Political upheaval and tacit consent

In the last few years, both the Czech Republic and Slovakia have witnessed popular upheaval not seen since the Velvet revolution. When an investigative journalist Ján Kuciak was murdered in his home together with his fiancé in 2018, more than a hundred thousand protesters flooded the streets of Slovak cities and towns. It prompted the resignation of the Prime Minister, Robert Fico. In the Czech Republic, the numerous conflicts of interest of the current Prime Minister, Andrej Babiš, also prompted massive protests, where hundreds of thousands of people filled Letenská pláň, the biggest open plain in Prague. While the Czech movement has not led to the resignation of the Prime Minister yet, it has visibly shook the political establishment.

Both of these events showed how peaceful protests get the political power under massive pressure. In the Slovak case, they led to the dismissal of the most powerful politician since Slovakia gained independence. For me as a political philosopher, one fascinating question concerns exactly this “pressure”. Where does it come from? Why does it work? What is its source?

After all, a cynical observer may have noticed that these protests were not dangerous. No threat of revolution existed, so the elites needn’t have been concerned for their safety. Moreover, both the Czech Republic and Slovakia are functioning democracies. Their leaders won fair elections and the next elections are firmly scheduled. The leaders have a popular mandate to manage the country for four years. Finally, it’s not like the protesters voted for the ruling parties in the first place. A great majority of them are firm supporters of the opposition.

So, to reiterate: why do the protests work? Why did they manage to depose the most powerful political figure in Slovakia for the last three decades? Why cannot politicians just brush them off?

The answer, in my opinion, has to do with the legitimacy of power within the society. The “legal” side of it, with constitution, laws, regular elections and personal rights, encompasses just one aspect of the life of political societies. The second, much less tractable aspect of political societies is the trust and cooperation they require from the citizens. John Locke famously speaks of “tacit consent” from which political societies draw their legitimacy. In this respect, when a substantial part of the population turns tacit consent into active dissent, it has far-reaching consequences. The powerful feel the power slipping through their hands – even though, legally speaking, nothing has changed. The legitimacy of their rule is undermined.

That is why the protests work.

Matej Cíbik