Since last year’s tumultuous election, the United States has been plagued by endless discussion about how the country should heal its political division. Often this has taken the form of mindless platitudes, as demonstrated by President Biden in his inauguration speech last week. But if there is any hope of bridging today’s tribal political divisions, serious reflection is needed. And what better place is there to start than by assessing why both the Left and the Right seem incapable of reining in their extremes?
In theory, the American political mainstream believes that extremism is not acceptable. The minute that people take up arms or act violently against agents of the state is the point at which all democrats (with a small “d”) unite in condemnation. In practice, too, that theory is borne out: a recent Washington Post-ABC News survey found that 89% of Americans denounced the actions of the Capitol rioters.
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In the past year, however, both the Left and Right have seen political violence carried out in their name — and both have floundered in their responses to it. Just as the recent Capitol riot tainted the Right, so the violence of last summer’s protests following the death of George Floyd shamed the Left. Yet while both sides have been at fault, neither seems any closer to facing up to that fact. Instead, both prefer to the blame the other, all the while denouncing the unfairness of their own treatment.
The consequences of this are deeply worrying. Polls show that almost a fifth of Republican voters feel some support for the actions of the Capitol rioters. That is a significant, and concerning, chunk of the Republican base. But it is analogous with those on the Left who continued to support the Black Lives Matter movement, even after weeks of nationwide rioting and looting. Indeed, three months after the protests began, 28% of the American public continued to express “strong support” for the movement — a fall of just under 10% in three months.
So why have both the Left and Right struggled to control their extremes? It seems to me that there are three principal reasons. The first is a by-product of the information age: namely, that today’s fringes are amorphous. In 1964, when then Republican candidate Barry Goldwater sought to draw a clear line between the conservative movement and the far-Right, he was famously urged to excommunicate the extremist John Birch Society. In recent weeks, people have called on Republicans to do the same with the “alt-right” and those associated with the Capitol riots. Last summer, meanwhile, many thought it would be shrewd for the Democrats to disassociate themselves with BLM and Antifa.
The trouble, however, is that today, unlike with the John Birch Society, political groupings on both the Left and the Right rarely meet physically, while their leadership and membership structures are anything but clear. It’s all very well demanding that the Republicans sever ties with the “alt-right” — but how do you decide who is “alt-right” and who is not? On the other side, how — other than referring to the law — do you identify which parts of BLM are acceptable and which are not? The answer may not be impossible, but it is certainly harder than in the past.
What makes this even more tricky are the second and third challenges to reining in political extremes. The second – a feeling of unfairness following the condemnation of political violence – has been evident throughout conservative commentary in recent weeks. The American Right has been almost unanimous in its condemnation of the violence at the Capitol. But, at the same time, there has been a tendency to caveat this denunciation by contrasting it with the reluctance of Democrat officials to criticise the violent BLM-Antifa activists last summer.
Typically, they invoke the case of Kamala Harris, who in June gushingly told the comedian Stephen Colbert: “This is a movement. I’m telling you. They’re not going to stop, and everyone, beware… That they’re not going to let up. And they should not, and we should not.”
Of course, it is clear that America’s new Vice President was admiring protests, rather than the violence that followed them. Yet a Republican could be forgiven for holding it up as proof that there are double-standards at play. If, after the storming of the Capitol, Donald Trump or Mike Pence had said that the rioters were “a movement”, that they “were not going to stop” and “should not”, they no doubt would have been accused of legitimising violence.
The problem is that this perception of asymmetry – that feeling of unfairness – cuts both ways. For their part, Democrats claim that whereas the BLM protests had a legitimate cause, the Capitol riot did not; that whereas their perception of police racism in the US is accurate, Trump’s claims about the “stolen” election are not; that while the person they blame for instigating the violence was in the White House at the time, the people accused on their side were not in comparable positions of power. Both sides believe themselves to be in conflict with an opponent who is stronger — and that sense of injustice will not just disappear.
Then there is the third structural problem faced by both sides when dealing with their own extremists: the way in which their political opponents gleefully disrupt what should be moments of reflection to score political points. Since the Capitol riot, for example, the words “terrorist” and “domestic terrorist” have rarely had such a good outing on left-wing cable news channels such as CNN and MSNBC. For instance, CNN presenter Don Lemon made the following claim on-air:
“If you voted for Trump you voted for the person who the Klan supported. You voted for the person who Nazis support… You voted for the person who incited a crowd to go into the Capitol and potentially take the lives of lawmakers. Took the lives of police officers. Took the lives of innocent lives who were there on the Capitol that day.”
Here, Lemon used a shocking but isolated incident to take a broad swing at the entire Republican movement. It was a crude tactic, but I suspect few on the Right would not have done the same had the crowd in Washington on January 6th belonged to the far-Left. Few would have been able to resist the opportunity to present events in a way that tarnished all of their political enemies.
Yet such opportunism only serves to deepen the cycle of division. It was hardly surprising that, immediately after Don Lemon’s monologue went viral, the GOP sent out a fundraising email to its supporters titled “Did you see what CNN said about you?”.
So what can the American majority — the people who disapprove of political violence on all sides — do to stop the spread of extremism across American politics? Well, the Left and the Right could start by agreeing that both sides house extremists who need to be identified. Then, when that’s achieved, they should be fair, consistent and nuanced when apportioning political blame.
All of which may seem remarkably straightforward —and, to an extent, that is true. But at the same time, we must not forget that the future of American politics is at stake. At present, it is riddled with hatred. And with politics, like anything, you get out what you put in.