The roots and solutions to political violence
Author: nicholas giokas | contributor
Political Violence South of the Border on the Rise
f you watch the news at all, you’d realize that there is a worrying trend in the status of political dialogue going on south of the border. The media has, rightly so, focused in on the wave of violence at Trump rallies. But the issue is, it’s not just Trump rallies that are the problem. For quite some time now, there has been a systemic encouragement of violence, both on the Right and Left, and while the violence is far from serious, it shows a dangerous path for political discussion overall.
The most obvious source of this surge in violent political dialogue comes from the demagogue himself: Trump. He has regularly encouraged his supporters to attack protesters, the press, and other members of the public. However, this rhetoric is far from new. George Wallace regularly justified violent rhetoric by shoring up his so-called ‘Law and Order’ stances in the 1968 race. Therefore, Trump isn’t striking at anything new here, but he is tapping into a nastier part of the political id that others have rightly ignored. If you look at the cross-section of the people who advocate for such views, you get a better idea as to why this line of thinking develops. The people who bought into the ‘Law and Order’ rhetoric of George Wallace are largely the same as those who now buy into Trump’s rhetoric – poorer, disadvantaged, uneducated and whites. They feel that they are being taken advantage of and ignored by the political system, which leads to a massive buildup of anger that inevitably explodes when a political figure gives them ‘permission’ to. The thing about politically sanctioned anger is that it builds up on its own. George Wallace famously stated that people should drive through protesters to teach them a lesson, Trump has said he’d pay for the legal fees of people that assault protesters. So, we shouldn’t be surprised when those things happen.
There has also been an alarming trend from the political left, particularly on university campuses, to use and encourage violence in political dialogue. The most immediate case is that of attempting to silence those that hold right-wing views or who are seen as ‘problematic’. What Trump is aiming to do in his rallies is the exact same thing those on the left want to do on university campuses: create an ideologically homogenous echo chamber. Now, the traditional way they’ve done this is by calling for bans on speakers or the resignations of professors that they deem as ‘problematic’, or at the very least, ideologically impure. Now, this alone is troubling, but they’ve also used physical intimidation to shut down guest lecturers and harass those who would attend those lectures. This equally disgusting behavior can tie its roots to a similar political id that’s largely ignored: the culture of disruptive protest. Those that engage in disruptive protest share something with Trump supporters; they feel like they’re at a disadvantage and are left out of the political process.
In the case of this election cycle in the US, the confluence of these political ids would inevitably lead to violence. But to say that the violence is due to either of these sides would be massively incorrect. Furthermore, to say that this violence will die down after the election is similarly incorrect. There is a strong history of this kind of dialogue outside of election seasons. In the case of the political right, it comes in the form of militias and the Sovereign Citizen movement. American right-wing militias are formed out of a fear of underrepresentation, in that some are formed out of a fear that during times of strife such as a disaster, they will be forgotten or neglected. Also, Out of a sense of righteous anger, the foundations of the country are being chipped away at. With such organizations as the Oathkeepers or the Bundys, their political messages either come with the threat or use of violence. It is the same with sovereign citizens who feel as though their country is exploiting them. A similar feeling of exploitation is felt by those on the left who either join protest groups or take part in riots. This feeling of exploitation and underrepresentation, similar to the Right, is seen expressed by riots in Baltimore and Ferguson.
So, this political violence is never going to entirely disappear, but it is possible that the less radical parts of this surge in violence tone down their rhetoric. It’s also imperative that they do. Nobody becomes part of a militia or a riotous mob overnight. They take part in slightly greyer areas of political violence and then slowly move toward the more radical wings. What is therefore imperative on all those taking part in the political debate is a movement towards actual, substantive debate. Now, this would be going against the direction of political debates nowadays, because we live in a post-internet world. In this post-internet world, it’s far too easy to isolate oneself ideologically, which inevitably leads to intellectual laziness. People turn to violent action not out of malice but because they haven’t had to interact with opposing viewpoints and haven’t been forced to construct their own. Of course, the plague of reductionism has existed since political debate first began, but it’s far easier now than it ever has been.
In essence, the greatest issue with this surge in political violence is that people halt their analysis after they identify the root causes of each individual trend in such acts. It’s easy to point to underrepresentation, it’s more difficult to try and tackle that issue and it’s nigh on impossible to try and force people out of reductionism and into a substantive dialogue. It’s largely because we don’t like to think that it’s simply intellectual shorthand that leads to violence or that emotion-driven politics can poison the well on both sides. Until everyone realizes that debate and dialectics are the necessary process for political change, then we’ll always have political violence.