Monday, 8 July 2013

Legislative Protest as Democratic Practice

Carole Spary discusses the phenomenon of legislative protest and its significance as a form of democratic practice. She discusses two high profile examples that have been making the headlines, and draws on insights from a recently published special issue of the journal Democratization on the topic of ‘Disruptive Democracy: Analysing Legislative Protest’.

The Texas Senate recently witnessed an important and spectacular ten hour filibuster by Democrat Senator Wendy Davis, designed to block a controversial abortion bill which would restrict abortion rights and access in Texas. The filibuster, the purpose of which is to speak extensively on a bill with the deliberate purpose of delaying or preventing a vote, fell just short of the midnight deadline. However, it was followed by a passionately supportive public gallery protest which successfully disrupted the final vote on the bill. 

In another recent but unconnected incident, a parliamentary debate in Westminster witnessed a more muted but still noteworthy protest against media sexism by Caroline Lucas MP. Wearing a t-shirt with the slogan ‘No More Page Three’ in reference to the on-going campaign to remove pictures of topless models from selected newspapers, Lucas stood up and spoke in the debate but was shortly told by the debate chair that she was in breach of the Westminster dress code. Lucas complied with the chair’s order to cover up by putting on and buttoning up her jacket. Whilst doing so, she commented on the irony of being told to comply with the dress code when the same newspapers targeted by the campaign were available to purchase in retail outlets on the Westminster estate. She held up a copy of one such newspaper open at page three but was called to order by the chair.

These two examples suggest how protests by legislators within legislative contexts are important not just for the immediate impact they make on legislative debates and outcomes, but for what they signify in terms of democratic practice. Legislative protests can offer insights into the meaning and functioning of legislative institutions, actors and their behaviour beyond aggregate votes or routine deliberation in debates. Analysing the protest behaviour of legislators and the regulatory role of presiding officers can help us to better understand the significance of how elected representatives perform representation and how legislative institutions manage disagreement and conflict.

For example, the two examples of legislative protest above illustrate contrasting modes of compliance, yet official rules of procedure often need to be interpreted by legislative actors such as presiding officers and legislators. Some modes of legislative protest such as Sen. Wendy Davis’ filibuster are part of established though rarely performed modes of legislative performance and comply with official legislative rules and procedure. Others, such as the one recently enacted by Caroline Lucas MP, may bend or break official rules in order to communicate a key message. The Texas filibuster by Sen. Wendy Davis, however, fell short of the vote deadline because Davis accumulated three violations of the filibustering procedure which raised as points of order by legislators and upheld by the chair, despite being contested. This suggests that legislative protest is contingent and that interpretive work can often have important consequences for the success or failure of legislative protest acts.

Also, the manner in which rules are interpreted and applied may also be strongly influenced by informal institutional norms and conventions. Some forms of disobedience might be tolerated more in some legislative contexts compared to others for reasons of pragmatism, such as the repeated disruptions to debate in the Parliament of India. Also, the frequency and intensity of protest may change over time, for example as a result of changes in the relative strength of the government and the opposition in the legislature and the quality of communication between them.  This interpretive work means that legislative protest and regulatory responses will differ across and within legislative institutions and over time.

Finally, both examples illustrate how performance and its embodiment are key elements of legislative protest. The filibuster involved intense and protracted physical labour. Sen. Wendy Davis deliberately wore running shoes and swayed from side to side while she was on her feet and talking for ten hours and 45 minutes. During this time she could not take meals or bathroom breaks or sit down. Assistance from another legislator in adjusting her back brace was the basis of a point of order raised by Republican senators and sustained against her (for ‘aiding’ the filibuster). The final vote on the bill was disrupted in part by the loud volume of the public gallery protestors including many who were physically and forcibly removed. In the protest by Caroline Lucas MP, her physical embodiment as a female MP, her physical wearing of a protest message, as well as her display of the page three of a newspaper provided visual layers of protest simultaneous to her speech. While her T-shirt and display of the newspaper was reprimanded by the presiding officer, he emphasised that he was not curtailing Lucas’ speech.  These examples remind us of how legislative protest in particular and representation more broadly involves embodied performances.

These ideas about legislative protest and democratic practice are just some of those explored in a recently published special issue of the journal Democratization called ‘Disruptive Democracy: Analysing Legislative Protest’. The special issue includes articles which discuss legislative protest both theoretically and conceptually such as in relation to deliberation, representation, performativity, and democratic space, as well as empirically with case study analysis of national legislatures of the UK, South Africa, Sweden, and India. The theme of this special issue is linked to a research programme on ‘Gendered Ceremony and Ritual in Parliament’ which was funded by the Leverhulme Trust from 2007-2011. For further details about the programme please visit the GCRP website

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