Daniel W. Drezner

The rarity of American political violence

The rarity of American political violence

As Ian Bremmer announced over at The Call, Eurasia Group recently released their top risks for 2011. Coming at no. 7 is the U.S. political system: "In 2011, headline risk will be driven by both parties loudly promoting priorities for which there is no path forward."

It’s telling that political risk assessments need to be used for the United States, but not surprising. The U.S. political system does not always work terribly well.

The events of the past week would appear to expand that sentiment to U.S. political culture, however, which is several cognitive leaps too far. For example, Gideon Rachman compares the murder of a Punjabi governor in Pakistan to the attempted assassination of Arizona congresswoman Gabby Giffords:

Events in both Pakistan and America suggest what happens when you not only disagree with your political opponents – but when you demonise them as enemies of the faith or the nation. At that point, some may conclude that it is legitimate to end the argument with bullets.

Sigh… let’s all take a few deep breaths, shall we?

Let’s turn to Lexington‘s response to Rachman:

Well yes, America could become like Pakistan if people concluded that it was legitimate to settle arguments with bullets. But in America, where guns are plentiful and political and religious feelings intense, the telling thing is that almost no one at all considers political violence to be legitimate. The killings have been met with universal condemnation by ordinary Americans and the whole political class. The violent act of one probably deranged individual doesn’t show that America is heading down the same road as Pakistan. And the response to it suggests that the political cultures of the two countries are fundamentally different.

Indeed, seen in historical context, Adam Serwer points out that the United States’ political culture has trended away from violence:

Political violence in the United States has never been more illegitimate. There was a time when a member of Congress could walk into the Senate and beat a political rival senseless and walk away unmolested. The South was once a place of unrestrained terrorist violence conducted with the tacit approval of local authorities. Even when those authorities were brave or responsible enough to press charges, securing guilty verdicts would be difficult because of a local culture willing to accept crimes committed in service to white supremacy. We live in a time where no major political movement would be willing to openly justify such behavior.

This is why, in the aftermath of the incident, both the left and right began placing the blame on the other side.

Finally, we get to James Pethokoukis:

[P]olitical violence has been rare in the United States in recent years. That’s despite the disputed 2000 presidential election, the unpopular Iraq war and the election of the first black president. Indeed, the World Bank ranks America above the UK when it comes to "political stability and absence of violence." And the U.S. rank has actually been on the rise in recent years.

There’s going to be a rollicking debate about whether political vitriol contributes to political violence. Fine. But let’s put things in perspective — extremist rhetoric or not, this kind of thing is blessedly rare in the American polity.