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Fear, Violence, and Politics

4 min read

For much of the world’s history, we have been ruled by violence and its descendants. Kings won their thrones by having better fighters than their opponents. Transfers of power meant inheriting that throne or by violently seizing it. On those rare occasions where power changed hands non-violently from one living ruler to another, it was often backed by the threat of violence, as with England’s “Bloodless Revolution” in 1688. Dictators such as Cincinnatus, who gave back his power and retired to his farm once he had solved Rome’s crisis, do occur, but rarely.

Democracy, inherited from ancient Greece and Rome, is the major alternative to political violence. However imperfectly, it operates by having the majority (often a majority of a small group) choose who shall have power, and for how long. The United States was founded by men (and a few women) who had studied the classics and thought they knew how to construct a democratic republic that would avoid the mistakes of its predecessors.

It was a good try, but it missed some things. Of the many strands that make up our history, I want to point out two: the principle that power belongs to the people and is temporarily granted to those who make the best case that they will use power wisely; and the violent nature of Americans.

“Violence is as American as cherry pie,” said H. Rap Brown. European settlers saw nothing wrong in taking the land from its original inhabitants, by stealth if possible and by violence if necessary. I’ve found a sermon by Cotton Mather in which he told the New Englanders that they were “Israel” and the indigenous people were “Amalek” whom God had commanded the Israelites to exterminate.

This same combination of stealth and violence has operated throughout our political history as a nation. “Gerrymander” is named after Governor Gerry of Massachusetts, who in 1812 redrew the state’s senate districts to give his party, the Democratic-Republicans, a solid grasp on power. The Constitution gave outsized power to the southern states through the three-fifths clause and the design of the Senate and the electoral college. The South sustained its hold on power as long as it could by mandating that every free state admitted to the Union be matched with a new slave state, and when was no longer tenable, fought a violent civil war to keep its slaves and its power over them. After the war and Reconstruction, the South used stealth, fear, and violence to keep power away from the Blacks, a pattern that continues today.

The Republican party has, since the Gilded Age, generally represented a minority of the country. There were moments such as the Eisenhower years when it honestly made what most Americans saw was a better case for power than the Democrats did. But, starting with Nixon, they gradually abandoned any pretense of competing for power through reason, and crafted tools of stealth, fear, and violence to seize power by means other than reason and then to keep it at whatever cost.

What we witnessed in the January 6 insurrection, and the subsequent refusal of 43 Senate Republicans and 197 House Republicans to hold Trump to account for it, was the most significant step yet in the Republican slide into accepting fear and violence as a legitimate means of achieving power. There were a number of Republican representatives who reported, privately, that they wanted to vote for impeachment but were fearful for their lives and their families’ lives if they did.

We need to do two things if we are to save our country for ourselves and our posterity. First we must abandon the notion that the Republican party can be redeemed. It cannot. It has surrendered to the mob, to the most violent extremists within it, and given them license to do what they will. Second is that the government, which we do now control, must take all necessary steps to minimize the ability of fear and violence to decide our leadership. That includes removing the fear of what happens if you vote, if you speak out, if you go against the party dogma, by using the full force of the law. It also means writing and enforcing laws against voter suppression and intimidation. And it means casting as wide a net as we can to identify, arrest, and prosecute everyone however high or low who had anything to do with the violence at the Capitol, as well as violence at any other level of government.

Ultimately, the solution is to educate our citizenry to be responsible citizens, to make political decisions based on reasoned argument and careful deliberation, and to distinguish between truth and lies. But that’s an ultimate solution, after we have restored the rule of law and republic.

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