Notes on the Current Wave of Violence in America
Much hay has been made about on the current wave of political violence in America. Sure, there’s always been this kind of stuff even in recent decades- the urban crime wave of the 1980s, the spates of white nationalist and Christian separatist militia activity in the 1990s, the terrorist attacks at Oklahoma City and the World Trade Center and the Pentagon- and in comparison to those, the recent mass shootings (political or apolitical) and truck attacks, knife attacks, and generally resurgent street brawling look like child’s play. One is almost tempted to argue that minor events are being amped up by a hypersensitive social media culture where opinion has been democratized and outrage sells.
I wouldn’t be so sure; as Jason Willick argued at The American Interest in the aftermath of the Charlottesville incident, the violence of today- with perhaps the exception of senseless mass shootings like Sandy Hook and Las Vegas, but back to those in a minute- has a different feel. Governance in the 80s and 90s responded to the threats, and politicians generally stood against them in a truly united front. Trust in government as an institution was at astronomical highs compared to what we have these days; partisanship was there as it always is, but the genuine radicalism we’ve seen on both left and right seemed conspicuously far outside of the mainstream, rather than intruding on its very borders.
I don’t think it’s an overstatement to suggest that American polarization in all of its aspects- cultural, political, class, access to the heights of these areas versus outsider status- is more directly tied to the new waves of political violence than it was for previous waves. There’s not necessarily liberal sympathy for leftist murderers or conservative sympathy for rightwing terrorists- yet, and for the most part- so we don’t really run into the problem of institutional support sanctioning political violence. (Yes, Trump waffled over condemning the Charlottesville murderer, but that seems to have been more about ominous political calculations than actual affinities.)
That’s not to say, though, that we’re not approaching that dark phase. You do have liberal and conservative sympathies for political action a few steps short of political violence- say, the liberal love affair with BlackLivesMatter despite its more radical elements, even in the wake of the 2014 Ferguson and 2015 Baltimore protests-with-some-riots-affiliated. (In fact a lot of liberal commentators seemed to haplessly justify the riots, even while denying that they were “really” riots.) On the flipside, had there not been an actual murder at Charlottesville, I doubt you would’ve seen the conservative rebuttals of fascism and white supremacy that followed it for the subsequent week. Probably would’ve been more likely that conservative commentators would’ve argued “you have your free speech, we can have it too!” even as the white “protestors” who descended on the poor college town were armed with torches and, so I’ve heard, occasional firearms as well. We don’t even have to begin to discuss the left’s Rousseauian embrace of the environmentalist/occasionally Native American troublemakers at Standing Rock, or the right’s justification of the Malheur Bend militia’s “stand against big government.”
So we’re at a point where rather than condemning quasi-violent acts of hatred or principle or wokeness or whatever you want to call this anti-establishmentarian fervor, Americans in general are apt to take sides with the “good guys” regardless of the assaults on public order and precedent. Clearly Abraham Lincoln’s 1838 Lyceum Address, where the future Savior of the Union counseled dedication to law and order and subservience to the laws of the United States as the grace of patriotism, is not widely read in either our commentariat or our protestariat these days.
In any case, I digress. It would seem to me that the roots of the current violence are cultural and social, rather than expressly political. They’re tied more closely to the trends Yuval Levin looked at in “The Fractured Republic,” that Charles Murray looked at in “Coming Apart,” and that Robert Putnam looked at in “Bowling Alone,” alongside innumerable other studies and reports and articles by other sociologists and cultural thinkers. Basically, as society atomizes through various unfortunate side-effects of modernization, and civil society decays, you have masses of people, especially young and middle-aged men, who are rudderless, purposeless, and functionally useless to their communities. The kind of psychological things this kind of alienation creates are terrifying to behold, and a population thus stripped of its social capital is more liable to violence of all sorts- in the home, in the bar, on the streets, behind a gun- and to narratives of festering political radicalism that, on various positions on the political spectrum, sanction extreme otherization of these people’s fellow citizens and extreme action against them. Yes, I’m suggesting that the same cultural currents and social decay that more or less got Donald Trump elected as President of the United States, also have been the rotten spigot from which many mass shooters and domestic terrorists and rioters in recent years have gushed forth.
And it doesn’t help that we do happen to be America- a country whose political culture is marked by oscillations of extremely idealistic messianism and apocalyptic eschatology, and incredible bouts of cruel reaction and misplaced nostalgia. To the extent that “right-wing ideology” or “left-wing ideology” is behind the violence rising in our streets, it’s not directly because those ideas have consequences- after all, in other decades those ideas have been the domain of cloistered journalists rather than street activists and violent murderers. No, in the current phase of things, those ideas are just the catalysts for deeper social problems.
Why do I say all this? What authority do I have?
All of this is speculation, of course- I am an amateur cultural commentator rather than a professional social scientist or historian- but looking at the social science aspects of it, and comparing the violent political results to similar periods in the last century of American history, it would seem to me that we’re in social crisis just as we were in the 1880s-1910s, and just as we were in the 1960s-early 1970s. The turn of the 20th Century saw, as everyone who took AP US History is aware, unprecedented levels of violence- lynchings of African-Americans in the South, anarchist bombings and assassinations of political leaders, labor strikes of gargantuan proportion, and mob violence at times by the ascendant populists. Some of the sources of this strife include the transformation of the Industrial Revolution, the systemic dislocations and migrations it forced, and cultural changes on the horizon. The 1960s and 70s saw a different sort of situation, one less marked by economic and technological change and more imbued with cultural shifts and political realignments. The Civil Rights Movement and the Counterculture were the prime reactions to the former stultification and repression of culture in the 1950s, and both reflected decades-long trends in the offing; the violence that accompanied them was inflamed by various trends besetting America in midcentury, especially including urban decay and the prolonging of the Vietnam War.
In both cases, the violence largely stopped after a few years’ worth of significant reforms- as Walter McDougall says of the aftermath of President Nixon’s domestic legislation, “the ghettoes and campuses fell silent.” Teddy Roosevelt’s labor, consumer protection, and social welfare reforms largely addressed the concerns of the populists of his era without conceding the moral or political ground to them, while Richard Nixon’s withdrawal from the Vietnam War and advances on social and regulatory legislation pulled the rug out from under his liberal rivals and critics. Social and political violence as a whole did not “stop” after the Roosevelt and Nixon presidencies, but for the most part, the reforms they pushed sufficiently allayed national concerns about dramatic changes, and more importantly convinced majorities of Americans that the government was addressing the concerns of the age (even if, as Roosevelt’s and Nixon’s greatest enemies believed, these reforms were done for cynical reasons.) The bombings and assassinations were an anachronism as America entered the First World War in 1914, and as Nixon resigned the Presidency in 1974, public mistrust in government did not spill over into street violence. Reform worked, even if it didn’t fundamentally resolve the great issues the nation faced in 1901 or 1968. But it did help the nation adapt.
I’d argue that we’re in a similar place now. The question is not “how do we fix alienation?” as some commentators like David Brooks have been putting it- rather, I’d say the question is how to address it, and allay the very real concerns Americans have about government and society, while making whatever steps possible to rebuild or reforge lost social capital and weave again the fabric of society into something resembling connectivity. And that’s a long process that a few new laws and nice speeches aren’t going to resolve.
In the wake of the Las Vegas shooting, many have been arguing we need tougher gun laws. That’s pretty much right, but it misses the point, and misses the complexity of the gun situation in America. Stricter gun regulations- not including the removal of the Second Amendment, because that’s not going to happen- are just good policy, beneficial for the industry, the gun owners, and the public alike. But no amount of gun laws, including confiscations and outright bans, will preclude these kinds of mass shootings from happening when people purchase guns illegally off of illegal markets or, more ominously, when terrorists plot things like this. I certainly believe it would be harder for these kinds of things to happen under stricter gun laws, but I think liberals are assuming their solution is a full and total solution- and such things rarely if ever exist in politics.
But it goes beyond that. Removing the gun from a madman’s hands doesn’t change the violence sewn into his heart by human nature, doesn’t remove the options to knife people in the street or plow trucks into crowds or plant bombs in subways, doesn’t reduce the capacity for other forms of lethal violence that are becoming increasingly and unfortunately common in the America and more broadly the West of the late 2010s. Removing the gun from a madman’s hands does work to preclude one of the manifestations of social violence in America today; it doesn’t do much at all to address the deeper issues of social dislocation and cultural decay, and if those issues are not addressed, gun control will probably neither be popular nor have more than a minimal effect in precluding these violent incidents.
What is desperately, desperately needed is reformist leadership and reformist policy tackling a wide array of social issues, as Roosevelt and Wilson did once and as Johnson and Nixon did later. And more importantly, that leadership and policy needs to be conducted in a way that restores social capital and the social contract, and at least nominally secures Americans’ faith in government, society, and themselves. That won’t happen while people in power and in cultural heights retreat to the edges of their own sides’ coalitions; it might happen if you can get some evidence of competence in government, which is sorely lacking these days.
The Obama years provided a glimpse of what that policy competence might look like, as Ross Douthat argued today that in the age of an imperial presidency the policy action must come from the top and trickle down. But for whatever virtues his approach had, President Obama’s tenure resulted in increasing levels of polarization and social decay, and while his healthcare legacy and other things might be helping around the edges, they certainly did not do much to allay the violence that towards the end of his Presidency was becoming all the more common. It need not be said that Trump has only needlessly inflamed and divided the country in this situation.
I don’t know what the answer is, I don’t know what reforms we need to put in place, what rhetoric would be helpful, who the leader should be. I don’t know any of it. But I do believe something must be done, and someone must do it, to get America’s government back on course alleviating the social decay and cultural rot that has been underway for at least the last three decades and whose chickens are finally on their way home to roost. Yes, pass gun control, get the guns out of the damn madmen’s and terrorists’ hands- but don’t be deluded that that’s anything like a long-term solution. The long-term solution has to deal with the overall problem, which is social decay and cultural disintegration- and as of this writing, I don’t think anyone, even those who’ve identified the problem, really knows what to do about it yet.