To Avoid More Political Violence, Allow Americans to Escape Each Other’s Control
Thousands of National Guard troops patrol the nation’s capital as I write, hoping to ensure that the scheduled transition of power from one president to the next comes off without renewed violence. That sight—unusual for the United States—underlines the fact that millions of Americans no longer support the political system or believe it derives its powers “from the consent of the governed” (as the Declaration of Independence puts it). It also strongly suggests that it’s time to try something new if the government under which we live is to be anything better than a resented force at war with much of the population it rules.
The militarization of Washington, D.C., comes after the January 6 storming of the Capitol —a shocking event with as-yet to be determined repercussions that was actually supported by a fifth of voters and 45 percent of Republicans, according to post-riot polling. Perhaps that’s not as surprising as it should be; well before the ginned-up controversy over the presidential election results, only 24 percent of voters believed the government had the consent of the governed (53 percent disagreed), as reported by a 2018 survey. Maybe the real marvel is that we avoided a January 6-style event for so long.
We’ve built toward this point for years. While the Trumpists’ storming of the Capitol was an unprecedented rejection of the established procedures for transferring power, it built on trends. From the contested, but peaceful, 2000 election, to the boycotting of Trump’s 2016 victory by dozens of Democratic members of Congress as other opponents rioted blocks away, Americans have moved toward belief in the legitimacy of elections only if their side wins. At some point, we were going to see an outright refusal to accept a loss, which is what occurred on January 6.
And there’s no reason to expect that people will lose their distaste for political defeat in future political contests.
How could Americans be accepting of electoral losses when many view their opponents as immoral and unpatriotic and see them as enemies of the country—to the point that the major factions are defined by their hatreds? “Democrats and Republicans … have grown more contemptuous of opposing partisans for decades, and at similar rates,” notes a November 2020 paper on political sectarianism. “Only recently, however, has this aversion exceeded their affection for copartisans.”
To a large extent this is because politics has become combat, with election victors using their control of government agencies to torment losers.
“It is more and more dangerous to lose an election,” economist John Cochrane, a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution and an adjunct scholar of the Cato Institute, wrote in September. “The vanishing ability to lose an election and not be crushed is the core reason for increased partisan vitriol and astounding violation of basic norms on both sides of our political divide.”
No sane people would consent to a political system that works as a weapon against them; they would try to escape its power. One of the virtues of the original decentralize
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