Political Violence Escalates in a Fracturing U.S.

Tensions won’t simmer down until Americans stop fearing power in the hands of enemies.


After a week featuring a House hearing into the Capitol riot, the attempted assassination of a U.S. Supreme Court justice, the firebombing of an anti-abortion group, and the arrest of extremists apparently ready to rumble at a Pride Month event, it's fair to say that political violence is now part of American life. With the right and left at each other's throats, the U.S. resembles Italy in the 1970s when ideologically motivated clashes plunged the country into years of turmoil. Italy eventually got its problems (mostly) under control, but the U.S. might suffer less pain by decentralizing power and restraining the state's reach so that people need not fear abuse when enemies win office.

Political violence-wise, Thursday's House hearing into the riot on January 6, 2021, was supposed to be the headliner. Video "showed people rushing Capitol Police officers and fighting them, tearing down barricades, and throwing tear gas" in the words of Reason's Elizabeth Nolan Brown, as they tried to interfere with the count of electoral votes cementing then-President Donald Trump's loss to Joe Biden. 

But the day before, a California man was arrested outside Justice Brett Kavanaugh's house for attempted murder. The threat was cut short when the would-be assassin turned himself in. He was reportedly motivated by pending decisions regarding abortion and gun rights and targeted one of the conservative justices who have been on the receiving end of protests at their homes after the leak of a draft opinion that could overturn Roe v. Wade.

On Tuesday, prior to the drama in D.C., a center near Buffalo, New York, operated by the anti-abortion group CompassCare, was firebombed. It was one of several such incidents in recent weeks. In May, there was a similar arson attack in Madison, Wisconsin, for which a group calling itself "Jane's Revenge" claimed responsibility as part of a campaign to force the "disbanding of all anti-choice establishments." On Friday, there was another attack in Gresham, Oregon.

To cap things off, on Saturday, 31 members of Patriot Front, a white nationalist group that uses fasces as a symbol, were arrested in Idaho near an Idaho LGBT Pride parade. They were uniformed, with their faces covered, and traveling in a rental truck. "They had shields, shin guards, and other riot gear with them including at least one smoke grenade," according to Coeur d'Alene Police Chief Lee White.

So, it was a busy week, for a certain definition of "busy." And these recent incidents are only the latest in a series of violent assaults across the political divide in a country in which people with conflicting views are, too often, no longer opponents but enemies who fear and despise one another.

"Support for partisan 'violence today' is similar to what it was early this year–or even a little higher. In February, 20% of Reps & 13% of Dems said violence was at least a little OK," political scientist Nathan Kalmoe pointed out last summer. "In June, 24% of Reps & 19% of Dems said the same." 

Before the 2020 election and subsequent Capitol riot, Kalmoe co-authored an article warning of growing "willingness of Democrats and Republicans alike to justify violence as a way to achieve political goals."

Since then, some researchers have suggested that surveys disengaged from real life overstate support for political violence. But they emphasize that "any amount of support for political violence is troubling." And, of course, events such as those of the past week offer grounds for concern. 

The U.S. isn't the first country to face violent political woes. Starting in the late 1960s and into the 1980s, Italy suffered battles between far-left and far-right factions that became known as the anni di piombo, or years of lead.

"As the 1960s ended, some Italians decided liberalism was doomed," The Economist noted in 2017. "Marxist extremists, notably the Red Brigades, began kidnapping and assassinating 'anti-worker' officials: policemen, judges, journalists. Their right-wing opponents bombed civilians to 'drown democracy under a mountain of corpses'. Both sides hoped to weaken the state and to spark revolution or a military takeover. Members of the Italian secret service nudged things along, working with neo-fascist killers to frame the left."

Italy eventually broke the terror groups, though it took two decades, and the legacy lingers in politics and culture. The U.S. might spare itself from years of similar conflict if it were to address Americans' fear of abuse at the hands of government controlled by opponents who scare the hell out of them.

Polling last fall by the University of Virginia Center for Politics found three-quarters of Democrats and Republicans alike believe supporters of the other side represent "a clear and present danger to the American way of life." People cede power to those with whom they simply disagree, but government by "a clear and present danger" looks like an existential threat when politicians use far-reaching laws, taxes, and regulatory authority to punish opponents. That's an increasingly common practice under politicians of both major parties through efforts like Operation Chokepoint's weaponized financial regulations, or the revival of politicized "seditious conspiracy" charges. A toxic political culture inevitably gnaws at institutions intended to allow for the peaceful transitions of power.

"The most common outcome of episodes where democracies reached pernicious levels of polarization was some form of major democratic decline," Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Researchers wrote earlier this year in a study that ranks the U.S. as more polarized than Italy was during the years of lead. "There are no peer analogues for the United States' current political divisions—and the track record of all democracies does not provide much consolation."

But we could dial down tensions by reducing the danger of people being at the mercy of their enemies. We would need to reverse decades of centralization and expansion of government so that people could live by rules and arrangements that don't constitute malicious threats. That is, people should be able to escape governance by those who wish them harm, so they don't feel driven to extreme measures.

"Democracies in sectarian societies often create institutional arrangements to protect the minority, like minority or group rights, power-sharing agreements, devolution or home rule," Nate Cohn observed last year in The New York Times before tensions reached current levels. "Otherwise, the most alienated segments of the minority might resort to violence and insurgency in hopes of achieving independence."

"Reforms should aim to lower the high stakes of elections and give voters more voice and more choice," agree the Carnegie authors.

There's no clear solution to what appear to be America's own years of lead. But tensions won't simmer down until Americans stop fearing power in the hands of enemies. That won't happen until government is less powerful, less centralized, and less of a dangerous weapon in the hands of those in office.