When Local Governments Protested the USA Patriot Act

Mass Protests over Federal Government Policy

The US Presidential of 2016 election sparked protests across the nation. There were mass demonstrations over immigration and refugee policies, pro-Trump rallies, town hall debates over health care, the Women’s March on Washington, and declarations of support for sanctuary cities, to name just a few. We have not seen such mass protests since the Tea Party in 2009.

The US has a long history of protests. Yet, local government protest (this is when city, town, or village governments vote on resolutions to symbolically denounce a federal policy) has not occurred on a large scale.

What Is Local Government Protest over federal policy?

In an article published in the Journal of Urban Affairs, we investigated local gov’t protest over the USA PATRIOT Act (United and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001). The Patriot Act came as a direct response to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and signed into law a little over a month later.

Patriotactsigning
President Bush signing the Patriot Act into law (photo by Eric Draper)

The scale of local government protest of the USA Patriot Act after 9/11

On January 7, 2002, the city council of Ann Arbor, Michigan, passed a resolution condemning aspects of the Patriot Act and, among other things, urged local law enforcement officials to not enforce parts of the law that seemed in violation of constitutionally guaranteed civil liberties. The resolution stipulated that a copy be distributed to President Bush, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, and Michigan’s members of Congress.

Two and a half months later, the city council of Denver, Colorado passed a similar resolution.

Within four months of Denver, seven local governments from a diverse group of states, including Massachusetts and North Carolina, took similar actions. As of March 2005, close to 300 places (as defined by the US Census), 45 counties, and four states passed some form of resolution regarding perceived negative aspects of the Patriot Act.

This was one of the largest-scale local government protests against a singular federal action in US history.

What is Contentious Policy?

The intergovernmental relations literature discusses how relationships within the governmental system functions under particular conditions. These relationships can be characterized as conflict or cooperation. The nature of the relationship depends on what policy is being discussed and the social, political, and economic conditions of the discussion.

Protests performed by governments within the federal system is rare. Local government resolutions express, in a symbolic manner, policy stances. As a nexus of protest and policy, local government protest invites social scientists to extend the research on protest behavior, traditionally defined in terms of open conflict with state structures, to conflict within the state.

The practical impact of local government action on federal policy is debatable. At its core, this action is mostly symbolic; it expresses public displeasure and a sense of political efficacy with respect to a contentious policy.

A History of Local Government Protest over federal policy in the USA

The last three decades has witnessed profound instances of local government protest.

—  In the 1980s, 368 city and county councils, 444 town meetings, and 17 state legislatures endorsed principles of the Nuclear Freeze Movement (see Zinn 2003, p. 604); over 40 local governments across the United States, helped along by the religion-inspired Sanctuary Movement, passed ordinances and resolutions opposing federal immigration law.

—  During the 1990s, in direct opposition to the federal government’s refusal of the Kyoto Protocol treaty, over 950 cities endorsed resolutions affirming their desire to reduce greenhouse gases (see Krause 2010).

—  There were several in the 2000s. In 2003, the city of Pittsburgh condemned the Gun Industry Immunity Bill being debated in the U.S. Senate (the bill was later defeated). In April 2007, the state of Vermont passed a resolution calling for the impeachment of President Bush because of his foreign policies. With regard to the War on Terror, in 2002–2003 over 150 local governments passed resolutions that criticized the federal government’s policy of pre-emptive war in Iraq and called for diplomatic solutions.

The Bill of Rights Defense Committee Data

To investigate the conditions of protest, we need good data. And information on protests depend on individuals and organizations who spend the time to carefully document them.

In our Patriot Act study, we focused on the resolutions about the Patriot Act between 2002 and 2007. Our data came from the website of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee (BORDC).

The BORDC was born out of opposition to the Patriot Act, and is still around today as a social movement organization concerned with the state of civil liberties in the United States. The BORDC provided free, public, and continually updated information on the list of places, counties, and states that opposed the Patriot Act. Without the BORDC, we would not have the crucial data on the who, what, when, and where of these local government actions.

Who protests? Urban places, with greater than average proportions of the college-educated and located within liberal-leaning states were the most likely. After state governments protested, the local cities, towns, and villages within that state’s borders were less likely to protest (the ‘state-suppressor effect’).

The BORDC is now now Rights and Dissent, and they are still providing data on local protest and bill passages across the USA.

Does local government protest over federal policy matter?

There isn’t much research on the effects of local government protest against federal policy, or for the protesters, for that matter. At best, we can say that this protest is a political symbol. It signals solidarity with a limited band of constituents and like-minded local governments.

Thus far, there have been few such large scale protests, and none since the early 2000s. With renewed anger toward the federal government by urban, college-educated liberals, the conditions may be ripe for another round of local government protest on a large scale.

This article is based on, Tomescu-Dubrow, Irina, Joshua Kjerulf Dubrow, and Kazimierz M. Slomczynski. 2014. “Ecological Determinants of Local Government Opposition to Federal Policy.” Journal of Urban Affairs 36, no. 3: 401-419

Political Inequality and the Revolution of Dignity in Ukraine

This is a guest post by Olga Zelinska, Polish Academy of Sciences, based on an early article (2015) on local Maidans.

The Start of Euromaidan in Ukraine

It was the summer of 2013 and the people of Ukraine felt helpless. 

During this time of ‘soft authoritarianism,’ they saw rampant corruption while corporations and other business interests enjoyed a privileged place in the center of Ukrainian politics. The highly centralized state apparatus, controlled by one political and business ‘family’, made public influence over policy-making ineffective. Frustrated with meaningless mechanisms to participate in political decision-making and suffering from economic hardships, those unhappy with the status quo demanded social change with the contentious means.

While the right to political participation is guaranteed by the Constitution, Ukrainian democracy’s various mechanisms, such as public hearings or public councils, remained weak and did not bring the desired results.

The government’s order to reverse the foreign policy course on European integration was a last straw. Ukrainians marched onto public squares in Kyiv and in towns and villages throughout the nation.

It was the Maidan protest movement, and what was called the Revolution of Dignity.

From Euromaidan to Local Maidans

To understand the many local Maidans that had sprung from Euromaidan, I asked three main questions:

  1. How did the claimants identify themselves and their actions?
  2. How did they justify their actions?
  3. What did the claimants want?

Data and Methods of the Study

I analyzed 94 resolutions issued by local Maidans in the 57 cities and towns of the country. My analysis suggests that the Revolution of Dignity was not only about European integration or the impeachment of Ukrainian President Yanukovych.

Results of the Study

I found that:

• Protestors, or “claimants” in the language of Contentious Politics (Tilly and Tarrow 2007) primarily identified with their right to direct democracy, including influence over national and local policies. Activists associated themselves with the popular assemblies, or ‘viches.’ The viches proclaimed their legitimate right to exist and promoted the decisions they adopted.

• The claimants framed their actions as a legitimate non-violent civic resistance campaign. They perceived themselves as “civil society in action,” guarding the country’s democracy by monitoring the government’s conduct of foreign policy and European integration, implementation of human rights, and protection of constitutional rights for peaceful assembly.

• National-level factors played a key role in leading people to the streets. Outrageous human rights violations, a deepening political crisis, and major institutional failures were, to the claimants, the key triggers of contention.

To address these problems, protesters demanded resignations of top national officials and snap elections of the president and the parliament. The desired changes included change in the ranks of the political elite and a significant transformation of political structures. Protesters issued further specific demands of increased public oversight and more meaningful and effective institutions of political participation. This included direct democracy, designed to enhance everyday citizen impact on political decisions.

This is based on the article “Who Were the Protestors and What Did They Want? Contentious Politics of Local Maidans across Ukraine, 2013-2014”, published in Demokratizatsiya: The Journal of Post-Soviet Democratization, issue 23 (4) Fall 2015: 379-400.

Olga Zelinska obtained her PhD at the Polish Academy of Sciences after completing her doctoral training at the Graduate School for Social Research. She was a Petro Jacyk Visiting International Graduate Student at the Center of European, Russian and Eurasian Studies at the University of Toronto. She is currently a researcher, project PI. Institute of Social Sciences, SWPS University of Social Sciences and Humanities, Poland. “The Relationship between Social Movements and Political Parties for the Democratic Representation of Social Groups in Europe” project funded by Poland’s National Science Centre (UMO-2021/40/C/HS6/00229).

Further Reading

Zelinska, Olga. 2017. “Ukrainian Euromaidan protest: Dynamics, causes, and aftermath.” Sociology Compass. 1–12

Zelinska, Olga. 2020. “How Protesters and the State Learn From One Another: Spiraling Repertoires of Contention and Repression in Ukraine, 1990-2014.” American Behavioral Scientist, 64(9),

Zelinska, Olga. 2021. “How Social Movement Actors Assess Social Change: An Exploration of the Consequences of Ukraine’s Local Maidan Protests.” International Journal of Sociology, doi: 10.1080/00207659.2021.1910429

Cover photo by Volodymyr Tokar on Unsplash

Neoliberalism and Democracy

The planet earth swimming in an unreal sea of money

This is a guest post by Alex Afouxenidis, Professor at the National Centre for Social Research, Athens, Greece. It is based on his chapter in, Political Inequality in an Age of Democracy (Routledge).

What is neoliberalism and how does it impact democracy?

Neoliberalism is based on the idea of ignoring fundamental human needs.

The success of neoliberal political strategies rests on a mixture of rhetoric and control of democracy’s major local and global institutions. It is also based on the erosion of the key actors and institutions that are the main underpinnings of contemporary democracies, such as pressure groups, civic organizations, and educational institutes.

In neoliberalism’s economic sphere, economic growth does not need to translate into growth of equality. Considering rising social, economic, and political inequalities, we are looking at abuse being taken for granted.

Table of Contents

  1. What is neoliberalism and how does it impact democracy?
    1. Understanding Democracies’ Political Shift toward Neoliberalism
      1. Market idealization is not working: it has generated profound constraints on people’s liberty and self-determination.
    2. Neoliberalism and Four Dimensions of Democratic Organization
      1. Neoliberalism and Democracy: The Economic Sphere
      2. Neoliberalism and Democracy: The Social and Political Spheres
      3. Neoliberalism and Democracy: The Cultural Sphere
        1. In global terms ‘neoliberalism’ itself has become part of popular culture packed with iconic figure heads such as Thatcher or Reagan and reactionary representational references to anti-statism, individuality, and consumerism.
    3. Neoliberalism, Democracy, and Crisis

Understanding Democracies’ Political Shift toward Neoliberalism

The pervasive counter-democratic ideological force of neoliberalism has had a deep impact on people’s lives, identities and beliefs despite its obvious failure to sustain any meaningful sense of ‘economic growth’. This is evident in many regions across the world where economies are being re-structured and reformed generating greater forms of inequality and limiting political freedom. Political crises have become everyday occurrence for many nations. Governments are in a continuous state of instability and many turn to (semi?) authoritarian rule in order to retain power.

Market idealization is not working: it has generated profound constraints on people’s liberty and self-determination.

As one reflects upon the countless analyses and informed criticisms on the impact of neoliberal ideology and strategy, it becomes increasingly clear that the main constitutive element of this sort of ‘philosophy’ is related to the idea of ignoring fundamental human needs. This conceptualization has generated a rupture with respect to western classical liberal discourses such as those, for example, put forward by J. Locke, J.S. Mill or J. Rawls. For, even though they strongly suggested personal autonomy, they equally forcefully reflected upon the idea that if the needs of individuals are not adequately met then liberty will be limited.

This radical shift in the liberal ideological agenda that emerged during the early 1980s used the language of freedom and individuality to promote a basically dehumanizing and oppressive status quo. Humanity thus was re-defined vertically and horizontally along and across the usual bi-polarities: poor/wealthy, in/out of work, males/females, gay/straight, western/non-western, north/south, black/white, moral/immoral, productive/un-productive, private/public and so forth. The question, in this respect, is not so much whether these categories actually exist or not, but rather how and in which ways they are used to generate and reproduce a vocabulary and a subsequent series of political practices and agendas.

In fact these are populist images of societal structures based on rather simplistic belief systems. In cultural terms, they advocate exclusivity of the ‘West’ over all others, intentionally promoting ideas which view the ‘West’ as a single all embracing cultural unit. In political terms, the market and economic ‘freedom’ are dissociated from the inner workings of democracy. Hence, if democratic procedures and/or processes contradict neoliberal thinking, then they may be overlooked.

Success of neoliberal political strategies rests on a mixture of rhetoric, force and, more importantly, control of the major local and global institutions such as the state and/or international financial organizations. In addition, it is also very much based on the slow or rapid fragmentation and, ultimately, severe erosion if not destruction of diverse agents such as public actors, pressure groups, civic organizations, think tanks, educational institutes and a variety of other structures which have formed the main underpinnings of contemporary democracies.

Neoliberalism and Four Dimensions of Democratic Organization

Over the past 35 years, a very powerful fable has been used to legitimize economic and social intervention operating across the four major areas of democratic organization, namely the economic, political, social and cultural spheres.

Neoliberalism and Democracy: The Economic Sphere

In the economic sphere, the main neoliberal idea is that societies and countries have to shift away from policies related to integration and replace them with policies – and the corresponding ideologies – of divergence. Economic growth therefore does not need to translate into growth of equality.

Neoliberalism and Democracy: The Social and Political Spheres

Divergence and accompanying growing gaps in political inequality and social inequality have become accepted as systemic norms.

Accordingly, the nature of political systems has to be altered to accommodate for increased inequality, inequity and exploitation coupled by a reduced public sphere and an enlarged, dominating private sector through the diminution of all sorts of political participation and a reduction of the state’s capacity to organize civil life.

Neoliberalism and Democracy: The Cultural Sphere

In simpler terms, in an enforced alteration of political culture, the façade of a well organized democracy is only required to counter-balance the harsh re-constitution of society: to make it somewhat more respectable to the eyes of people. In total, neoliberal strategies have played a significant role in the realignment of the cultural sphere and cultural politics.

DALL-E “Gustav Klimt painting of democracy and money”

Neoliberalism, Democracy, and Crisis

Although some writers seem to be rather optimistic on the reversal of the neoliberal political project, mostly because of the effects of the current crisis, we should be more cautious.

For a long time the system has gone through various crises, and has nevertheless flourished despite massive reactions from a variety of people and organizations across the world. Neoliberal ideology has not been fundamentally challenged and if anything it seems that neoliberalism has gained, for example via the post-2008 crisis, influence and as a consequence a whole new range of economic, political, social and cultural strategies have been deployed.

The political process has been ‘de-legitimized’ to a large extent and liberal democracy appears deficient, and yet for the neoliberal political agenda this is probably good news. When one looks at the rising figures of social and political inequality, the widening gap between rich and poor and instances of extreme poverty within and across nations and regions, one looks at the same time at abuse being taken for granted. And much more research is required precisely on that last point.

Prof. Alex Afouxenidis is a Researcher at the National Centre for Social Research, Athens, Greece and specializes in Political Sociology. He is the editor of The Greek Review of Social Research, and recently edited a special issue on social media and politics. He can be reached at www.ekke.gr and afouxenidis@ekke.gr

This piece is based on the chapter “Neoliberalism and Democracy”, in Dubrow, J. (ed), Political Inequality in an Age of Democracy: Cross-national Perspectives, London: Routledge, pp. 40-48.