The violent style in American politics

Violence is no stranger to American life. Its gun culture results in violence on almost a routine basis, so much so that we have become numb to the regular recurrence of mass shootings by people armed with highly powerful weapons. It takes a really high death toll to make the national news these days. We have also seen periods of severe political violence in the past involving groups like the KKK and when the government put down labor movements with great force. Recently during the Trump presidency we have seen a rise in violent political rhetoric that has again occasionally spilled over into physical violence.

In an article in the November 16, 2020 issue of The New Yorker, Evan Osnos examines the style of conflict in American politics that oscillates between persuasion and force. He says that political scientist Richard Hofstadter, towards the end of his life in 1970, became absorbed about the intersection of politics and force in the US and argued that the political violence in the US tends to take a different form than in most other countries.

It had swept through American life in recent years, producing assassinations and riots. Working with a co-author, Michael Wallace, who collected two thousand cases of violence—massacres, rebellions, vigilantism—he hoped to address what he called the American paradox: “There is far more violence in our national heritage than our proud, sometimes smug, national self-image admits of.”

Sharp turns in politics and economics inspired new forms of bloodletting. After the Civil War, the Ku Klux Klan and other vigilantes adopted lynching to prevent freed Black people from working, studying, and voting. In the first scholarly study of lynching, from 1903, the sociologist James E. Cutler described it as a “criminal practice which is peculiar to the United States.” Later, as workers started to organize and demand protections, violence ignited. In 1914, the National Guard stormed an encampment of workers in the Colorado coalfields, causing a rifle battle and setting tents on fire, killing eleven children and two women. The historians Philip Taft and Philip Ross later wrote, “The United States has had the bloodiest and most violent labor history of any industrial nation.”

Hofstadter noted that in America, unlike the rest of the world, political violence rarely involved poor citizens rising up against a powerful state; more often, citizens attacked one another, and, usually, the attackers were established Americans—white Protestants, in many cases—turning on minorities, immigrants, “Catholics, radicals, workers and labor organizers.” Hofstadter made note of “verbal and ideological violence” that laid the foundation for actual harm. He also fretted about a “rising mystique of violence on the left.” By 1969, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a civil-rights group co-founded by John Lewis, had elected new leadership and dropped “Nonviolent” from its name. The usually staid New York Review of Books had featured an instructional diagram for making a Molotov cocktail. On both the left and the right, Hofstadter sensed, politics was giving way to a culture of self-expression suited to the rise of television, in which the “distinction between politics and theatre has been deliberately blurred.” Practitioners had figured out that what played well on TV was often the language and the imagery of force. [My emphasis-MS}

I found the italicized section particularly incisive. We are seeing that process of people belonging to the dominant culture engaging in violence against marginalized groups playing out again.


  1. sonofrojblake says

    America: I am shocked, shocked to see how *violent* our discourse is.
    Rest of the world: {eye roll}

  2. bmiller says

    Read the website Insight Crime.

    We are mere amateurs at political violence when compared to the glories of Brazil, where the drug gangs are an organized political force assassinating dozens of politicians. And when they don’t kill, “militias” comprised of police, fire fighters, and other government employees are happy to slaughter candidates and elected officials they dislike.

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