For secular liberal people, Western democracies have entered a difficult time. Many voters have turned to right-wing populist leaders and their policies. These voters are embracing isolationism, xenophobia, anti-immigrant bigotry, tariff wars, and other reactionary ideas. Their favored leaders are drawing support from a dangerous mix of theocrats, racist ideologues, and sometimes even outright fascists. However it came to this, it’s genuinely scary. Many people with rational vantages on democratic politics are in a state of shock and fear.
We’ll need to push back against right-wing populism and its especially troubling fascist fringes. If we’re to act strategically, we’ll need to understand what has gone so wrong and why. We will need all our intelligence, courage, and honesty. We need to stand and be counted when freedoms and benefits are being stripped from ourselves or others. While I understand the shock and fear—and indeed, I feel some of it myself—we mustn’t allow it to cloud our thinking.
One development that worries me is the temptation that some feel to lash out with violence of their own, or at least to applaud and encourage political violence. So far, most of the resistance to right-wing populist leaders has been peaceful. Some of it has been clever and good-humored. But we’re seeing violence from left-wing extremists, such as the masked, black-clad anarchists and antifascists who sometimes form a “black bloc” at demonstrations to smash and burn cars and shops and fight on the streets. This is a small component of the response to right-wing populism, but it has the potential to do great social harm.
Violent anarchist and antifascist groups are not easily controllable by mainstream political leaders, the police, or anyone else. We have little power to stop them, but we don’t have to reward them and egg them on. Whatever social damage they have caused so far is relatively insignificant compared to that of far-Right demagogues, but it still has to be contained. I’d be less worried about these groups except for one thing. I am now seeing too many people who should know better viewing Antifa-style extremists almost as heroes. That might seem understandable, but violence is not acceptable in democratic politics no matter who is the target.
The issue came to the fore in January 2017 following an attack on the political ideologue and activist Richard Spencer. Spencer denies being a neo-Nazi, but at best he is too close to it for comfort. He may or may not have some ideological disagreements with Adolf Hitler and other leaders of the Third Reich, but whatever those might be, Spencer’s own brand of white nationalism and his vocal support for “peaceful” ethnic cleansing qualify him as a fascist by almost any definition. So, why not fight him on the street if you get a chance? Footage that has gone viral on the Internet shows a demonstrator doing exactly that. A masked man rushes at Spencer from off-camera, punches him hard full in the face and then escapes into the crowd. At the time, Spencer had been peacefully giving an interview about his (admittedly deplorable) ideas.
My social-media feeds then filled with people whom I know to be usually sensible and gentle: they variously applauded the attack on Spencer, expressed pleasure and glee, went out of their way to broadcast their lack of sympathy, and even claimed that this is the proper method to engage enemies on the far Right. I submit that they ought to think again. Violence on our public streets is not the way forward. We should refrain from it; we should condemn it when it happens; and we certainly should not applaud it, encourage it, or publicly gloat over it. We have smarter, more effective, more principled, more democratically legitimate options.
No liberal democratic state can grant its citizens a right to commit political violence. Perhaps some kinds of political language should be prohibited by the state (note that I have never claimed to be an absolutist regarding free speech), but if so they will have to be defined as narrowly as possible (traditionally limited to inciting violence, but we should also consider the most dehumanizing kinds of hate propaganda). However, as long as political participants are acting lawfully in what they do and say, as Spencer undoubtedly was, it is not the prerogative of ordinary citizens to impose their own extralegal punishments. That way lies public disorder, with every political group claiming a right to employ violence against its enemies.
Imagine the carnage if we adopted a rule where anyone may physically attack others whose ideas seem sufficiently dangerous or wicked. For example, many people view abortion as murdering babies, and some fanatics have already killed abortion providers. Do we really want a rule that allows antiabortion extremists to beat up anybody who advocates pro-choice policies? Perhaps you’re thinking that it wouldn’t be an individual, subjective decision as to which persons constitute fair game to be beaten up for their ideas, but in that case whose decision is it going to be? If we each don’t get to decide for ourselves who is fair game for a punch in the face or worse, who does choose? The police? The courts? Some other arm of government? Do we really want this?
Once a society degenerates into political violence, it plays into fascists’ hands. Fascists are better at violence than most, and they love excuses for it. In turn, authoritarians who may not be outright fascists will seize on any excuse to restrict demonstrations and impose their own version of what they call “order.” If things get chaotic enough, public opinion will be on their side.
We shouldn’t take part in political violence, and we shouldn’t tolerate it either. Stop this nonsense, before we’re sucked into a morass with no escape.