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Violence is an existential threat to American democracy


After the shooting of Representative Steve Scalise and four others on June 14th, Republican Representative Steve King was quoted by Boston Globe reporter Annie Linskey saying that violence in America is coming from the left. The shooter that day was by all appearances a leftist, but Representative King failed to mention that less than two weeks ago, his Democratic opponent dropped out due to death threats from Republicans. Political violence is making a reappearance in America, and it’s coming from both sides.

Despite Representative King’s evidence-free assertion that Weaver invented her death threats, she is not the first Democrat forced to drop out from threats so far this year. In April, Democrat Michael Treiman withdrew from the mayoral race in Binghamton, New York, after receiving threats over the internet and in person. Treiman feared for his family’s safety after a man called him a “liberal scumbag” and threw a soda container at him while he was holding his 11-month-old child. Treiman not only withdrew from the mayoral race, but sold his house and moved to a different town. He plans to run again in the future, but only when he can afford private security.

The internet exploded with rage, counter-rage, apologies, and counter-apologies after comedian Kathy Griffin posed with a faux severed head made up in Donald Trump’s likeness. Griffin tearfully apologized for going too far, while Democrats and Republicans alike excoriated her for her breach in taste. Trump himself tweeted multiple times in outrage that a shock comedian did something shocking, while conveniently ignoring that Ted Nugent threatened President Obama’s life on multiple occasions, which Trump rewarded with an invitation to the White House.

Greg Gianforte pled guilty to assaulting a reporter in May days before he won the special election to represent Montana in the House of Representatives. He was sentenced last week to community service and anger management classes, making him the first member of the House of Representatives to be found guilty of assault between his election and swearing in.

Truly a remarkable time for American democracy. While Gianforte’s assault of a journalist was a dramatic low point for American politics, it was unfortunately less rare than it may seem. Also in May, an Alaska state Senator slapped a reporter in the face and two other journalists reported experiencing rough physical treatment while trying to interview public officials. Trump’s one-time campaign manager Corey Lewandowski assaulted a reporter at a Trump campaign event last year. These physical attacks on journalists can be seen as a culmination of violent rhetoric aimed at journalists and political foes. Trump has made repeated verbal attacks against journalists, and even appeared to call for the assassination of Hillary Clinton during a rally last August.

Reporters Without Borders currently ranks the United States 43rd out of 180 nations on press freedom, due to government restrictions and threats of violence against journalists.

Political violence came to a head last week when James T. Hodgkinson opened fire on a baseball field and shot a Congressman, two Congressional aides, and two Capitol Police officers on Representative Scalise’s protection detail. Based on his social media, it appears Hodgkinson was a Bernie Sanders fan who took talk of political revolution literally. Senator Rand Paul was present at the shooting and decried the violence, despite having praised political violence on Twitter last year, quoting Andrew Napolitano, saying that the Second Amendment exists to “shoot at the government when it becomes tyrannical.” It appears that’s what Hodgkinson thought he was doing when he targeted Paul and his colleagues.

Political violence is making a resurgence in America, spurred on by partisans confident that their violence is acceptable, while the other side’s violence is abhorrent. Many undemocratic societies nevertheless hold elections. Elections are not in and of themselves sufficient to guarantee a democracy. Those elections must be free and fair – free of intimidation and threats, and fair so that winning is not predicated on who is stronger, more violent, and more powerful. Journalists must be free to do their jobs without the threat of violence or they cannot convey the truth to the people, so the people may make informed voting decisions. Journalists are the conduit between the citizens and their representatives, and if they fear for their physical safety, democracy cannot function.

Violence is the death of democracy. It doesn’t matter what side of the political spectrum it comes from. There is no justified violence – all extremists think that their violence is right, acceptable, and benefiting the greater good. All extremists believe that their extremism is the right one. A system where one party cannot run candidates in certain districts due to death threats is not a democracy – it’s one party-rule, ensured through threats and intimidation. A system where the press cannot report freely is not a democracy. A system where politicians are gunned down instead of voted out is not a democracy.

Julius Caesar made headlines last week when right-wing media decried a version of the play where Caesar sports blonde hair and a suit and, of course, gets assassinated. Delta and Bank of America pulled their funding, Delta ending its partnership with the Public Theater altogether, stating they had “crossed the lines of good taste.” If Bank of America, Delta, and the right-wing media had bothered to watch the play, however, they’d find a very different message – one appropriate for our modern times. Shakespeare warned that violence begets violence and ensures tyranny. As the play’s director, Oskar Eustis, wrote on their website, “Julius Caesar can be read as a warning parable to those who try to fight for democracy by undemocratic means. To fight the tyrant does not mean imitating him.”

Democracy is fragile. Violence breaks it.

Photo: Gage Skidmore/Creative Commons