s premise of a properly functioning democracy at this time lacks truthfulness and makes his conclusion unsound.

I further contend that civil disobedience does not subvert democracies but rather induces growth through compromise. Consider the notion that if something is broken, it requires fixing. To fix the problem may require specific tools, and it is only upon the usage of these tools that one can expect a resolution to the issue. In the argument for Dr. King, I would state: The democratic system was fractured throughout southern states and local municipalities by denying African Americans their civil rights guaranteed by the U.S. constitution. At the same time, elected officials failed to correct this. The constitution is also the guaranteer of the right to free speech and assembly, the tools required to fix it. The usage of these tools creates tension that forces discussion and compromises, leading to the correction of the breakdowns within democracy with the passage of the Civil Rights Act, balancing out the failures in the democratic system and growing our democracy. In this example, civil disobedience was not merely a disruption to the normal democratic process but rather a tool devised by the U.S. constitution to restore what was broken and promote a more effective functioning democratic society at this juncture in American history.

Dusen Jr, Lewis H. Van. “Civil Disobedience: Destroyer of Democracy.” American Bar Association Journal (1969): 123–126.

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