But hovering over these hearings will be a broader, unanswered question: whether the United States is having an endemic problem with political violence and, in the coming years, how severe it is.
For an unwavering look at this larger context, I contacted Rachel Kleinfeld, an expert on political conflict who has studied the breakdown of democracy and the rule of law in many countries.
In a new article for Just Security, Kleinfeld described the formation of connections between militias and Republican Party actors at all levels. And in his most recent book, “A Savage Order,” Kleinfeld details the patterns of democratic decay that have pushed other nations toward fire.
I asked Kleinfeld to explain how the events surrounding January 6 could be a harbinger of such devastation here at home. An edited and shortened version of our exchange follows.
Greg Sargent: You are written that the Republican Party has a “militia problem.” Can you describe it?
Rachel Kleinfeld: Over the past few years, we’ve seen an increase in Republican parties at the local level-even occasionally at the state level-using militias for security at party events, having militias vote on business of the party, in a case in Michigan that introduced militias. law. You see a lot of photo-ops with militia members-things that normalize their interaction with the democratic process.
These militias are used to intimidate other Republicans who are not part of this antidemocratic faction.
Sargent: It seems like some GOP and right -wing politicians are flying into a gray area. They are endorsing violent attack in opposition without facing serious party discipline, fantasizing about settling political differences through paramilitary fighting, extensive minimizing the Jan. 6 insurrectionist violence o propaganda erases itat descriptive Ene. 6 rioters faced prosecution as “political prisoners.”
Is this gray area being replicated by other countries that have continued with worse political violence?
Kleinfeld: One of the things we know about other countries that have descended into larger political violence is that violence precedes a stage of dehumanization. America is at that stage: things like misogyny, racial epithets, calling Democrats “groomers” and comparing them to pedophiles.
The next stage makes violence against inhumane opponents more normal. You start to see GOP candidates pretending to have rifles – all from the Christmas photo of Rep. Family. Thomas Massie until Eric Greitens ’new ads about hunting RINOs.
Sometimes it is against Republicans who are not part of the antidemocratic faction. Sometimes it’s against Democrats. But either way, dehumanization normalizes the idea that hurting dehumanized opponents is legitimate.
We know from other countries that have gone into really serious political violence that this is a trajectory, and we are in it. Honestly, we’re pretty advanced here.
Sargent: What would a further spiral down from here look like? One might think of something like this: Threats of violence towards election administrators worse. Election results, especially when Republicans are defeated, are violently challenged more regularly. The routine talk about the illegality of Democratic rule is increasingly endorsed by GOP party actors, leading to violent attacks on politicians.
Some experts on democratic breakdown fear of something similar in “the Troubles” in Ireland. What are you worried about? Is it similar to the one I laid out?
Kleinfeld: It’s actually a bit worse. The percentages of Americans endorsing violence were approaching Northern Ireland’s Troubles at their height in 1973.
Today, the anti-democratic faction of Republicans targets three groups: the pro-democratic faction of Republicans; election officials in both parties who maintain free and fair elections; and many regular people they target with dehumanization and violence, to build their own base.
If the antidemocratic faction wins, I think the escalating violence we see today will continue. But if they start to lose, then they have developed a lot of hatred – a lot of mistrust in the system – and then the violence will get out of their control. It will look more like an insurgency. The unaffected left, not connected to the Democratic Party, also justifies the violence. It can be ugly.
Sargent: Is it like a world-historical moment, as some historians argue? This is clearly an imperfect parallel, but European liberal strictly monitored the US is fighting against slavery with an eye on what the state of democracy in the world will be in the future. Are liberal democrats abroad watching what we are doing today in some similar sense? Should they?
Kleinfeld: This is a good question. Liberal democracy around the world is being undermined. Major democracies – such as India – are now ranked as the “free part” of the Freedom House. America has become one of the top 25 countries on the fastest downward trajectory.
So other countries are looking at the US But the US is also part of a global trend.
There are many reasons for this trend. But one is that the democratic world tends to see China as the main political model as a threat, whereas we are likely to see Russia as only causing chaos.
But Russia ay propagation of the alternative model. It’s a White, Christian, traditional hierarchy, very masculine, led by a strong man-and they’re propagating that model around the world, through satellites like Hungary, and through online white-supremacist movements they support.
We have to take seriously that for most of the world, this traditional hierarchy is very attractive. It is an alternative political model that we are now fighting for around the world.
Sargent: Does it put us at a crossroads? Trump tried to destroy our constitutional order and had the secret support of many in his party. That caused the largest outbreak of political violence in modern U.S. history. Yet many Republicans refuse to seriously admit what happened or even dismiss efforts at an accounting as they are illegitimate.
Could a very different response from Republican leaders right now – which they take the moment seriously – make a further downward spiral more likely?
Kleinfeld: Really. Research on leaders is incredibly clear. If enough Republican leaders started denouncing political violence – saying there is a line in the sand in a democracy, and it is violence – we would see less political violence.
America faced political violence then. The Ku Klux Klan grew in the 1920s. Following Brown against the Board of Education, you had a huge uprising of “massive resistance” in the South. In both cases, elected politicians and candidates normalized much of the violence.
We have had this in the past. We are having now. Politicians have a big role to play in dialing that back.
Sargent: This is the moment when the hearings really talk about political violence as a threat to our future. What do we need to see the hearings staged on this score?
Kleinfeld: They need to show how the GOP uses organized militias. They also need to show that political violence is more mainstream today. The types of people who commit political violence on the right are no longer criminal demographics.
The types of violence we see in political events – Jan. 6 and so on – most people are old men, they are married, they have children, they have jobs. Often white-collar jobs.
Americans need to realize that paramilitary groups can be a normal part of our political life. We may begin to see that the exercise of freedom of speech and assembly is less safe. It is less safe than it was a few years ago.
Sargent: In your perfect version of the hearing, will it be dramatized?
Kleinfeld: The fact that political violence will begin to affect people’s daily lives needs to be highlighted. Americans need to understand that you can’t just hide your head, stay away from politics and avoid what’s happening.
You will not be able to hide it.
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