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If You Want Political Violence To End, Make Politics Less Important

Even when Americans don't love their political allies, they hate their opponents.

SOCIAL MEDIA/REUTERS/NewscomSOCIAL MEDIA/REUTERS/NewscomSpeaking on CNN Sunday morning, Democratic donor Tom Steyer blamed recent political violence, included attempted pipe bombings and the murderous attack on a Pittsburgh synagogue, on the nasty rhetoric of Republican President Donald Trump and the Republican Party. Despite his own taste for throwing around the word "treason" and speculating that a nuclear war might be necessary to get Americans to turn against Trump, he might be forgiven his excess—he was the target of one of those bombs, after all. Yet, as leaders of both major American political tribes portray their enemies as not just wrong on policy but dangerous and depraved, they both bear responsibility for making government so frighteningly powerful that Americans increasingly feel that they can't afford to lose control of governing institutions.

In the current environment, even when Americans don't love their political allies, they hate their opponents—and have reason to fear their turn in power.

"Record numbers of voters in 2016 were dissatisfied with their own party's presidential nominee and the opposing party's nominee," according to Emory University's Alan Abramowitz and Steven Webster. So the deciding factor came down to the fact that "large majorities of Democrats and Republicans truly despised the opposing party's nominee."

"Negative views of the opposing party are a major factor" in why people belong to political parties, Pew Research agreed this spring. In the U.S., many Democrats and Republicans alike say "a major reason they identify with their own party is that they have little in common with members of the other party."

Pew had already found that "sizable shares of both Democrats and Republicans say the other party stirs feelings of not just frustration, but fear and anger."

Why such fright and rage? Is it all about mean words?

No. Heated rhetoric is nothing new (the founders blistered each others' ears) and insufficient by itself to inspire a Trump supporter to send pipe bombs to prominent Democrats, or to inspire a Bernie Sanders fan to shoot a Republican congressman and several others. Nor are the idiot leftists and right-wingers pounding on each other in Portland, New York City, Charlottesville, and elsewhere otherwise placid people moved to violence by politicians' intemperate words. Heated rhetoric and violence have resulted and escalated as government has grown in size and power—and been weaponized for use by those holding the reins against those they see as enemies.

Officials can be vindictive creatures, eager to use the power of the state to penalize those whose lifestyles, economic activity, and political affiliations they dislike. Tax power was long ago turned to such misuse, probably because tax collectors had authority to intrude into people's lives before other government employees gained such clout. "My father may have been the originator of the concept of employing the IRS as a weapon of political retribution," Elliott Roosevelt observed of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

In recent years, federal officials have abused their regulatory authority to squeeze financial institutions to cut off funds to critics such as Wikileaks. The practice was formalized at the federal level by Operation Chokepoint, which sought to deny financial services to businesses that were perfectly legal, but disfavored in certain circles, such as adult entertainers, gun shops, and payday lenders.

New York's governor extended the abuse of state regulatory power over banks to target not just firearms dealers, but advocates of self-defense rights such as "the NRA or similar gun promotion organizations."

President Trump has openly pushed the Justice Department to investigate Democrats who have rubbed him the wrong way. He also sees security clearances as personal favors to be doled out to friends and denied to critics. In this, he follows on his predecessor's distaste for "enemies" and willingness to misuse the organs of government—including the IRS—as weapons.

Even those Americans who aren't especially concerned with politics can find themselves on the receiving end of laws weaponized for use against businesses and pastimes that those currently in power associate with their political enemies.

"[T]he separation here seeps into the micro level, down to the particular neighborhoods, schools, churches, restaurants and clubs that tend to attract one brand of partisan and repel the other," the Washington Post reported in 2016 of an era when lifestyle and partisan affiliation increasingly correlate. That makes it easy to punish partisan opponents through things they enjoy, such as hunting, marijuana, and brands of cars, without running afoul of constitutional protections for the way they vote.

There are few areas of human life into which government has not inserted itself. "More and more of what we do is dependent on permission from the government," I noted in July. "That permission, unsurprisingly, is contingent on keeping government officials happy."

If the government can reach into virtually every area of life, can grant or deny permission to make a living or enjoy pastimes, and has a documented history of abusing such authority for petty and vindictive reasons, why wouldn't you be afraid of your enemies wielding such power? How could you avoid growing fearful and angry over their anticipated conduct once they took their inevitable turn in office? And what would you say—and eventually do—to stop them? Especially, if you were a little unhinged to begin with.

Are politicians further stirring the pot with nasty rhetoric about their critics and opponents? Maybe. We may well find that the man who murderously attacked a Pittsburgh synagogue and the guy who mailed poisonous ricin to U.S. officials became more prone to act in an environment in which overt expressions of hatred have become common.

But that rhetoric and the related partisan rancor have been building for years as government has become inescapable, and as victorious factions have used their time in power to punish those who lost the last battle—only to suffer in turn as the wheel turns. If you want violent political battles for control of government to end, make politics matter much, much less. When Americans have less to fear no matter who wins political office, they'll be less prone to viciously fight each other for control of government.

Photo Credit: SOCIAL MEDIA/REUTERS/Newscom

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  • damikesc||

    President Trump has openly pushed the Justice Department to investigate Democrats who have rubbed him the wrong way.

    Your link cites that he praises his allies, like Michael Flynn, who are "criminals" and wants prosecution of innocent folks like Hillary Clinton.

    If you do not see the problem of rules only applying to a FEW people, I do not know what to tell you. Nothing will insure anarchy like people realizing that the rules are so brutally skewed to protect certain people.

    If Hillary wasn't assumed to be winning the WH, she'd have been in jail.

  • Barry Gold||

    Tuccile makes some excellent points about the increasing power of government. But the overall thrust of this column fails an important test of inductive reasoning; your hypothesis must account for all the relevant facts.

    Yes, the government is too powerful. Yes, this helps create an atmosphere in which we fear (and therefore hate) our political opponents.

    But it doesn't account for the fact that the vast majority of terror attacks in the US have been committed by right-wing extremists. Not by left-wing extremists (although such certainly exist, e.g., antifa) and not even by Islamic terrorists.

    See for example
    https://bit.ly/2Pz4uiX
    which is referenced by the Wikipedia article "Terrorism in the United States". Notice how in *every* year the red (right wing) bars tower over the blue (left wing) and green (Islamist) bars.

    If you go back farther (to 1995), the Islamists "win" in terms of number of deaths, but only because of a single, highly "successful" attack (9/11/2001). Second place (number of deaths) goes to the right wing, again because of a single highly "successful" attack (the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City).

    (To be continued)

  • damikesc||

    He also sees security clearances as personal favors to be doled out to friends and denied to critics.

    Why would you allow somebody you will never, EVER approach for advice to keep their clearance? In the real world, you don't get to keep access to your company's info if you leave the company.

    Let's also ignore that people like Brennan should have lost their clearance for lying as is.

  • Barry Gold||

    People have security clearances because
    (a) They are trusted not to pass classified information on to people who should not have access to it, and
    (b) They have a "need to know": they are doing something for the government (directly or indirectly) that is of benefit to the United States.

    Whether Trump would ask them for advice is irrelevant. What's irrelevant is, (a) can they be trusted to not reveal it (intentionally or by negligence), and (b) will their use of the information benefit the US Government in some way.

    People who no longer work for the government often retain their clearances because they can provide helpful advice to their successors in office (that includes appointed officials like the head of the FBI, not just elected officials). So even if President Trump would not seek their advice, it's possible that the new heads (or assistant heads, etc.) of the FBI, the NSA, the CIA, etc. might want it.

    They should not depend on whether you agree or disagree with the President.

    Now... if nobody in a policymaking position thinks that the given person's input will be useful, then it would make sense to revoke their clearance because they now longer have a "need to know". But that should be at the discretion of the person who would or would not seek their advice, not the person who sits at the top of the hierarchy.

  • Michael Cook||

    You may as well attempt to de-emphasize sex and religion in human affairs. A bit futile, I am afraid, but we could pry youth away from action combat fantasy games to study etiquette and manners. I recently re-watched "A Man For All Seasons", a 1988 movie version of an award winning play about the life of Sir Thomas More.

    If you are Catholic, that would be Saint Thomas More. Sex, religion, and politics all collapsed on his poor head, as was want to happen when Henry VIII was your sovereign.

    Consequently, he lost that head. Such is the risk you must run when you have principles in a world awash with people running around who are mainly ruled by strong emotions and appetites.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    If You Want Political Violence To End, Make Politics Less Important

    *Cue laughtrack*

  • Don't look at me!||

    Nobody wants a king, unless it's their king.

  • John||

    So people commit acts of political violence because they are afraid of the government and not because they want to terrorize other people into submitting to their will? Yeah that is it. If we just had a small government, lunatics like the one in Pittsburgh would suddenly realize that he was all wrong about the Jews and suddenly leave everyone alone.

    How do people believe such nonsense? Big government doesn't cause people like that idiot to engage in political violence. People like the idiot in Pittsburgh create big government when they are not psychoitc and have better impulse control. The impulses to control and terrorize other people that drove that guy to murder are the same impulses that drive people to think there should be an an all controlling government that makes things right.

    And the false equivilence and virtue signaling about Trump is worse than usual. Trump is terrorizing America by reducing the administrative state and cutting people's taxes. And the dark night of fascism has fallen on America because Hillary and John Brennen can no longer make money from having a security clearance.

    Meanwhile, we can all look back on the good old days of Obama when DOJ spied on reporters, the IRS targeted the President's enemies, and the President himself ordered the assasination of an American citizen.

  • lap83||

    "Yet, as leaders of both major American political tribes portray their enemies as not just wrong on policy but dangerous and depraved, they both bear responsibility for making government so frighteningly powerful that Americans increasingly feel that they can't afford to lose control of governing institutions."

    Let's not act like everyone's fears are equally valid

  • John||

    Look Lap, one side wants to repeal the first and second amendments of the constitution. The other side says mean things about reproters on Twitter. What do you mean the fears are not equally valid?

  • lap83||

    I suppose if you spend all of your time on twitter, like media people seem to, the mean tweets may start to feel as bad as repealing the first amendment. As for guns, they're just icky

  • Barry Gold||

    One side wants to repeal the Second amendment. As far as I can tell, both sides want to repeal the First. The Religious Right wants to have their religion provide the official prayer for schools, city councils, legislatures, etc. I would suggest that we start allowing prayer in the public schools. On successive days we can have
    + Evangelical prayers
    + "Mainstream" Protestant prayers
    + Jewish prayers
    + Islamic prayers
    + Druid prayers
    + Odinist prayers
    + Some sort of atheist statement, roughly the same length as the average of the above prayers.

    And of course do the same for Congress, state legislatures, city councils, etc.

    I bet the Religious Right would say, "Let's just skip the whole school prayer thing" about a month later.

    And the Right also wants to repeal the Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth amendments. (Except that the Left wants to repeal the takings clause of the fifth)

    Nope. Seems like both sides want to repeal whatever parts of the Constitution they find inconvenient.

  • Barry Gold||

    One side wants to repeal the Second amendment. As far as I can tell, both sides want to repeal the First. The Religious Right wants to have their religion provide the official prayer for schools, city councils, legislatures, etc. I would suggest that we start allowing prayer in the public schools. On successive days we can have
    + Evangelical prayers
    + "Mainstream" Protestant prayers
    + Jewish prayers
    + Islamic prayers
    + Druid prayers
    + Odinist prayers
    + Some sort of atheist statement, roughly the same length as the average of the above prayers.

    And of course do the same for Congress, state legislatures, city councils, etc.

    I bet the Religious Right would say, "Let's just skip the whole school prayer thing" about a month later.

    And the Right also wants to repeal the Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth amendments. (Except that the Left wants to repeal the takings clause of the fifth)

    Nope. Seems like both sides want to repeal whatever parts of the Constitution they find inconvenient.

  • Curt||

    one side wants to repeal the first and second amendments. The other side wants to repeal the first and fourth (so does the first side). Both are generally agreed that they would like to repeal the 5th. Both sides generally oppose the 8th. Both sides simply laugh at the 9th. Federal politicians of both sides openly oppose the 10th (while state/local types will support it). Etc. etc.

    Generally speaking, both parties are openly hostile to the majority of the constitution. In particular, they oppose any section that gets in the way of whatever they want to do. The fact that Republicans meekly support the 2nd amendment doesn't impress me much.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Forget it, Jake. It's Nannytown.

  • John||

    Doesn't claiming that this is about the importance of politics give the idiot in Pittsburgh a thousand times more credit than he deserves? If this guy had gone in and shot up a city council meeting after they fucked him in a zoning dispute, i think you could make the claim that JD is making here. But this guy was nothing like that. He was a nasty, psychotic piece of garbage who acted without any rational justification. JD needs to stop cutting and pasting the same stale take on every situation.

  • Dillinger||

    >>>attempted pipe bombings and the murderous attack on a Pittsburgh synagogue

    galaxies from "same thing"

  • John||

    The Pittsburgh murders had nothing to do with partisan politics. It was just old fashioned lunacy. The guy hates Trump and thinks he is a tool of the Jews. The two things are entirely different and cannot be compared.

  • Dillinger||

    >>>If you want violent political battles for control of government to end, make politics matter much, much less

    they fucking laugh at us as we bicker while they get paid. make getting elected not a windfall.

  • Cynical Asshole||

    Shrink government to the greatest extent possible? That's just crazy extremist talk.

  • John||

    Ironically there is this entire organization called Antifa that is violent as hell and actually believes that. I don't think shrinking the government is going to make them less violent.

  • Eddy||

    Political murders generally come about because the murderer wants to "punish" someone (generally for something which is only a "crime" in the murderer's perverted worldview) and doesn't trust the government to do it properly.

  • Longtobefree||

    Yeah, right.
    I should take my personal liberty much less seriously.
    Got it.

  • NoVaNick||

    Well, when you have the two major parties falling all over each other to see who can expand government the most (and don't tell me the GOP is the party of small government-it has never been), perhaps the best advice is to shrink government is not to vote. Sounds counterintuitive, but if enough people didn't vote, the government would lose its legitimacy, and its not like the LP is ever going to be in a position of power.

  • John||

    If enough people didn't vote, the winners of the elections would continue to do whatever the hell they wanted to. I can't see why they would care if no one voted. The government losing legitimacy only matters insofar as it causes people to behave differently. Everyone refusing to pay their taxes or refusing to go to work in mass would bring the government to its knees. Refusing to vote would mean nothing.

  • NoVaNick||

    You're right-already, at most only about 60% of eligible voters vote in presidential elections anyway, and the politicians don't seem to care about why 40% do not. I guess my point is that there is no way to roll back government under the current two party system, which is not going away any time soon.

  • UnrepentantCurmudgeon||

    Considering that the Republican Party birthed the centralized federal government and crushed all notions of states' rights in the Civil War, you are closer to the truth than you probably care to admit.

  • WaldemarZukowski||

    or let us make them legally responsible for their decisions

  • WaldemarZukowski||

    Or let us make them legally responsible for their decisions

  • Gus diZerega||

    More complex than this. Scandinavian countries, for example, have far more active governments and take far more in taxes and do not have our record of violence.

    As a country becomes more and more closely linked, problems arise that markets cannot solves, and government in some sense seems to be the only alternative. Consider air pollution as an example. So as linkage increases simple contracts become less able to deal with some issues.

    Finally, the US is engaged in a deep clash of cultures, one urban, technological, and relatively equalitarian. The other is rooted in rural hierarchical values emphasizing authority over equality. It's stronghold is the South, which when its leaders realized our founding values were incompatible with slavery, looked backwards for validation, as with its toxic form of Christianity.

    If areas dominated by Southern culture left the country our politics would be far more peaceful.

  • Gus diZerega||

    More complex than this. Scandinavian countries, for example, have far more active governments and take far more in taxes and do not have our record of violence.

    As a country becomes more and more closely linked, problems arise that markets cannot solves, and government in some sense seems to be the only alternative. Consider air pollution as an example. So as linkage increases simple contracts become less able to deal with some issues.

    Finally, the US is engaged in a deep clash of cultures, one urban, technological, and relatively equalitarian. The other is rooted in rural hierarchical values emphasizing authority over equality. It's stronghold is the South, which when its leaders realized our founding values were incompatible with slavery, looked backwards for validation, as with its toxic form of Christianity.

    If areas dominated by Southern culture left the country our politics would be far more peaceful.

  • Nardz||

    Urban centers equalitarian (not a word, so I'll assume you mean egalitarian)?

    Hahahahahahahahaha!

    Hierarchy is not nearly so stark anywhere else than the city.

  • Gus diZerega||

    The word was coined by a libertarian, Bill Marina, to distinguish between equality before the law and equality of resources. Sorry you weren't able to figure it out, but then many modern libertarians are weak on equality before the law.

    And you don't know squat about the country or cities. Notice I said not that hierarchy was absent, but that it was flatter. For example, it was in the more rural South that lynching was most prominent, and killing people who do not know their place is a pretty hierarchical thing. And it has been in the cities that equality between women and men has been most supported.

    But it's another tough concept, I admit.

  • Richard Stallman||

    Disgust for the opposite political pole is found on both sides,
    but the violence is concentrated in the right wing -- because violence
    is part of its ideology.

  • leninsmummy||

    Stalin, mao, and Che send their kind regards and ask you to report for shovel duty at 5 am tomorrow. This comment is so uneducated and slavishly blind I wonder if you're trolling.

  • Gus diZerega||

    It takes a deep level of ignorance, combined with arrogance, to insult Richard Stallman and then try and prove your point by equating movements with no American equivalent with cleavages in our own culture. We never had a strong totalitarian movement from the left. Never.

    It is a simple fact that, in the American context, the violence has overwhelmingly been from those calling themselves tight wingers or monotheistic religious fanatics.

  • ricketson||

    We need to distinguish between those who fear power and those who fear people. Partisans may seem to be at each others throats, but that's not the problem -- we are right to fear power and most of this fighting is just posturing. The real problem is that many of powerful try to turn people against each other in their day-to-day lives -- and right now, Republican fear-mongering is most prominent. Most prominently, they stoke fear of immigrants, and LGBTQ, and muslims. And then there's the good-old fear of drug users (mirrored on the Dem fringe by fear of gun owners).

    Fear the politicians who want to control us. Don't fear your neighbor who's just getting groceries.

  • Barry Gold||

    Sigh. Unfortunately, the Democrats also stoke fear of drug users. C'mon folks, let people do what they want to their own bodies.

  • ricketson||

    We need to distinguish between those who fear power and those who fear people. Partisans may seem to be at each others throats, but that's not the problem -- we are right to fear power and most of this fighting is just posturing. The real problem is that many of powerful try to turn people against each other in their day-to-day lives -- and right now, Republican fear-mongering is most prominent. Most prominently, they stoke fear of immigrants, and LGBTQ, and muslims. And then there's the good-old fear of drug users (mirrored on the Dem fringe by fear of gun owners).

    Fear the politicians who want to control us. Don't fear your neighbor who's just getting groceries.

  • tlapp||

    Political parties have paid research firms to get that exact result. Keywords that stir an emotional response, it get's their side to be motivated to vote. We have the end result of the masses getting caught up in the emotional outrage of nearly everything, much of it of little real importance.

  • Barry Gold||

    [This comment ended up in the wrong place] It belongs at the start of its own thread]

    Tuccile makes some excellent points about the increasing power of government. But the overall thrust of this column fails an important test of inductive reasoning; your hypothesis must account for all the relevant facts.

    Yes, the government is too powerful. Yes, this helps create an atmosphere in which we fear (and therefore hate) our political opponents.

    But it doesn't account for the fact that the vast majority of terror attacks in the US have been committed by right-wing extremists. Not by left-wing extremists (although such certainly exist, e.g., antifa) and not even by Islamic terrorists.

    See for example
    https://bit.ly/2Pz4uiX
    which is referenced by the Wikipedia article "Terrorism in the United States". Notice how in *every* year the red (right wing) bars tower over the blue (left wing) and green (Islamist) bars.

    If you go back farther (to 1995), the Islamists "win" in terms of number of deaths, but only because of a single, highly "successful" attack (9/11/2001). Second place (number of deaths) goes to the right wing, again because of a single highly "successful" attack (the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City).

    (To be continued)

  • Barry Gold||

    [This comment ended up in the wrong place. Putting it here to restore continuity]

    Tuccile makes some excellent points about the increasing power of government. But the overall thrust of this column fails an important test of inductive reasoning; your hypothesis must account for all the relevant facts.

    Yes, the government is too powerful. Yes, this helps create an atmosphere in which we fear (and therefore hate) our political opponents.

    But it doesn't account for the fact that the vast majority of terror attacks in the US have been committed by right-wing extremists. Not by left-wing extremists (although such certainly exist, e.g., antifa) and not even by Islamic terrorists.

    See for example
    https://bit.ly/2Pz4uiX
    which is referenced by the Wikipedia article "Terrorism in the United States". Notice how in *every* year the red (right wing) bars tower over the blue (left wing) and green (Islamist) bars.

    If you go back farther (to 1995), the Islamists "win" in terms of number of deaths, but only because of a single, highly "successful" attack (9/11/2001). Second place (number of deaths) goes to the right wing, again because of a single highly "successful" attack (the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City).

    (To be continued)

  • Barry Gold||

    (Sigh) It would be nice if this site included the ability of the poster to delete their own comments. EVen if only for the first hour or so after posting.

  • Henry S||

    I think there is at least one additional reason why politics have become so important. The expansion in the concept of rights from negative (meaning freedom from coercion) to positive (meaning the right to something). Now rights have been expanded to the right to healthcare, for instance. This means politicians have the ability to pass laws that favor certain groups of recipients of these positive rights. This leads to these groups competing with each other to access these "entitlements."

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