Over the past few years, I’ve gotten in the habit of writing about my political views directly on Facebook where the audience is limited to my friends. Part of that is convenience and part of it is a desire to avoid the toxicity of random internet commenters. But politics on Facebook is making Facebook an unpleasant place as well, so I’ve decided that I’m going to try to move my longer posts back to my blog and spare my friends my bloviations. We’ll see how long that lasts.

I’m listening to my political podcasts and some are still discussing the latest impeachment and what it means and all that.

On the latest episode of the Lawfare podcast, David Priess made this comment. (Any errors in transcription are mine.)

The second Trump impeachment was something quite different. It was something attacking the constitutional order itself and inviting, if not inciting, the use of political violence to achieve what could not be achieved within the regular order. That is the part that has me worried.

And, yes, it’s because I’m also reading _The Storm before the Storm_ by Mike Duncan about the Roman republic and when the norms of peaceful assemblies and things first were broken that the precedent was established that political violence could happen,and could go unpunished which made it more likely for the next one and the next one.

And I’ve gotta think what’s important now — even if Trump is not held personally accountable in some way — for a new consensus to develop around the fact that, yes, we were not able to convict the president for various reasons, most of them fig leafs, but we must have a consensus that political violence to achieve ends that we unachievable within the constitutional order– that’s unacceptable. We can’t let this become the precedent or else I fear that in two years, five years, ten years the next time there’s something like this, the shock value is gone. And it becomes easier to accept “Well, we didn’t actually overthrow the constitutional order this time. They disrupted and they delayed the Senate procedure, but they didn’t stop it, so it’s OK. The system worked.” Well, what is it that next time is gonna be OK? “Well, you know, they did actually delay the inauguration of the next president, but it was only by a few months and everything worked out OK. The system held.”

Well, the system is not holding if you get to that point.

42:42 – 44:56

I am not certain, but I would be surprised if Mr. Priess doesn’t have his eye on other violent expressions of political ideology beyond just the attack on the Capitol on January 6.

On one hand, I do think the attack on the Capitol is worse than any violent protests we’ve seen in decades because it was an attack directly on the government of the United States of America and a constitutionally mandated function of one of the branches of government. That’s very serious.

But on the other hand, it doesn’t seem to me that political violence used when political ends aren’t or haven’t been achieved through normal order is actually all that uncommon these days. The obvious counter example to the right-wing mob of Jan 6, 2020 is the left-wing mobs that burned cars and buildings and sieged a federal building over the summer. Even before the Trump era, though, there were violent protests on university campuses that resulted in injuries and property damage.

We do have political terrorists in this country from the right-wing Aryan Nation to the left-wing Antifa, these groups openly advocate for the use of violence to promote their political ideas.

I don’t have a clear view of membership trends within these organizations, but it seems from my limited perspective that more people are subscribing to the idea that sometimes violence is a perfectly acceptable tactic for advancing a political cause.

What is even less clear is what principle guides or justifies the use of violence. It seems like it’s just if you get enough people who are mad enough then they’ll be violent and others will say, “Can you blame them?”

I’ll echo Mr. Priess’s comments and say I find this deeply concerning.

For my own perspective, I think that as long as the political system does offer non-violent mechanisms for advancing a political agenda, then violence is not justified. As long as we have freedom of speech, freedom of press, access to courts, near-universal franchise, etc. then violence is not justified.

I can understand the frustration with the slowness of political processes. My own political views are those of an extreme minority — laissez faire capitalism, strong but limited government, open borders, pro-abortion, pro-freedom of religion, pro-gun, pro-legalization of all drugs, etc — so BELIEVE ME. I understand.

But impatience and frustration does not justify violence when we have the freedom to drive change peacefully. You can’t claim to defend anyone’s rights when you’re violating people’s rights to convince them to agree with you. It was difficult to write that sentence because it’s just so nonsensical.

Unfortunately, I don’t know how we can get back to a place of honest, open debate about contentious issues, a place where people of different political ideologies respect one another to at least make the attempt to change each other’s mind.

Categories: Politics

1 Comment

Audrea · February 17, 2021 at 2:53 pm

“It seems like it’s just if you get enough people who are mad enough…”

An interesting hypocrisy is that most of them advocate for democracy, and yet they are in the minority. When pressed, they admit that they just don’t want “outsiders” to tell them what to do. But, so far, no one has explained to me how their utopia will deal with dissenters. At least not explicitly. I can guess.

«…and others will say, “Can you blame them?”»

I’d like to make a distinction between saying “Can you blame them?” and saying “What did you expect?” In particular, last summer, I tried saying the latter and most thought I meant the former. Crucially, just because the individual bears culpability for their own violence, that doesn’t mean the rest of us didn’t make mistakes (namely by tolerating corrupt statutes and institutions). MLK acknowledged that “a riot is the language of the unheard.” And, of course, he did not intend to absolve rioters of blame. Even so, a riot is a signal that a necessary social mechanism has broken down and that the rest of us ought to figure out how to fix it or else we may suffer worse.

“…when you’re violating people’s rights to convince them to agree with you.”

The more alert among that crowd understand that political violence is not a method of persuasion. Their attitude is that persuasion is impotent. “Power does not cede power voluntarily.”

“Unfortunately, I don’t know how we can get back to a place of honest, open debate about contentious issues, a place where people of different political ideologies respect one another to at least make the attempt to change each other’s mind.”

We can’t. At least, not directly. Something I didn’t realize until lately is the derivative nature of social phenomena. By the time we see such things as political violence, it is too late to reach those actors. We must start farther back in the causal chain. If we want to persuade people not to abandon reason (if such a notion is any more sensible than using force to persuade), we must reach them before they do.

For some, unfortunately, we can only meet them in kind, with retaliatory force. But people don’t abandon reason in a vacuum. I keep getting told that to respond to political violence with anything other than overwhelming force is too conciliatory and will result in nothing more than an emboldening of violent actors. And I agree that individuals ought to be punished, perhaps even harshly, for their crimes. But I condemn extra-judicial violence used under cover of law, sometimes euphemized as excessive force. This is nothing more than a disgraceful excuse to deny due process and is, as such, incomparably worse than the crime for which is it the response. If you can’t do your job with precisely enough force to stop the violence and bring perpetrators to court, you should have enough respect for law and civil society to leave it to your betters.

As for derivative social phenomena, we need to shout down any who would even hint at tolerating the intolerable, namely political violence. If cancel culture has taught us nothing else, we ought to learn that shaming people and raising a ruckus can be effective. Those who resort to violence think it is morally acceptable. But they are given succor by those who, while lacking the courage of their convictions, agree with them. And those who abet such criminals ought to suffer social consequences.

Taking another step back from them, in the causal chain, we need better rhetoric. Those who encourage and support their violent comrades have bad ideas. Maybe we have better ideas, but our delivery sucks. For one thing, our logos is undermined by our lack of ethos. Those who advocate for civil society (and all that it requires) are too ready to engage in hyperbole, polemics, and over-reactive derision (even ad hominem). This needs to stop. If we have better ideas, we must demonstrate this by having unimpeachable character as well. They aren’t going to listen to us if all they see are contemptible clowns.

For another thing, our pathos is entirely too underdeveloped. The arts are dominated by dramatic portrayals of bad ideas. And the most popular exponents of bad ideas have learned to insert a dramatic element into their presentations, to fantastic effect (e.g. Abigail Thorn). Admittedly, a culture dominated by altruism will obviously respond more enthusiastically to altruistic ideas, but still, there’s a reason rhetoric was traditionally taught as being more than merely logos. If you would persuade, en masse, you must first popularize.

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