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Americans Need to Ratchet Down Crazy Politics
Citizens should stop waiting for politicians and ideologues to act like decent people committed to civil discourse. Take the reins of American democracy.
The Washington Post kicked off 2022 with a bang reporting that more than one third of Americans now believe that violent action against the government is sometimes justified. This includes nearly one quarter of Democrats and around 4 in 10 Independents and Republicans, respectively. The current marker for justified violence against the government is more than 20 points higher than when the same question was asked in 1995.
It’s easy to dismiss poll findings such as this as idle rumination by people—or the result of a switch in methodology—and not a meaningful portrayal of a chunk of Americans on the verge of violent action against the state. Fortunately, looking at the reasons cited for justified violence among this one-third of Americans most involve high-level speculative concerns about government oppression, military coups, or other abuses of power—all situations that might arise in a civics class discussion of the Declaration of Independence and the Revolutionary War.
The bigger question for our democracy is whether this group of Americans might start reacting in an extreme manner to regular political decisions made within the constitutional system. Is a particular step taken by the federal government a genuine act of oppression akin to dictatorship, or is it just the normal outcome of legislative and judicial systems producing a result or ruling some people don’t like? Given the direction of modern politics and media discourse, it is plausible that more Americans across the ideological divide could start interpreting things they don’t like—such as public health efforts, a favored candidate losing an election, the passing of a bill, or a Supreme Court ruling that goes against their beliefs—as a form of authoritarian repression and tyranny that warrants a violent response.
This is objectively nutty.
Yet despite the obvious deficiencies in this style of thinking, how many of the ideological forces running the Republican and Democratic parties today—or the major media operations and activist groups shaping public discourse—can we count on to tamp down and confront these anti-democratic sentiments? Unfortunately, genuine pro-democracy forces are few and far between. Too many political leaders and activists today purposefully fuel insane interpretations of normal politics that in a more benign manner produce senseless political divisions that undermine American interests, and at their worst, threaten democratic stability.
What’s to be done about this irrational shift in politics? We clearly need to shore up our laws and court rulings to defend the proper functioning of elections and the peaceful resolution of political disputes in the country.
But policy alone can’t fully fix the problem of rising threats to democratic stability.
Normal Americans need to take back control of democratic discourse and end the toxic drift in politics towards treating people or officials who think differently as enemies of the state. Patriots across the spectrum should refuse to engage in hyperbolic political fights or give money and online oxygen to the forces that promulgate these views. Call out the ideologues of any persuasion who threaten democracy by fomenting sectarian racial, religious, or partisan divisions. Stand up for solid American values like equal dignity and rights for all people and a unifying commitment to economic opportunity for everyone.
America is the best country in the world because its citizens are free to be themselves and to live their own lives based on their own values and beliefs.
Americans may not get along all the time or agree on many things or all have the same chances in life. But we don’t turn our differences and situations into excuses for anti-democratic activities. We vote, we organize, we petition, we fight peacefully for justice and rights for all, we lobby our legislators, and we take disputes to court if necessary. This is the American way of democracy—not violence.
Going into 2022, American patriots must show the rest of the world—and our fellow citizens—that we can maintain pluralism and handle our political differences without devolving into conspiracies about oppressions that don’t exist or taking actions that undermine the country itself.