Summary: The common responses to the increasing political violence in America range from cheering (for “our side”) to complacency. But the history of other republics, such as Rome and Weimar, show that political violence can spin out of control quickly, with ugly consequences. Our tolerance for it makes this possible. This is a follow-up to The “sucker punch” at the Berkeley riot reveals the rot in our politics.
“What’s past is prologue.”
— Antonio, in Act II Scene 1 of “The Tempest” by William Shakespeare.
Black Bloc marching in Milan. We can look forward to this in our cities.
Declining Republics often display internal fragmentation and political violence. That’s the story of the late Roman Republic and the Weimar Republic. First, stress levels rose from rapid social change, increased inequality, and economic turmoil. Then people lost confidence in their core political institutions and centrist politicians were discredited — leading to the rise of extremists. Next, social cohesion decreased as groups start to see each other as a greater threats than external foes. This leads to violence as thugs gather under the flags of fringe groups — and joyfully clash (the violence feeding both sides).
America has all of these symptoms. Those of the early stages are more obvious. But lately we are showing signs of the more advanced ills, such as political violence. It began during the 2016 campaign, and has slowly grown in frequency and magnitude. The Berkeley riot (described here yesterday) was another small step towards a dark future for America. Update: the reaction to my post about the Berkeley riot (in the comments and on Twitter) consisted largely of people cheering “their” thugs.
It’s all about people
“He can’t be bought, bullied or negotiated with …some people just want to see the world burn.”
— Alfred (Michael Caine) speaking of the Joker in The Dark Knight (2008).
Social processes similar to ours spun out of control quickly in the late Roman Republic. More familiar to us is the fall of Weimar, with the Freikorps and other gangs fighting in the street. Weimar was a petri dish in which violent groups fought and evolved, with the most virulent winning. Hitler drew upon the Freikorps’ experience to form the Nazi’s Sturmabteilung (aka the SA, the Storm Detachment).
It is our time to be tested, again. We’re the weak link in the Republic. As in the last days of the Roman Republic, we find self-government too heavy a burden. Then as now natura abhorret a vacuo. Already see powerful elites jousting for power.
Now they gather hordes to fight under their flags. Groups like Antifa and Black Bloc on the Left. Groups such as Oath Keepers and scores of right-wing militia on the Right. People who believe in their causes, and useful idiots, and street fighters. The first two produce pretty words that provide a facade of legitimacy for their movements. The thugs provide legitimacy in a different way. Americans love violence when done by the good guys.
“Self-assertion, not justice or a clear view of the future, is the crucial element. Thus determination, will, commitment, caring (here is where this now silly expression got its force), concern or what have you become the new virtues. The new revolutionary charm became evident in the U.S. in the sixties….
“There is also something of this in the current sympathy for terrorists, because “they care.” I have seen young people, and older people too, who are good democratic liberals, lovers of peace and gentleness, struck dumb with admiration for individuals threatening or using the most terrible violence for the slightest and tawdriest reasons. They have a sneaking suspicion that they are face to face with men of real commitment, which they themselves lack. And commitment, not truth, is believed to be what counts.”
— From Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind.
The conditions in America are favorable for political violence to grow. Low public confidence in the Republic’s institutions. Widespread ownership of guns. Cheers from Left and Right for their thugs. Already strong right-wing gangs (“militia”), about which intel agencies warned in 2009. Years of apocalyptic warnings from Left and Right create the sense of imminent doom that motivates people to take to the street. Commies! Nazis! Gonna take your guns! Gonna put you in camps! These fears are powered by America’s growing economic and social stress, plus our loss of social cohesion. The tinder is there for a fire which will prove difficult to extinguish, or even control.
The problems afflicting America have no inevitable results. They can spark citizen action electing officials to reform our government. But there are darker possible outcomes.
Mrs. Powel of Philadelphia asked Dr. Franklin “What have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” “A republic, if you can keep it” replied the Doctor.
— Entry of 18 September 1787 in the Papers of Dr. James McHenry on the Federal Convention of 1787 (signed the Constitution, our 3rd Secretary of War & namesake of Fort McHenry).
Nothing can save America until we change. Unfortunately, the mystery of political reformation lies beyond the ken of our social scientists. Perhaps only large-scale turmoil can reawaken our spirit, although that did nothing for the Roman Republic or Weimar (nothing good, that is). Without reform, the best we can hope for are efficient and merciful tyrants.
It’s an old story. Christian Meier’s biography of Caesar describes the unwillingness of Rome’s people to bear the burdens of self-government (also see Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic by Tom Holland). Strong men contended for the throne, as seems increasingly likely to happen to America, when we turn to the police or military in response to widespread political violence.
The Founders modeled the United States after Rome, and worried that we would follow the same course. Their writings, such as the Federalist Papers, describe our love of liberty as the foundation of the Republic. The next generation or two might prove that we deserve their confidence. Or not.
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
— “The Second Coming” by William Butler Yeats (1921).
Other posts about the Berkeley riot
- The “sucker punch” at the Berkeley riot reveals the rot in our politics.
- Fear the rise of political violence in America. We can still stop it.
- Stories of the Left & Right about the Berkeley riot reveal much about us.
- Is the Berkeley riot the start of an uprising of America’s young men?
For More Information
- Forecast: Death of the American Constitution.
- Americans trust the military most. 29% are ready for a coup. Ready for fascism?
- America isn’t falling like the Roman Empire. It’s falling like Rome’s Republic.
- Trump’s win revealed the hollowness of US politics. Stronger leaders will exploit this.