Democracy and Political Violence

“The hope of a secure and livable world lies with disciplined nonconformists who are dedicated to justice, peace and brotherhood.” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in his book “Strength to Love.”

Driving to Green Bay recently I noticed a number of billboards that said “Thank a cop.” That part of Wisconsin being staunchly right wing, one would assume this message was a reaction to Black Lives Matter protests and efforts to make police more accountable for excessive use of force against minorities.

We were driving through a snow storm and it occurred to me that “Thank a snowplow driver” would have been a more appropriate expression of appreciation for the work of our public servants. But I suspect the billboard was not intended to convey any real thanks to anyone  It was another example of right wing efforts to divide people with emotional soundbites.

As Martin Luther King implied, a “secure and livable” society depends on people working together for the common good. Historically the police have been the instruments of the ruling elite to control and suppress the “nonconformists” who advocated for a better society.

Nelson Mandela was one of these nonconformists. Speaking about the first election in which Black South Africans could vote he said, “I waited over 70 years to cast my first vote. As the world held its breath, South Africans together made their mark to bring into being one of the truly remarkable events of this turbulent century. Once more, we affirmed a truism of human history: that the people are their own liberators… I voted not only for myself alone but for many who took part in our struggle…I felt that each one of them held my hand that made the cross, helped me to fold the ballot paper and push it into the ballot box.”

People can be their own liberators. But they can also be their own en-slavers. Believing all the false, misleading propaganda and conspiracies on FOX news, talk radio and social media doesn’t enhance anyone’s freedom, independence or economic security. But many people have been mislead.

Wisconsin Public Radio interviewed author Jeff Sharlet about rising paranoia and militarism in Wisconsin. Recently Professor Sharlet drove through rural Wisconsin and talked with people who had Trump 2024, confederate, “Don’t Tread on Me” and black American flags in their yards (black, or black and white, American flags are associated with believing in armed  resistance to government). He wrote about his experiences in “Vanity Fair” magazine (“Wisconsin Death Trip” in the November 7, 2022).

According to Professor Sharlet “…on many country roads the ugly emblems tick by like mile markers.” The article describes the people, and their beliefs, that he met on this road trip. He, of course, wrote about the most bizarre like the nut who was preparing for a Chinese invasion of the country. The less crazy ones just believed the standard right wing tropes about minorities, immigrants, liberals and election fraud. Describing one man Sharlet said, “Not a word [he] said was fully his own. I’d been listening to Fox, to right-wing radio, as I drove, and I’d already heard variations of every syllable he uttered. [He] followed the news. He was a follower.”

There are many followers of this siren song of falsely patriotic paranoia. To paraphrase a famous statement by Voltaire, those who will believe absurdities can be made to commit atrocities. The riot on January 6th, the plot to kidnap the governor of Michigan, and Kyle Rittenhouse killing two people in Kenosha, and death threats to election officials are examples of recent right wing violence.

Robert A. Pape has studied the threat of political violence. He is professor of political science and director of the Chicago Project on Security and Threats at the University of Chicago. He says, “There is now substantial credible evidence that significant segments of the general public — not just a tiny fringe — support violence to achieve political goals” His research shows between 15 million and 20 million American adults agree that the “use of force is justified” to restore Trump to the presidency. Over 50 million Americans think Joe Biden stole the 2020 election. This is many more people than those that belong to organized violent hate groups like the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys.

Barbara F. Walter is a political science professor at the University of California at San Diego and the author of “How Civil Wars Start: And How to Stop Them.” She also believes political violence is a real threat. In an interview in the Washington Post she says, “we can’t deny or ignore that we have a problem…we are heading toward is an insurgency, which is a form of a civil war…There are definitely lots of groups on the far right who want war. They are preparing for war. And not talking about it does not make us safer.”

Clearly in a democracy people should not be arming themselves and preparing for political violence. Political parties should not be enabling, encouraging, condoning or ignoring these threats of violence. Government should not be ignoring this behavior and should be prosecuting those who engage in violence and those who prepare for, or incite, the violence. Citizens need to demand that their government and the political parties they support do what is correct and needed to prevent political violence.

I am not writing about this to hype the fear. Rather it is to suggest, as Professor Walter does,  that the antidote to this problem is stronger democracy – specifically more citizen participation in the political process. Democracy is not a spectator sport. It is a participatory process. It requires much more than voting occasionally.

Martin Luther King wrote “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” He was talking about the many white supporters of civil rights who did not do anything to oppose racial discrimination. In today’s jargon, he got many “likes” but not many marchers. But making progress requires marchers. Silence and inaction is the same as consent.

Resolve this year to participate in our democracy. Become more informed, join a group, contribute to a cause, volunteer to help, contact your elected officials. Do your part to make our democracy stronger and our country better.

In the words of Edmund Burke, an 18th century British politician, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”