By Dr. Jessica Johnson
Johnson is a political theorist with the University of Virginia’s Democracy Initiative.
When President Donald J. Trump accepted the Republican nomination for president, he called the Democratic left “a radical movement.” Many Republican convention speakers also used the term “radical Democrats” to criticize the attitudes, actions and policies of the Democratic presidential candidate and members of the party and its supporters.
One must view the term radical, however, with a critical eye, given the charges of treason Trump and his backers have frequently launched at those investigating or criticizing his administration. Officials in his administration have also called government scientists “seditious” for failing to align with Trump’s COVID-19 statements on mask use, treatment and vaccine timetables and have proposed that Black Lives Matter protestors who broke the law be charged with sedition.
In this political context, the use of the term radical suggests that those who are labeled radicals are also “rebels.” But who are the real rebels? This question was addressed by a political thinker whose language and arguments echo in the U.S. Declaration of Independence.
John Locke, the 17th century author of the Second Treatise of Government, wrote that the only form of legitimate political power is that which is consented to by the people. The consent between the people and their government is called a “social contract.” Political power exercised beyond the boundaries of the contract is tyranny. “Tyranny is the exercise of power beyond right,” he wrote.
The point of the contract is to set the terms for the use of political power so that it is not exercised arbitrarily. Locke’s work around the time of England’s 1688 Glorious Revolution helped establish a constitutional monarchy.
Several phrases in his Second Treatise are repeated verbatim in the Declaration of Independence, and many of his arguments provided the grounds for the American founding fathers’ political resistance.
For Locke, the rule of law was crucial to the freedom of the individual. As such, those in authority who abused their power and ignored or broke the law were acting as tyrants. “Wherever law ends, tyranny begins,” he argued. If this happened, the people had a right and even a duty to resist.
Therefore, just as the phrase “all men are created equal” has a Lockean resonance, with a profound and continuing presence in American political thought and law, so too does his language of resistance.
The centrality of resistance in Locke’s thought meant that he also needed to make the argument that his ideas about the limits of political power were not a recipe for constant political upheaval.
He acknowledged that those entrusted with public office do make mistakes or act badly, sometimes even engaging in “manifest acts of tyranny.” But if unconcerted and under ordinary circumstances such acts would not “disturb” or cause the people to resist.
Yet, if such “illegal” acts extend to the majority of the people or, as he says, “if the mischief and oppression” appear to only affect a minority but “the precedent” such actions set and the “consequences seem to threaten all,” the groundwork has been laid for the people to resist the “illegal force.”
As Locke said in a familiar refrain, “if a long train of abuses, prevarications and artifices, all tending the same way, make the design visible to the people, and they cannot but feel, what they lie under, and see wither they are going; ‘tis not to be wonder’d that they should then rouse themselves” and resist.
In many ways the current occupant of the White House is the radical. It is radical to have the United States president channel public funds to enrich his own businesses. It is radical to hold a political campaign event at the White House. It is radical to undermine relationships between long-time global democratic allies and embrace authoritarian leaders. It is radical to order the Department of Homeland Security to send its officers into a domestic city to tear gas and arrest protestors. Moreover, the president has routinely violated democratic norms, if not intentionally flouted the laws.
Locke argued that it is the people themselves who need a “fence against rebellion.” The right to exercise the powers of public office are “founded only in the constitution and laws of government,” and rebellion is an act that abuses that authority.