Both during and after the mob’s occupation of the U.S. Capitol on January 6, the American people and the world public were repeatedly treated to the refrain: “This is not who we, as Americans, are.”
As an aspirational statement, this is presumably true. As a factual statement, however, it is obviously false. If we wish to move beyond an era of alternative facts, it is necessary that Americans acknowledge that this is indeed “who we, as Americans, are” at this moment in time.
What should we make of this unpleasant fact? To begin to put into perspective the mob’s attack on the Capitol and the tasks now facing the Biden administration, let’s start with three basic points.
The first is that, in a historical perspective, the mob’s invasion of the Capitol was unusual only in the choice of target, and that the difference in choice of target is explicable simply in terms of changes in technology that reduce the significance of geographic distance and that facilitate the national, rather than local, organization of protests and the assembly of large groups at distant locations.
Insurrectionary mob attacks on the institutions of government have historically been a regular form of political action in America. It was an angry mob in March 1770 that assaulted British troops guarding the Customs House in Boston, precipitating the “Boston Massacre.” In 1794, it took President George Washington at the head of an army of 13,000 to reimpose federal law when, in the socalled “Whiskey Rebellion,” mobs of ordinary Americans attacked federal marshals. In October 1859 at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, John Brown and his ordinary, common-folk followers, seized the federal arsenal and — however laudable their cause — sought to start an armed revolt against the Republic. Two years later, an angry Baltimore mob took it upon itself to assault federalized Pennsylvania and Massachusetts militia, spilling the first blood in what would turn into the American Civil War. The list could go on and on.
It would be easy to attribute this long history of mob violence to the nation’s frontier mentality or to some sort of inherent American thuggishness. This, however, would miss a far deeper truth. The acceptance of violent insurrection as “normal” (if unusual) political behavior is rooted in American political theory.
From nearly the very beginning of colonial settlement, Americans assumed that any government – even one they elected themselves and even one operating under a Constitution they themselves wrote – would eventually become tyrannical. The protection of individual “natural rights” (including what many Americans in 1861 believed to be their natural right to own slaves) was assumed to require a willingness to take up arms against the government. In the face of sustained tyranny, armed insurrection was not simply a political option: it was a political duty. Indeed, this is precisely why Americans insisted on the Second Amendment to their Constitution, which guaranteed that the government could never deny ordinary Americans “the right to bear arms.”
Facts and beliefs
The second important observation is that a substantial number of Americans do in fact believe that the American government has become tyrannical. It is easy to dismiss such beliefs as completely delusional, part of the same unhinged mindset that credulously accepts QAnon’s claims that the government is composed of Satanist, cannibalistic pedophiles. And certainly, some of the Americans who believe the U.S. government is tyrannical are delusional: the claim that the 2020 election was “stolen,” for example, is both completely implausible and apparently completely impervious to evidence or rational argument.
This said – and in no way minimizing the criminal culpability of demagogues, including former President Donald Trump, in popularizing and giving credibility to outrageously false claims – what ultimately separates Americans who see the American government as tyrannical from those who do not is not their ability to think rationally but their definition of what constitutes tyranny. It is always risky to try to explain the thinking of individuals when those individuals are themselves not conscious of the roots of their thinking. In this case, however, a careful dissection of rhetoric and arguments is very revealing.
If one digs deeply enough into the minds of the majority of Americans – that is, of those Americans who were shocked by the mob assault on the seat of America’s Constitutional republic – one finds at the core of their thinking (some admittedly vague notion of) the Constitution. However inchoately expressed, ideas like “representative government,” “rule of law,” and “equal protection under the law” are, in this view, the essence of American liberal, republican democracy. Tyranny, in this view, is government behavior that violates the basic principles of the Constitution.
If one digs equally deeply into the thinking of those Americans who see the current government as tyrannical, however, it is not an assumption of the fundamental rightness of the Constitution one finds, but an embrace of the more radically liberal claims enunciated in the Declaration of Independence. This rejection of the foundational nature of the Constitution is hardly surprising: even at the time of its adoption, the Constitution was vigorously opposed by many Americans who saw in the Constitution an abandonment of the principles of the Declaration and the creation of a government that would possess tyrannical power. In this view, the foundational political document is the Declaration of Independence, a document that can be interpreted as arguing that the sole legitimate purpose of government is to protect the individual’s freedom to live as he or she chooses.
From the viewpoint of this second group, government has no business trying to change an individual’s or a community’s way of life. “Don’t tread on me!” is this group’s attitude toward government; government’s role is simply to protect and defend the individual’s and community’s freedom to choose their way of life. However ill-advised or even repugnant a community’s culture, mores, or institutions might appear to those who control the government or to the general public, any governmental attempt to alter these is, by this alternative definition, a tyrannical overextension of government power (unless the government can demonstrate that these actions are clearly and immediately necessary to repel a foreign invasion or to prevent one citizen from unjustly harming another). A distant government that, for example, demands that they and their neighbors regard homosexuality as a personal choice, rather than as an abomination or illness, is tyrannical – as is one that forbids them from discriminating however, they like on the basis of race, or that denies them the right to assign different social roles to men and to women, or that requires their community’s schools prohibit prayer and teach evolution and sex education.
The third important observation is that, like developed nations around the world, America is in the throes of a technology-driven post-industrial economic revolution. Like the nineteenth century industrial revolution, this revolution is generating traumatic, even brutal, social change. While this new revolution has brought economic and status rewards to East and West Coast elites and, more broadly, to the professional class, it has been devastating for large swathes of the working class. Skills and attributes that were once valued now are not. Behavior once regarded as virtuous is now mocked or punished. Communities that took many generations to build are dying in a single lifespan. With them, an entire way of life is being destroyed.
In truth, there is probably little that the federal government could or can do to stop this economic revolution or to prevent this social destruction. But it is natural to look for human causation, and it is hardly surprising that the traumatized blame the government and the elite that controls it as being responsible for the devastation they are experiencing. And indeed, successive administrations – including the Trump administration — have embraced policies aimed at easing the economic transition and social transformation rather than at trying to protect these communities’ abilities to preserve their traditional way of life.
Worse, from the perspective of these devastated communities, the government has actively worked to ensure this societal destruction. Devastated communities see themselves as under attack from their own government –being told that they need to abandon their “deplorable” cultures and their now increasingly illegal traditions, and that they must embrace the foreign values and lifestyles of “progressive” America.
Not a collapse of democracy in America
The events of January 6 are less surprising once one acknowledges these three realities – that armed insurrection has a long history in American culture as a response to perceived tyranny; that government action to compel individuals and communities to change their “way of life” is regarded by many Americans as inherently tyrannical; and that in response to the crisis of post-industrialization the U.S. government has sought to ease transition from, rather than to protect, the traditional way of life of many American communities.
None of this takes the Trump administration off the hook for its anti-democratic demagoguery or for the collapse of civility in American political life over the last four years. It does, however, suggest that the problem is deeper than Trump.
Equally important, however, it suggests that what we are witnessing is not a collapse of democracy in America. What we are witnessing is the American political system operating within its own liberal, democratic norms as American society deals with the end of the industrial era and the emergence of a post-industrial one. There is sometimes an expectation that the political life of a liberal, democratic, republic will be calm, stable, and peaceful. This, however, is an entirely unreasonable expectation. The success of liberal, democratic, republican political life is not measured in consensus but in individual freedom, inclusion, and virtue, and there is no reason to expect that the process toward these will be smooth.
Artikkeli on julkaistu SAM Magazine 1/2021-numerossa helmikuussa 2021.
Edward Rhodes is a professor of Government and International Affairs at George Mason University. Rhodes is best known for his research into the philosophical and cultural roots of American foreign and national security policy. Rhodes received his A.B. from Harvard University and his MPA and Ph.D. degrees from Princeton University.