Political violence in democracies (& America)

A week or two ago I got asked by Vox to respond to a couple questions about political violence in democracies, and in America in particular. My answers didn’t make the cut for the article (in favor of shorter and better answers by more famous people!) so I thought I’d just reproduce them below. But two additions. First, in the American case, the violence accompanying the overthrow of Reconstruction seems badly under-studied by political scientists interested in political violence, militia and paramilitary mobilization, sub-national authoritarianism and democratic collapse, and permeable boundaries between “normal” and “abnormal” politics. Second, a point that Christian Davenport has rightly pushed me on, even in “peaceful democratic societies” there is often extensive *state* violence that can be analytically hidden by reframing it as either apolitical (i.e., policing in the US, which is too often portrayed as a technocratic matter of law and order/bureaucratic processes) or as distinct from non-state violence. In the US case, the Department of Justice and local police departments have been deeply political actors, seeking to build and protect particular national and local visions of the state, nation, and contours of democracy.  Political scientists are now starting to study it (for instance, Soss and Weaver, Mummolo), which is awesome. Hopefully we will see a re-balancing toward these kinds of fundamental questions of order, state violence, and social control in the US as part of a process of deprovincializing the study of America.

Paul talks to Vox:

“Question 1) Why do peaceful democratic societies tend to descend into violence?
Paul: It’s extremely rare for fully consolidated, Western democracies to descend into large-scale political violence. However, violence in democracies remains quite common. Roughly speaking, we can see four patterns of political violence in democracies, in order from most to least severe. First, the most severe political violence in democracies occurs when central governments themselves split apart into warring elite factions, as in the American, Lebanese, or Spanish Civil Wars. This can lead to state failure and/or conventional civil war. Second, very commonly, we can see robust insurgencies in democracies. These are most likely when central governments are unable to extend total control over violence to geographic and social peripheries, and face either excluded ethnic groups or revolutionary movements able to mobilize poor, lower-class populations against the metropole. Colombia, Sri Lanka, and the Philippines are good examples, with electoral politics coexisting with pitched insurgent warfare.

Third, electoral violence is quite common in democracies, ranging from riots and pogroms to intense state repression of opposition parties and dissidents to the rise of armed political parties. This is most likely in weakly-institutionalized environments when contenders fear that if they do not win/hold onto power, they will be thoroughly excluded from political power in the future. It can also occur when the rule of law has been politicized to an extent that law and order becomes subservient to the needs of strategic politicians trying to win elections by polarizing the electorate or targeting the supporters of rivals. The politicization of policing can be particularly dangerous here, opening space for specialists in violence, thugs, and the armed militias of political parties to use violence without facing sanction or repression. Kenya, Weimar Germany, and India are cases in which electoral violence has sometimes been very intense. The same was true in some American cities in the 19th century, often linked to ethnicized patronage politics, and in the deep South as part of the maintenance of white supremacy.

Finally, there can be violence in relatively rich and consolidated democracies. There are radical revolutionary movements, generally separatist, leftist, or Islamist, that use violence to try overthrow the political system; these anti-systemic challenges see “mainstream” politics as a hopeless pathway for affecting real change. Northern Ireland, Basque country, Islamist militants, and leftist terrorists in the 1960s and 1970s show how diverse these anti-systemic militants can be. A more complex type of violence can come from the right, with groups like the KKK and radical militia movement in the US, that claim to be restoring/protecting the “true” nation/Constitution. They articulate their violence in terms of maintaining or restoring an idyllic past, not replacing it with a fundamentally new order. The past they claim to uphold was generally highly repressive/exclusionary, and these groups’ violence reflects their goal of a return to their own dominance. While the central state is comparatively powerful in these rich-democracy contexts, arms remain available to some extent, governments may misjudge the extent of the threat they face or only be able to contain rather than eliminate it, and political polarization creates segments of society that view violence, or its threat, as the only way to escape an otherwise intolerable status quo.

Question 2) Is America regressing back into a more politically violent society (as we were in, say, the 60s)?
Paul: We are certainly not close to the level of the 1960s, when a variety of non-state and government forces used substantial violence. But there is potential for real danger. Government violence, by local police departments, has become a much more salient focus of discontent, and requires urgent attention. On the non-state side of things, extremist groups on the right became far more vocal during the Obama years, and many viewed Donald Trump quite favorably. This movement will continue to draw on anti-Muslim, anti-Semitic, and anti-immigrant sentiment to justify its existence. The armed left appears to be far smaller, but clashes in cities and campuses since Trump’s election suggest the possibility of escalation. America has a long history of political violence that is fundamental to its political development, from the Civil War to labor strife to lynchings to vigilantism to state repression to the cleansing of Native Americans. There is no reason to expect that it will go away, especially in these deeply polarized and uncertain times, but the current situation does not resemble the most dramatic instances of violence in the American past.”


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