The Times’ editorial board, not to be confused with the Editorial Board, is running a series of editorials on political violence. In the main, these are exceptional pieces, deeply researched, densely packed with relevant, illuminating facts, and dispassionately argued.
Editorials rarely move public opinion, but even so, I’m grateful. Our culture too often fails to recognize the injuries of political violence. Perhaps this series will elevate public awareness, at least a little.
That said, the editorial writers have a recognition problem of their own – and it’s right there in the latest installment’s headline: “America Can Have Democracy or Political Violence. Not Both.”
This dichotomy of either-or runs throughout the editorial, but the following shows its most distilled form: “It is unacceptable in a democracy for organized groups of men armed with military-style firearms and dressed in body armor to appear regularly at political rallies or to act as security for public officials and office seekers.”
My question is this: seriously? Why is it unacceptable? To whom? We can’t have democracy and political violence? Who says so?
Such assumptions suggest the Times’ editorialists need to get out of Manhattan more often. If they do, and if there’s enough effort, they might recognize a reality the rest of the country inhabits but usually does not recognize because it constitutes those “democratic norms.”
Political violence is familiar and ordinary. It’s all around us. It is the consequence of democratic politics running against the grain of the white-power status quo, or the white-power status quo merely maintaining “democratic norms.” Whenever there’s change, there’s political violence. Whenever there’s a reaction, there’s the same.
So the question isn’t whether there’s political violence and what elected officials must do about it. It’s whether the political violence is politically acceptable or politically unacceptable.
Examples of politically acceptable political violence: when a police officer wrestles to the ground, or even kills, an armed suspect; when a police department disperses an unlawful political rally; even when a white cop murdered George Floyd. Normally, that would have been acceptable if not for the confluence of democratic politics and luck.
Examples of politically unacceptable political violence: when a man beats his wife, when a mother beats her children, when an uncle molests his niece, and so on. We rarely admit it, but each presumes the rights of top-down authorities over the bodies of innocents.
When democratic politics challenges these democratic norms – e.g. Black Lives Matter, the #MeToo movement or any advancement by the LGBT-plus community – there is a violent political reaction that deepens existing levels of political violence. A violent reaction that itself concedes to its unacceptability deepens its political nature.
Why so absurd?
When we understand political violence as a democratic norm, rather than the exception to democratic norms, we can see why headlines like the one above are absurd. We can’t have democracy and political violence, huh? Well, what about [waves hands widely at everything]?
It’s absurd to claim that it’s “unacceptable for organized groups of men armed with military-style firearms and dressed in body armor to appear regularly at political rallies.” Why? Because such things are happening in a country that claims to call itself a democracy. It’s just weird to say something is unacceptable when there are enough people around, a majority in some states, who say yeah, no.
The Times gets grief for sucking up to those in power. But in this one way, it’s liberal. It holds to liberal standards the great many illiberal Americans who think husbands should rule their wife, that children should obey their mothers, and that a niece had it coming to her when she tempted a grown man. Why would a newspaper otherwise known for its sobriety do something that absurd? Liberals say it’s one or the other, not both. Everyone else is like "where you been, son?"
The editorial writers are right to say there are “four interrelated trends that the country needs to address.” They are “the impunity of organized paramilitary groups, the presence of extremists in law enforcement and the military, the global spread of extremist ideas and the growing number of GOP politicians” who pander to them.
But they stop short of identifying the thing that’s the biggest thing that makes all these things “interrelated.” No, it’s not extremist ideologies. It’s the opposite of extreme. It’s the force shaping all of our lives, because it’s the force that constitutes “the way things are.”
I’m talking about white power.
Keep it real
That said, the editorial writers are correct in saying that something really is different. Political violence is normal, but these days it’s spectacular: “Some of the most spectacular recent episodes of political terrorism are etched into the nation’s collective memory: mass shootings in El Paso and Buffalo, bomb and arson attacks against mosques and synagogues, a plot by a paramilitary group to kidnap Michigan’s governor, the storming of the Capitol on Jan. 6.”
Instead of saying democracy is incompatible with normal political violence, we should say it’s incompatible with abnormal political violence, that the balance of power in society is out of balance, and that this social imbalance threatens to cut off democracy’s legs.
That I buy. It’s real.
We don’t need more bullshit.