By Kevin Martin
America has witnessed one of its most politically toxic and violent years in recent history. Across our country political violence in the streets, perpetrated by left-wing extremists, has torn apart numerous cities, including Portland, Seattle and Minneapolis. Although there have not been comparable events of political violence by right-wing extremists this year, recent polling shows us that the willingness to take part in violence of a political nature has risen dramatically on both sides of the political spectrum. There are many reasons as to why this radicalism has escalated so intensely, but much of it can be boiled down to the rotting away of our institutions, a deconstruction of our sense of community, and our own failings. Only after we have acknowledged these issues can we begin to stem the increased willingness to turn to violence for political gain in our country.
An annual YouGov and the Voter Study Group survey asks, “How much do you feel it is justified for [your political party] to use violence in advancing political goals?” There are a few options: “never” justified, “a little,” “a moderate amount,” “a lot” and “a great deal”. In 2017 only eight percent of either ideological camp believed that violence was either a little or more justified. In 2019 those numbers roughly doubled. By June 1, 2020, thirty percent of each party believed that political violence was at least a little justified. Three months later, that percentage shot to thirty-three percent of Democrats and thirty-six of Republicans. It should also be noted that these numbers increase even more for a group if its preferred candidate loses in November. In summary, that means that 1 in 3 politically aligned Americans now believe that violence can be justified to promote their ideological goals.
In a time where Americans can agree on nearly nothing, there appears to be one last bipartisan agreement: that it is acceptable, even justified, to assault one another for our own political gain. Both sides are clenched in a perilous clash of escalation. Neither side is willing to back down to cool the air; when one political ideology raises the temperature the other matches and even surpasses the other in raising it further. It truly cannot be overstated how dangerous and depressing this development is for Americans. That is why it is critical to understand how this came about in order to relegate political violence back to where it belongs, in obscurity.
There are a few key factors that have brought us to the dangerous time we currently find ourselves in. The most obvious is the Presidential election in which both sides have deemed their opponent morally reprehensible and a fundamental danger to our democracy. When your opponent is no longer a political party, but rather a potential tyrannical group, you can logically justify plenty of immoral acts, including political violence. We saw this manifest itself at the first presidential debate where both Trump and Biden were lackluster when denouncing the most violent wings of their parties, presumably because they truly believe their opponent is the ultimate enemy. Another critical issue is our media institutions. All of our media corporations have one underlying motive, money. In order to stay in business, they have to get viewers to watch and readers to click on their articles. Thus, many media corporations, whether intentionally or not, create enemies for their consumers to fear, which gets people to come and stay. Different media groups exist for different ideologies—Fox News for the right and CNN for the left, for instance. This segmentation causes people to self-enclose, “protecting” themselves from the opinions of their “enemies.” Social media enhances this phenomenon by allowing users to curate their social bubbles further, not to mention the anonymity of the platform which allows for radicalization. The recent lockdowns, though surely effective at reducing COVID-19 infection rates in the short run, also caused much of the increase of “justified” political violence. People were shut in their homes, with little to turn to but alcohol, drugs, and media, which in turn blamed the enemy of their choice for the woes they were experiencing. The lockdowns also added to the continued disintegration of our communities, which began long ago.
Finally, one of the biggest reasons as to why things have gotten so out of hand is simple: it’s you and me. We care too much about politics, to such a degree that it is truly unhealthy and destructive to our wellbeing and the wellbeing of those around us.
There is no easy fix to the problem before us. Although the opinion that political violence can be justified has only recently surged, the truth of the matter is that this has been an underlying development in this country for some time. Therefore, it will take considerable amounts of time and effort to reduce this idea back to insignificance. We must begin by seeing the humanity in our “enemies.” Most Americans have similar political goals (e.g., low-poverty levels and affordable healthcare), we just disagree on how to get there. If you don’t want to believe that your political adversaries are not in fact evil, you are part of the problem. We must pop the ideological bubbles we have fabricated for ourselves. We ought to have friendly discussions with people we disagree with, listen intently to our opponents, and seek out honest people, regardless of ideology. Finally, and most importantly, we must stop obsessing over politics. We must all work to live lives apart from politics—go to church, join a club, take a hike, spend time with our families. We might be surprised how great life can really be in America if we aren’t being convinced that our neighbor is an existential threat to our democratic republic.