An alarming number of folks worry that America is headed for a violent showdown because of the rising anger, rabid partisanship and hate that seems to grow like a cancer in our society.
“In the past 16 weeks, more than 50 drivers have plowed into peaceful protesters all around the country,” says Rachel Kleinfeld, a senior fellow a the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Armed militants shut down Michigan’s legislature. Unidentified law enforcement officers heaved demonstrators into unmarked vans. Security forces in Washington used low-flying helicopters to harass citizens decrying police brutality. Protesters and police alike have brutalized journalists. Ideologues from left and right have been accused of killing political opponents. Should Americans be worried about widespread violence?
Yes. Political violence in democracies often seems spontaneous: an angry mob launching a pogrom, a lone shooter assassinating a president. But in fact, the crisis has usually been building for years, and the risk factors are well known. The United States is now walking the last steps on that path.
Kleinfeld’s latest book, “A Savage Order: How the World’s Deadliest Countries Can Forg a Path to Security,” say America is one of those deadliest countries in this world.
Writing Friday in The Washington Post, Kleinfeld notes:
Partisans who would never commit violence themselves are transforming from bystanders to apologists, making excuses for the “excesses” of their side while pointing fingers across the aisle. Particularly striking have been the inflammatory statements of Republican politicians, given the influence leaders’ words carry. Of course, they are simply mimicking President Trump, who is most responsible for setting the kindling aflame.
Political violence tends to strike in countries where it has happened before. It feeds on discrimination, social segregation and inequality — which provide reasons for grievance while making it hard for divided populations to understand each other. Polarization exacerbates these conditions while blocking societies from solving their problems.
All the ingredients are here: America’s political violence traces back to our Civil War, the causes of which were never really resolved. The Union won the war, but the Confederates prevailed in the peace. Attempting to undo nearly a century of segregation and discrimination with civil rights legislation in the mid-1960s ushered in the next national outbreak of violence. The wound of racism deepens America’s deep inequality and our political polarization.
Self-declared militias are a danger to our society. In Kenosha, Wisc., 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse traveled across the state line from Antioch, IL, to join up with other militia wannabes. Turns out he was also a member of cadet programs for police and fire departments and now faces two charges of first-degree murder. Police say he used his assault style weapon to gun down two protestors.
President Donald Trump tweeted a rabid endorsement of Rittenhouse. Photos show Rittenhouse in the front row of a Trump campaign rally, which resulted in this political ad from The Lincoln Project.
Kleinfeld makes many good and thought-provoking observations on how America is sinking into a violent, toxic sewer:
When opportunistic politicians get a foothold, they break institutional guardrails with astonishing speed. They undermine professional norms, as with Trump’s refusal to set aside his personal business interests. They politicize institutions of government, often demanding personal loyalty — as Trump has done with independent inspectors general, the Justice Department, the post office and countless senior appointments. Meanwhile, they accelerate political polarization and gin up violent sentiment.
An early warning sign is language that casts enemies as subhuman and threatening. The causal relationship between such language and violence is one reason scholars have been so alarmed at Trump’s consistent amalgamation of immigrants, people of color and political opponents as nonhuman and menacing.
Dehumanizing language reduces inhibitions to violence. Framing vilified populations as threatening enables perpetrators to justify aggression as self-protection. That’s what happened with Bosnian leader Radovan Karadzic, who compared Muslims to animals as he rose to power in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Repetition of the canard that Muslims were a demographic threat to Serbian identity helped Serbs rationalize murder to “defend” their way of life against neighbors whose lives were remarkably similar. Consider Trump’s 2016 Republican convention speech, in which he claimed that “nearly 180,000 illegal immigrants with criminal records, ordered deported from our country, are tonight roaming free to threaten peaceful citizens,” followed by countless repetitions of the theme that “these aren’t people — these are animals,” blurring distinctions between immigrants in general and gang members. The result has been a steep rise in violent hate crimes against Latinos, according to FBI statistics.
America’s democracy is ailing, and its immune system is on life support. We are the only industrialized democracy with decreasing life expectancy. Deaths in our streets are augmented by those from COVID-19 and deaths of despair. These ailments grow from a broken social contract, which we cannot repair from inside polarized bunkers. Instead, we must find some way to step back from the brink.
Americans have a chance to take that first step back from the brink. We can vote to get rid of the violence-instigating political partisans and replace them with those who can work to restore integrity, humanity and reason.
It’s now or never.
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