America’s politics of absolutes fuels ideological violence

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The shooting in a Pittsburgh synagogue on Saturday was the worst attack on American Jews in the nation’s history. The past 18 months have also seen the Republican congressman Steve Scalise shot (he survived and continues to serve), the killing of protester Heather Heyer at a far-right rally and the mailing of explosives to prominent liberals.

One use of history is to put current events “in perspective”. Not only is this becoming flimsier consolation by the week but, in the case of Pittsburgh, the present is worse than the past.

A better use of history is to counsel realism about the future. There are calls for the moderation of political rhetoric. These are aimed at President Donald Trump but also at the talk radio stations, cable news shows, social media and polemical non-fiction publishers that together make up the viscera of the US body politic. These calls should be obeyed. The temperature of public life has been too high since the 1990s.

Or perhaps the 1960s. Some would say the 1860s. And therein lies a warning. Political division, and its manifestation as violence, predates this era. It is likely to outlast it. The point is not that Americans should settle for what a British home secretary once called, in the context of Northern Ireland sectarianism, an “acceptable level of violence”. But it is too much to expect a cooling of tempers within the politico-media world to fix a problem that runs deep into society and is almost as old as the republic.

Punctuated by violence

Political violence is not unique to the US, even among the rich democracies. Britain, Sweden and the Netherlands have suffered assassinations in this century. Nor should its incidence be overstated in a nation of 320m people, which, next week, will hold peaceful elections for state and federal offices as a matter of routine. All the same, violence has punctuated the US democratic process since at least the 19th century, in the form of riots, guerrilla groups, racial attacks and assassinations. And none of this includes the formalised violence of the civil war, which claimed more American lives than all external wars combined.

We can but speculate about the ultimate source of this dark tradition. One view is that countries founded in revolution are infused with a belief in force as a legitimate recourse against tyranny. To the wrong ears, this potentially noble idea becomes an incitement to all kinds of destruction. Self-aggrandising comparisons with the revolutionaries are a trope among modern extremists. Another theory is that the US, with its codified right to bear arms, never met the Weberian definition of a state, which must claim a “monopoly of the legitimate use of violence within a given territory”. Through historical experience and constitutional provision, then, the US allows slightly more room for extra-democratic action than is typical in the West.

It has become too easy to malign pragmatic wavering as sell-outs and flip-flops

These are strong currents to wade against. Even if Washington became a more decent place, that might not be enough.

The calls for political civility run up against another limitation. They are essential as far as they go, but they only go as far as exterior behaviour. The underlying problem in modern politics, in the US and elsewhere, is an excess of intellectual certitude. The basis of democracy – of civilisation – is doubt. A person who is reasonably confident that their ideological programme is correct is unlikely to harm anyone to advance that programme. A person who is absolutely certain might.

Assorted views

As well as less incendiary speech, then, habits to be encouraged include internal doubt, changes of mind and the holding of assorted views that do not add up to a system of thought with pretensions to explain everything (as Karl Popper defined pseudoscience). It has become too easy for people to boast of espousing the same beliefs all their life as if that is some kind of achievement. It has become too easy to malign pragmatic wavering as sell-outs and flip-flops.

The US is nearing a decade of economic growth. Unemployment is under 4 per cent. The country is at relative peace with the world. If politics is as raw as it is now, we have to entertain the prospect that it will become worse in the event of a souring domestic or international context.

The priority must be to contain this rancour within the democratic process. It involves contending with a foul atmosphere in the politics of today, but also with an ugly history that long predates it.

The way beliefs are communicated will have to change. So should the confidence with which they are held. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018

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