Living in a free society requires a certain unanimous consent to standards of mutual concern and respect and forebearance that allow all people to feel safe and for minority opinions and groups to feel protected and safe while the majority of people go about living their lives and making decisions and governing with peace and a standard of discourse that allows for broad freedoms because they are not abused. There are, of course, numerous threats to a free society, and at present we are seeing the threat of anarchy to a free society, a threat that has been building for generations but has no reached the level of public and pervasive street violence as a means of applying political pressure for extremist aims. By and large, this may work for a while. Most of the time, political leaders in a functioning republic are not particularly brave people. They are timeservers who have risen up in the ranks through faithful service and the responsive attitude towards the well-being of their peers in institutions and parties as well as towards their constituents. This long training in mildness and sociability in peaceful times does not tend to prepare them for the moral and physical courage it takes to stand down an angry mob of extremists who demand radical change. And yet the scenario is best when precisely this action is shown, because nipping such anarchy in the bud is the best way to ensure the survival of republican norms and the reminder that republics are not too weak to survive in a hostile world, as Lincoln reminded us in his Lyceum address.
But some republics are too weak, or at least are led by people who are too weak to stand up against the chaotic evil of anarchist street revolutionaries of either (or both) the right or the left. Frequently those whose political base is made up of anarchical types given to acts of street violence, be it Antifa or BLM or some other sort on the left or something like the Poor Boys or brownshirts of the right, feel it politically impossible to stand up to their political base or to stir up hostility among people who are already restive and given to violence, if one is not sure that someone has your back. Again, this is to be expected. Those leaders who rise in times where political consensus and a high degree of peaceful dialogue and mutually agreeable compromises the norm find it difficult to cope with the high degree of intense rhetorical and eventually physical violence that comes in revolutionary and counter-revolutionary times such as those in which we now live. There are people who appear to believe as if street violence is something that can be turned up and down like the volume or frequency on a radio dial, but most people are more like fuses and circuits who can only handle so much tension and pressure before they blow. The consequences of that blowing can be dangerous and unpredictable.
History provides us with a fine example of what happens when prolonged social stress and division cause a society to blow. The results are generally not pretty. During the course of the 1800’s in American society, the rising tension over slavery was fed by radicals on both sides who sought to promote their goals through acts of terror and violence towards free blacks as well as partisans of the other side in places like Kansas. The end result of this stoking of fear and paranoia and hostility was that first the people of the South and then the North got whipped up into a furor and fought for four years, ending slavery but in the aftermath preserving a system of second-class status for freed blacks that remained for nearly a century and that continues to roil American politics. It turns out that America was willing neither to make the sorts of sacrifices for justice that Northern radicals demanded nor to give up the unity under a system of beliefs that demanded a belief in the equality of humanity as being an inalienable and God-given right, even if that right was imperfectly realized in society. The tension remains with us, not least because no one can agree on what freedom, equality, and justice actually mean.
Similarly, and this case haunts me because it looks like a potential model for our own contemporary society, Spain in the 1930’s featured a rising partisanship between more extreme rightist and leftist elements. A narrow leftist political victory in 1936 led to an outbreak of “spontaneous” anarchical violence that was directed at churches as well as the property of farmers and others, leading to a failed military coup that turned into a civil war between Franco’s whites and a red government that was divided between anarchists, socialists, and Communists who committed purges against each other as well as against Catholics and other “class enemies.” Eventually the greater military capacity and unity of the side of Franco prevailed over that of the leftist Spanish government, and the result was a Spain that was frozen in hostility to the reds and in sullen neutrality as far as the world was concerned for almost 40 years. And I cannot bring myself to condemn Franco or his regime for it, for if I were in Spain in the 1930’s, there is no way I could bring myself to support the reds over the whites, and no way I can see myself doing that either in contemporary American society. Others, of course, will disagree based on the balance within their own political calculus.
The larger point, though, is that the use of anarchy and the destruction of public and private property and the violence against police and ordinary people who happen to be in the way is unpredictable and frequently lamentable in its consequences and repercussions. It may be somewhat easy for anarchists and rabblerousers of one kind or another to discredit leaders within some sort of republican tradition as being too weak, but the rising dissatisfaction that many (and even perhaps a majority) of people feel with the chaos and confusion. The result is that a great many people will support more authoritarian leaders whose appeal to promoting peace and safety, be it through more militarized police, the military suppression of internal enemies, or through a paramilitary force that does the same thing. The earlier along the process of radicalization and polarization the suppression of anarchical forces occurs, the more republican norms survive and the sooner things may resume a more normal operation. If a prolonged counter-insurgency effort or civil war is required, decades or longer may be required before those norms recover. We live in dangerous times, and the consequences may be far more horrific than most of us are prepared to handle.