Will Our Current Political Conflicts Turn Violent?

Do today's "woke" leftists really have the guts?

Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.

President Trump’s recent string of wins ––especially the victories in the Supreme Court decisions and the retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy–– has incited the Democrat “resistance” to even loonier excesses of rhetoric and rudeness. Celebrities indulging juvenile vulgarities, boorish protestors harassing cabinet members in public spaces, the twitterverse smoldering with calls for violence and a “summer of rage,” and the buffoonish Representative from California Maxine Waters calling for even more public harassment: all have some people worrying that we are on the track of escalating violence that will turn the “cold civil war” hot.

Count me as skeptical for now. As bad as today’s political discord may seem, American history from its beginnings has been filled with worse political conflict and violence, from Shays’ Rebellion to Bleeding Kansas, from the Wall Street bombing to the Haymarket Riot. And having spent more than forty years in the university, the nursery of leftism and today’s parlor pinks, I see few people with the gumption to actually back their blustering threats with risky action.

Any claims that we are living on the brink of civil conflict inflamed by violent political rhetoric must answer the question, compared to when? The Sixties and Seventies saw urban riots that killed hundreds, wounded thousands, and caused millions of dollars in damages. Politically motivated kidnappings and shootouts were endemic. The 1968 protests at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago featured televised vicious battles between the police on one side, and antiwar protestors and left-wing groups like the Yippies and Students for a Democratic Society on the other. A jumpy national guard contingent killed four student protestors at Kent State. During this same period, thousands of bombings from a plethora of radical groups took place ––according to a 1970 Senate investigation, more than 4,300 just between January 1969 and April 1970, killing 43 and inflicting $22 billion in damage. And presidential primary candidate Robert Kennedy and civil rights icon Martin Luther King were assassinated. 

And what are we fretting over? Vulgar insults on late-night television, a rhetoric of violence used by people who have never fired a weapon, public rudeness to politicians, anonymous threats and virtual stalking, and other forms of bullying perpetrated mostly by well-fed people of leisure who have no intention of risking their lives and possessions for their zombie leftism. Of course, these sorts of attacks can be disturbing to the victims, and any credible threat of violence should be taken seriously by the authorities and investigated. But the worst of what we’re seeing is still light-years from the assassinations and bombings of 50 years ago. And don’t forget, that leftist violence of the Sixties and Seventies created a backlash that helped elect Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.

Our dearth of that sort of genuine violence may be why we try to elevate murders by psychopaths––like the ones who fired on the Republican congressional baseball team last year, or more recently a Baltimore newsroom––into acts of political violence stoked by ideological conflicts. In reality they’re no more political than was the paranoid loser Travis Bickle’s rampage in the movie Taxi Driver. In contrast, the violence of the Sixties was perpetrated by self-styled revolutionaries whose acts were the consequence of their conscious beliefs in revolutionary violence as the justified means to an ideological end. They were psychopaths with seemingly rational and respected arguments, infinitely more dangerous than your typical school-shooter egged on by his private demons and paranoid hallucinations. 

Compared to the Weathermen, the Symbionese Liberation Army, or the SDS of the Sixties and Seventies, our violent “resistance” comprises mostly posers and day-trippers like Antifa. The level of their violence, mostly against property, does not reach that of soccer hooligans, let alone the daily mayhem in inner-city hell-holes. And unlike the ’68 protestors in Chicago, who faced beat-downs from the police, these days protestors know the police don’t want to risk their jobs by using the force necessary to deter such antics. They also know that most of those arrested don’t face serious legal consequences. Their “resistance” is more like theater for iPhone and news cameras, rather than the serious violence that radicals in the Sixties committed. 

Today’s “activists,” then, are performing in a revolutionary operetta that isn’t really about radical change, but about making a fashion statement and preening morally. Of course, they may seem “passionate” about their beliefs, and even believe they really are, but the true test of commitment is not attending a demonstration to provide selfies for your Facebook page, nor blustering comments and threats on an online site, nor browbeating your MAGA-hatted aunt at Thanksgiving, nor verbally bullying a cabinet member out for a meal. This is not Yeats’ “passionate intensity” that he saw in the political religions and their violence in the Thirties, but a cheap knock-off that substitutes a “revolutionary” pose and attitude for the real deal. It’s revolution in the virtual world, where flourish the images and rhetoric that make us think a violent civil war is looming. Meaningful commitment is the willingness to get blood on your hands.

Typical of this symbolic and gestural “radicalism” is the latest mascot of the “woke” resistance, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who beat the fourth ranking Democrat in the House in a New York district primary. This daughter of an architect, denizen of tony Westchester County, and Boston University grad styles herself as a “working class girl from the Bronx” and a committed socialist. But she’s really what the Mexican kids I grew up with called a gringada, a Latina culturally indistinguishable from a white girl. Her ethnicity is a costume she uses to make herself attractive to her half-Latino district. As Daniel Greenfield writes,  she’s “an upscale lefty hipster drifting after college from one activist gig to another, developing the contacts that put her in the right place at the right time. These are the bios of ten thousand professional lefties who infest the non-profit sector. They’re all angry, self-righteous and interchangeable.” 

In other words, an aspiring race-tribune like the ancient Roman variety, the aristocrats on the make who professed to champion the cause of the plebs in order to advance up the cursus honorum of political power. The difference is, many a Roman tribune fought and died in the Forum in pursuit of their revolutionary reforms. Our race tribunes can look forward to dying in their comfortable beds with a fat 401K or state pension, all funded by the wealth free-market capitalism has created. Just ask Bernie Sanders, today’s “socialist” Pied Piper whose “activism” has made him a millionaire.

Careerist hipster “activists” like Ocasio-Cortez are not the sort of leaders who can galvanize the masses for violent revolution, no more than are geriatric plutocrats like Nancy Pelosi or George Soros, or political ventriloquist’s dummies like Bill Maher or Joe Scarborough. And their “woke” ersatz-socialist fans are just like them: well-fed court jesters for the rich and powerful of the Acela corridor, lap-dogs who will snarl and nip but know exactly where to sit in order to snatch the scraps dropped from the tables of the bipartisan power elite. They know better than to risk biting the hands that feed them by actually fighting with bombs and guns rather than safely blogging and protesting while the police stand down, and the fellow-traveling media advertise their “commitment” and “passion.”

Nor are today’s “woke” millennials the budding shock-troops of the revolution. Snowflakes of uncertain “gender” and vulnerable to verbal “microagressions” are not promising recruits for class warfare. Guys who’ve never been punched in the face and fret over their “toxic masculinity” won’t make it through Marxist boot-camp. The kind of people needed for violent change these days are living in off-the-grid rural compounds, or the “gangster paradise” where the businesses of drugs, guns, and prostitution are much more lucrative than “transforming” America along Cuban lines. 

So let’s calm down a bit with the rhetoric of impending violence. When we discover that sizable battalions of organized, disciplined “resistance” outfits are stockpiling guns and ammo, importing illegal armaments, spending time at the range learning which end of the gun to point, and figuring out how to build bombs by studying jihadist websites, then we’ll need to take them more seriously. And do something about.

This doesn’t mean civil violence is impossible. But if political violence returns to the streets of America, it’s unlikely to come from aging hippies and entitled millennials who treat politics like performance art, which is the luxury of well-fed consumers with ample leisure time and discretionary wealth. It will more likely come on the heels of economic dislocation and dwindling wealth to redistribute. And while today we are fighting the rhetoric wars over trivial “scandals” and lurid predictions of democracy’s demise, we are creating the conditions for such economic disorder by our feckless policies of unsustainable entitlement spending, rising deficits, and metastasizing debt. Those fiscal chickens may be coming home to roost in just a couple of decades.

Moreover, the social disorder of a serious economic downturn may be more extreme for us. The greater affluence that we take for granted will make the decline in living standards even more intolerable than in the past. Then we may painfully learn the wisdom in Thucydides’ timeless warning about how people in times of wealth and comfort––such as we are enjoying now with the economy booming and full employment–– find it easier to indulge revolutionary words and gestures, rather than take lethal revolutionary action. But when they “fall under the dominion of imperious necessities,” whether because of war or, what is more likely in our case, economic deprivation, the ensuing breakdown in order can “take away the comfortable provision of daily life.” War or want becomes a “hard master and tends to assimilate men’s characters to their conditions.” That is, in the lean years we may find ourselves capable of brutal actions we’d never consider during the fat years. Right now, the antics of the “resistance” are affordable luxuries for the richest cohort of young people in human history. Let that affluence disappear, and rhetoric indulged in times of comfort can turn to lethal violence and the temptation of collectivist solutions that have paved the road to tyranny in the past.

If we’re really worried about civil violence coming to our streets, let’s do something about the economic dysfunctions that are insidiously making possible the conditions for such violence. That’s a more credible threat than are the social media tantrums and potty-talk of spoiled brats.