Thursday, May 25, 2017

The Gianforte Problem

The assault on a reporter by Montana Congressional candidate Greg Gianforte brings our politics to a new inflection point. Democracy is a fragile affair, and there are many forces and contingencies that can work to its detriment. Among all such factors, however, violence is the most destructive. Political violence acts like a corrosive acid on the institutional coherence and functional foundations of a democracy. The fate of republican systems in Germany, China, Spain, and a host of other nations stand testimony to this fact.

American democracy has proven very resilient in the face of this peril. The Civil War did not bring the American project to an end; nor did the wave of anarchist terrorism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries; nor did the attacks on John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and George Wallace in the years between 1963 and 1972. But such experiences prove that the American public and leaders have been perspicacious enough to defend the system against such challenges, not that the system itself is immune.

What is most distressing in the case of Gianforte is that today's vote will inevitably (rightly or wrongly) be viewed as a referendum on Gianforte's use of violence. This is not an unprecedented event. In a special election on August 1, 1856 the voters of South Carolina's 4th Congressional District returned Prestoon Brooks to the House after his brutal caning of Senator Charles Sumner. The fact that the Civil War followed less than five years after that event does not bode well for anyone trying to use Gianforte's prospective election as a bellwether.

Political violence was on the rise in our country before the election of Donald Trump. Terrorist attacks like those in Boston, Orlando and San Bernadino were obvious examples of this trend. So were the attacks on Representative Gabby Giffords, the assault on the Sikh Temple in Wisconsin, and the murder of churchgoers in Charleston. In the rising climate of fear and anger created by such incidents, the rhetoric and tactics employed by the Trump campaign were (and are) potentially very toxic to our civic life. It is difficult not to look at Gianforte's assault on a reporter, followed by his rationalizing it as a response to the provocations of a "liberal journalist," as a further regressive stage in a persistent downhill slide. 

It may seem strident to juxtapose Gianforte's transgression to atrocities such as Charleston or Orlando, but if history teaches us anything it is that political violence can not be tolerated as a matter of degree. Either we respect one-another's physical persons absolutely or we abdicate the basic principle of civil discourse on which our democratic political life depends. As I wrote in another blog, even the "glitter bomb" attacks that have been popularized in some recent activism are in breach of this imperative. There may be room for reasonable people to reasonably disagree about what the boundaries of "politically correct" speech should be, but in a functional democracy there is no such thing as "politically correct" violence.

Speaker Ryan has called upon Greg Gianforte to apologize. I applaud Mr. Ryan's statements, and I hope that Mr. Gianforte will comply. If he does so before polls close today some of the damage he has done to our civic life might be ameliorated, even if he should win a seat in Congress. In any case, for the sake of our institutions I hope that he will be seen to pay a political price for what he has done.

UPDATE: I feel moved to add the punching of Richard Spencer, "Alt-Right (read: Neo-Nazi)" leader on January 20 to the list of recent acts of political violence, which I am sure could be vastly expanded. Spencer's case is particularly important because it illustrates a fundamental truth: for democracy to work even the person of a figure as reprehensible as Spencer should be sacrosanct, much less that of a reporter seeking answers about a matter of public policy.

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