Bridging the Divide: Pt. 1 Considering the Extremes
One challenge when seeking to listen to and summarize the beliefs of the “two sides” of American politics is that there are more than two sides. Both the Democratic and Republican parties have internal battles for control that will likely become more apparent once Trump exists/is thrown off the political stage. Even when you look at the extreme right and extreme left there is still a divide between those who condone and are currently using violence and those who think that time has not yet come.
Alarmingly, however, the violent extremist camps, while small, are increasing in size and attention. The capital riot was merely the latest culmination of an increasing escalation of violence, which has been a trackable trend on both sides over the past few years.
Before we go any further, it’s necessary to make a brief aside. Some readers are already becoming upset because they’re reading my above statement as claiming that the violence we witnessed at the capital and the violence over the last summer are morally equal. These readers are already persuaded that they have spotted my bias. And here we come upon our first roadblock in a discussion of this sort – the insertion of meaning into statements beyond what is being said. “Pushing an agenda” or “implicit bias/ dog whistles” are two sides of the same coin that allows those of us on the right or the left to dismiss someone without considering what they are actually saying. We’re going to have to give each other the benefit of the doubt if we are going to make any headway in this conversation, so I beg your patience and charity in not attributing to me motives, meaning, or nefarious agendas that do not exist.
The increasing violence on both sides has been a trackable trend over the last four plus years. On the left, we have the college riots (read The Coddling of the American Mind, written by two admittedly liberal professors for more on these incidents) and the unrest/exclusions zones following the killing of George Floyde last summer. On the right, we have a dramatic spike in terrorist attacks (the Global Terrorism Database, which tracks trends in terrorist attacks worldwide has indicated that right-wing extremist attacks have surpassed number of Islamic extremist attacks in the US over the past five years) and the capital riot.
Here, at the violent fringes, we would expect to find the least agreement. These people have, after all, abandoned discourse and have decided that it’s time to use force to bring about their political will. One would think that if two groups make virtue of their hatred and desire to harm each other, we would have reached the widest gap between the two camps.
And yet, when we examine these two groups, we find that their justification for violence is remarkably similar – they feel the system is so broken, corrupt, and unjust that it must be brought down with violence. No small wonder then that both sides have directed violence at symbols of power (the capital and the courthouse in Portland) and those seen to protect and enforce the government we have (police).
A bitter and tragic piece of irony was evident in California this year. A right-wing extremist ambushed and shot a police officer in May. Two months later, a left-wing mob was blocking the entrance of an emergency room as responders tried to save the lives of two deputies who had been shot in another ambush, refusing to let EMS bring them into the hospital and chanting to let them die. Both right and left extremists were attempting the same thing – political killings of law enforcement officers because of what they represent. These are just two examples of many evident last year – there are more on both sides (again, I am not claiming an equal number- but the fact that there are so many on both sides should give us pause).
But the motives are different- many of my Facebook friends insist. Posts for the past month have been riddled with why the violence on one side is more justified than the other. If I can’t see the difference, I’m told by both my friends on both sides, then I am either willfully ignorant or hopelessly uneducated.
And, to an extent, they are right (one would hope not about my level of education or willful ignorance). The violence on the left came about because it was believed gross injustice was done to a minority community. Several videos (George Floyd, Jacob Blake, etc) became the focal point of the violence, but the sentiment has been simmering under the surface for decades. Flashpoints rarely come from nowhere – they need pent-up animosity to feed the fire.
The violence on the right, on the other hand, came about because it was believed that widespread voting fraud was committed in an election where the fate of the country was at stake. These claims of voting fraud were supported by several videos (such as those in Pittsburgh), but the ideas that the American political system is insecure and that liberal elites are attempting to erase traditional American values are also not new issues.
But I digress, for we are drifting into content that I intend to cover in the next post. Suffice it to say, though the motives are different, we can clearly see a few themes emerging. Both violent sides see no way out other than force. Both perceive their way of life to be threatened and the power structures to be hopelessly rigged against them. Both are driven by animosity that goes beyond a handful of videos, but the videos or incidents provide the spark to light the fuel that has been compiled, and this has led them to decide that it’s better to tear down the system than try to fix it. Though we are here abstaining from making value judgements of which (if either) is better or worse, I think it’s safe to say that both sides self-perception fits an eerily similar pattern, regardless of truthfulness of that perception.
A somewhat grimly amusing similarity is the lack of accountability many in the left and right camp allow their respective violent extremists to take for the violence. During the summer riots, I was informed by some friends on the left that most of the violence was instigated by white supremist and undercover cops. This last month, I was informed by some friends on the right that the capital violence was the fault of antifa agitators and deep state cops on a false flag operation. It’s notable that both sides lay the blame for the violence not just at the feet of the violent extremists on the “other side” but at the feet of those tasked with upholding the system as well.
But, this particular bit of irony does hold within it an important hope to examine. It’s easy (and valid) to get frustrated by the hypocrisy and cognitive dissonance in these responses, but I think it gives us cause for great encouragement.
The fact that my vocal friends on one side or the other feel the need to explain away the violence and shift blame shows that they themselves don’t think we’re at a point where violence is justified. One doesn’t shift blame for delivering a beating to a man who’s trying to kidnap one’s child, but one does not easily own up to getting into a fistfight over a parking spot. The former is justified, the latter isn’t. The fact that so many people on both sides are trying to assign blame to the other side or deny/minimize the effects of the violence shows that most people don’t believe that violence is justified. Quite the opposite, though they are certainly quicker to highlight the violence on the other side of the political spectrum, they are, in effect way, disowning the violence committed by people who would seem to be closer to their side of the political spectrum.
Here we come to the reason why we started on the fringe edge of the political divide. The fact that most people think that the politically motivated violence we have witnessed is wrong, shows our first important point of agreement between most people in the two camps.
The unbridgeable divide is not between the left and the right. Despite what all the marketing and social media hype tells us, if there is an unbridgeable divide, it exists between those who wish to violently discard the system we have, and those who are committed to working within the constitutional system that outlines our democracy within a republic. Because for all our flaws, if we throw away the entire system, we also lose the bill of rights, the 14th amendment, and the balance of powers that has allowed us to live in relative individual liberty and prosperity compared to the great balance of human history. Most people understand that if we throw that system away, then there’s no guarantee we improve the situation for this or future generations. The balance of human history would argue that the opposite is far more likely.
I believe we can still talk this out, can still find common ground, and reach compromises that will make our country better. And I believe that based upon the above, the vast majority of Americans on both sides of the political aisle agree with me. I think that this is the first point at which we can bridge the political divide and begin making progress toward addressing some of the legitimate grievances that exist on both sides.
Committing ourselves to preserving and improving the protections of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness that we have, and dedicating ourselves to ensuring that they more perfectly provide freedom and justice for all Americans is where we can begin.