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America's Tortured Take on Political Violence
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In line with other surveys taken in the run-up to the anniversary of the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol Hill riot, a new NPR/Ipsos poll finds that 32% of Republicans and 22% of Democrats say that political violence is sometimes justified. The media is going nuts — as usual.

Fearful expressions that we might lose our democracy to an act of terrorism, coup attempt, assassination or another form of brute force have been a staple of official propaganda for years. A December 2021 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science notes: “Since 2016 we counted 2,863 mentions of political violence on news television, more than 630 news stories about political violence, and over 10 million Tweets on the topic of the January 6th riot alone.”

Politicians of all stripes constantly state that, as Trump commented after the 2017 Unite the Right march in Charlottesville, Virginia, political violence “has no place in America.”

These rote declarations are completely divorced from reality.

Contrary to the wishful thinking of many commentators, the United States of America is not Switzerland. From the Shays’ and Whiskey Rebellions to the Civil War and the urban uprisings of the 1960s to the 2014 Bundy standoff, there is nothing new about the fact that, in many Americans’ minds, violence sometimes does solve things. We are a restive people frequently divided by great questions that go unresolved for long periods of time. On occasion, such a clash results in a refusal to peacefully acquiesce to accept government authority.

Our republic rests upon a paradox. We teach schoolchildren that in the late 18th century, the personal assessment of some colonists that the British government was unjust followed by their decision to take up arms was not merely justified but noble and heroic. In the 21st century, however, any analogous judgment that this government is corrupt and unresponsive to their needs is beyond the pale — and an armed revolt would be the act of treasonous maniacs.

One is reminded of Qin Shi Huang, the emperor who brutally conquered six rival kingdoms, killed more than a million enemy soldiers, declared himself emperor of unified China and only then self-servingly recast himself as a great lover of peace. Revolution that installs me is good; revolution against me is bad.

Like many other independent states, the United States was born in the blood and fire of a violent uprising. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and the other Founders were insurrectionists, separatists, traitors to the crown and — considering their considerable wealth, power and privileges — ingrates to boot. “Violence never wins,” former Vice President Mike Pence said on Jan. 6, 2021, speaking near a rotunda that displays sculptures of men who won a new country by unleashing political violence against the regime of George III.


Adding to our national cognitive dissonance over the legitimacy of political violence is the problem of the Confederacy, the biggest armed rebellion in our history and one for which no one was ever held legally accountable. Signaling that Southern secession might not really have been that wrong after all, the victorious North opted not to prosecute Confederate President Jefferson Davis for fear that he would be able to prove the legality of Southern secession at trial. In 1868, President Andrew Johnson expanded on Lincoln’s plans and issued amnesties and pardons for all former Confederate soldiers, officers and political leaders willing to swear allegiance to the U.S.

Until last year’s Black Lives Matter protests (which included the successful deployment of violence alongside nonviolent protests) prompted officials in cities such as New Orleans and Richmond, Virginia, to remove Confederate statues, the general attitude of white Americans on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line toward the insurrectionist South was one of forgiveness and bemused tolerance. Congress restored, and President Gerald Ford approved the restoration of, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s citizenship, which had not been approved during his lifetime due to a paperwork mix-up, in 1975. President Jimmy Carter did the same for Davis in 1978. Tolerance for cultural expressions of white Southern “heritage” endured until recently; the startling stars-and-bars artwork painted on the orange Dodge Charger used in the 1980s TV comedy “The Dukes of Hazzard” only received pushback in 2020, when Amazon considered pulling the show’s archives from its streaming service.

To sum up the official line: the American Revolution was a fully justified, admirable use of political violence (24,000 dead British soldiers) that created the best country ever. The Southern secession that attempted to cut the best country ever in half, a conflict fought mainly over slavery — resulting in the deaths of 620,000 people, 2% of the country’s population — was forgivable.

Political violence now, on the other hand, is not now, nor ever will be, morally or legally permissible.

This is logically contradictory on its face. For a country almost constantly involved in military action throughout the last two centuries, many times in efforts to replace the governments of other countries, that uses assassination drones to murder political adversaries abroad and deploys the police to arrest and brutalize street protesters, to argue that political violence is inherently illegitimate is ridiculous.

It would make more sense to embrace a realistic stance closer to Jefferson’s famous reaction to Shays’ Rebellion that “the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” Preceding that line in his 1787 letter is a thoughtful musing followed by proto-realpolitik: “What country can preserve its liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to facts, pardon and pacify them.”

“Pacify.” In other words, the real-world solution to political violence is greater political violence — by the state.

Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall), the political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, is the author of a new graphic novel about a journalist gone bad, “The Stringer.”

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  1. ruralguy says:

    Political and criminal violence is inevitable, when civilized behaviors fail and when impoverished minds dominate.

  2. Today’s so called left likes to say “silence is violence” which of course it is not.

    According to the same left my speech is violence and their violence is speech. Neither is true.

    There was no insurrection on Jan 6. Nancy and her committee know that. They are not stupid after all. Their speech therefore is lies. But even lies are not violence.

    “violence: [noun] the use of physical force so as to injure, abuse, damage, or destroy. an instance of violent treatment or procedure”.

  3. Note the prominent, corollary position of the First and Second Amendments in the Bill of Rights – speak freely, and speech backed up by firepower is the ideal and backbone of freedom that the U.S. Government is forbidden to infringe. It is the ultimate check and balance baked into the system. The idea that the Government now has a monopoly of force deployed to police internal criticism is unconstitutional.

  4. Yeah, yeah, fine, a contemporary Shays rebellion would be just peachy.

    The trouble is they don’t have them kind no more..

    Nope, nowadays, all “rebellions” are paid for. Soros paid for BLM. And somebody, maybe Soros, maybe somebody else, paid to have a bunch of rube tourists led into a trap.

    Nobody just rebels on their own. If you see somebody who looks like they are rebelling all on their own, think again.

    Of course, now, if non-aligned non-corrupted people were really smart, they would take the funding and the provided bricks and brickbats and turn them against the funders. But that’s one hard road to hoe and you got to be ironic as all get out to see it through.

  5. I wonder just precisely who Rall wants rebelling. I have a feeling at least half of the possible candidates he wouldn’t approve of so much, Jefferson notwithstanding.

    • Agree: Bro43rd
  6. BuelahMan says:

    The ignorant Yankee moron writes:

    a conflict fought mainly over slavery

    They simply cannot help themselves.

    • Agree: Bro43rd, Biff
  7. Ahh, Switzerland and Nazi-Despotic-Drug Running-Big Financing drug money.

    The pussies taking selfies and running around with flares, Jan. 6?

    Right. Now, me being a defender of free speech, when I burned the Texas flag and USA flag, in a peaceful demonstration, a while back, oh boy. Cops pulled guns on us, Texass trash started throwing punches, and the end result was going to trial facing 20 years for a laundry list of offenses. If I had done that on the steps of the capital of Texass? Death by cop.

    So, these wimps, these fools, they attack cops, break into the capitol, and what time served? They are typical Yankee and Confederate trash.

    You have wimps led by Trump LLC, one of the most openly wimpy and limp wristed ma’ma’s boy to ride into office. Led by him, or the Fox multimillionaires, again, wimps. O’Reilly, Hannity, et al. Tucker?

    These are again great examples of Armani suited ma’ma’s boys.

    Switzerland a peaceful country? No, banking and financial and blockade coups aren’t violent.

    • Replies: @Chris Mallory
  8. SafeNow says:

    The new official number of Civil War dead is 750,00o. Prof. Hacker, a demographic historian, using new digitized recordkeeping never before available, figured this out.

    Anyway, good article. I am a believer in “ The indigenous American Berserk,” a term Philip Roth coined in American Pastoral. It’s lying about like a loaded weapon, just below a surface veneer of respectability, ready to fire at a time.

  9. @PabloSharkman

    when I burned the Texas flag and USA flag

    Did everyone stand at attention and clap?

    I’ll take “Things that never happened.” for \$300, Alex.

  10. The most interesting thing about Shays’ Rebellion, other than the fortunate snowstorm that blew in before the factions could begin slaughtering one another, was the proclamation by Mass. Governor Bowdoin for its suppression. In it he eerily echoed King George’s proclamation of just eleven years earlier against the American uprising, even using the identical arrogant regal language to condemn “the late unnatural rebellion against (us).” It’s also interesting that more men rallied against Shays than for him. The state militia was augmented by a private mercenary force, bought by 125 wealthy merchants to fight the rebels. Divide and conquer is also nothing new. There are always amoral thugs willing to rent out to rich men for the pleasure of making their fellowmen bleed.

    In a letter dated October 31, 1786 (addressed, ironically, to Robert E. Lee’s father) George Washington rejected efforts to mediate peacefully with Shays’ veterans, “You talk, my good sir, of employing influence to appease the present tumults in Massachusetts. I know not where that influence is to be found, or, if attainable, that it would be a proper remedy for the disorders. Influence is not government.” When he was President seven years later, the “father of his country” would, as authorized by the Second Amendment, assemble an intimidating, massive federal militia of 15,000 men to crush the Pennsylvania tax protest known as the Whiskey Rebellion.

    We should not delude ourselves about who these men were. Their quarrel with England was largely about replacing the mother country’s hereditary aristocracy, which they were barred from joining, with an opportunist aristocracy of new money in America, which they could dominate. That spirit, now gone global, animates Washington to this day. It’s interesting that today’s renewed populist stirrings are equated with a frightening thing called fascism, at least in the corporate media. We are told that militant unrest among the people must lead to totalitarianism, racism, and other indelicate behaviors by “deplorables.” I wonder how many Americans recognize this as the same tired argument the Federalists once employed to disenfranchise “the rabble” they had tricked into fighting for independence on their behalf.

    As far as violence goes, we can expect no less from their class today than what old George W thought was needful to maintain the status quo in his day. We still hold the numerical advantage, but they continue to control the narrative.

    • Agree: animalogic, nokangaroos
    • Replies: @Wokechoke
  11. “the victorious North opted not to prosecute Confederate President Jefferson Davis for fear that he would be able to prove the legality of Southern secession at trial. In 1868, President Andrew Johnson expanded on Lincoln’s plans and issued amnesties and pardons for all former Confederate soldiers, officers and political leaders willing to swear allegiance to the U.S.”
    I call the above an example of practical wisdom. Pity such wisdom was so palpably absent after an even greater war, in the treaty years around 1918-20.
    Probably our whole history would be profoundly different would such wisdom have been exercised.

  12. Wokechoke says:

    The revolution was just about who gets to collect taxes from and tithe the great unwashed. Plutocratic from beginning to end.

  13. The American understanding of cancel culture is very much similar to the American understanding of violence. The First Amendment was passed to stop the Federal Government from meddling with political speech. It did not mean that Americans were free to speak their minds. Those who spoke and offended others often were forced to account for that speech in a duel. Recall, Alexander Hamilton died in a duel, President Andrew Jackson was in several duels, Abraham Lincoln, before he was President, travelled from Illinois to Missouri to vindicate himself in a duel. Famous Confederate cavalry commander, John Singleton Mosby, was kicked out of the University of Virginia and imprisoned for year for shooting a man in a duel to vindicate the honor of a cousin. Virginia’s Dabney has written an entire book about duels and news paper editors in the ante vellum south, Pistols and Pointed Pens: The Dueling Editors of Old Virginia. There is no more emphatic way to cancel someone than to shoot them in a duel. We even saw “cancellation” of sorts on the Senate floor. Recall, Charles Sumner, Senator from Massachusetts, was caned on the Senate floor by Preston Brooks. Brooks said he caned Sumner because Sumner lacked the honor to be worthy of a duel. You horsewhip or cane dogs, you have duels with men. Thus, in the Founder’s America, it was understood that the answer for “bad speech” was cancellation, and a cancellation with the utmost finality to it. What is most fascinating is that today, those who condemn the government the most are in fact the most cowardly and insist government protect them from having to defend their honor on a field of honor. So “cancellation” is the best that can be done. What is most telling is that the modern cancellation by the left lacks the real honor of cancellation of old. In the old times, two individuals faced off with pistols. In modern cancellation, brutal organizations simply end an electronic life and “friends” turn their backs for fear they will be next. The founder’s society had virtue to recommend it. That is truly gone in America.

    The modern cancellation is more akin to a lynching than a duel. With a lynching, a mob finds an individual and hangs him. America banned lynching and that was a conservative move, because banning lynching defended the honor of the individual. Honorable men don’t Lynch, they face their opponent on equal terms.

    Thus, though America has always believed in cancel culture, there was honor when the Founders did it. There is no longer honor. Modern America loves its violence, America has always loved its violence. But at least the Founders had honor.

  14. Time for Ted to talk about the “stans” as-in Kazakhstan. He is one of the few people that has visited and talked about them before.

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