Political Violence in an Age of Creedal Passion


My regular readers and pretty much everyone I talk to knows that I am trying to write about some deep cycles in U.S. history that are shaping our current political environment. I want it to be a book, and am writing academic papers for various conferences in an effort to make it happen.

To that end, I submitted a paper entitled Political Violence in an Age of Creedal Passion to the Southern Political Science Association. The abstract is as follows:

This paper will explore patterns of political violence during periods of Creedal Passion, and how this type of violence might manifest in the coming decade. In “American Politics: The Promise of Disharmony,” Samuel Huntington identified the second and third decades of the 21st century as a period of Creedal Passion in which the American people seek to bridge the gap between their institutions and their ideals. The previous periods of Creedal Passion include the American Revolution, the Jacksonian Era, and the Progressive Era, and most recently the Sixties and Seventies. The present day evinces the characteristics of these eras including public opposition to hierarchies and concentrations, questioning traditional sources of authority, and a focus on long-standing sources of social inequality.

Each of these eras was accompanied by significant political violence, from the outright revolt against British rule, to the rioting during the Jacksonian Era, the anarchists of the Progressive Era, and the leftist extremism that accompanied the Sixties and Seventies. These eras were not necessarily more violent than other epochs in U.S. history, however the political violence was a manifestation of Creedal Passion. This paper will examine each of these eras and to understand how political violence emerged from and interacted with the broader reform movements and with society at large during eras of Creedal Passion. The paper will then apply these insights to better understand political violence in the United State today.

There has been significant violence in our current era of Creedal Passion already. Much has been on the political right, although there have been notable incidents of political violence on the left as well. There have also been a proliferation of just strange events like the Comet Pizza attack. This was not, strictly speaking, a political event (although it was linked to outrageous political rumors). But it reflects the general discontent and energy that characterizes eras of Creedal Passion.

The attempted bombings of former presidents and other politicians is something new. Eras of Creedal Passion have, sadly, featured assassinations of political leaders. The first assassination attempt on a president was against Andrew Jackson. The man was mentally ill, but again, there was a madness in the air as well. The Jacksonian Era also saw the sudden rise of the anti-Masonic party, after Masons murdered a man who threatened to reveal their secret rites.

Eternal Flame at JFK’s Grave, photo by Tim Evanson

In the Progressive Era, William McKinley was assassinated and Theodore Roosevelt was only saved by his extremely long speech folded in his pocket. The Sixties saw a string of assassinations: JFK, RFK, and Martin Luther King.

It is worth remembering and putting things into perspective on this awful day. In the 1960s massive urban riots swept through American cities. In the Progressive Era, violent bloody confrontations between labor and business. We aren’t there – and I don’t think we’ll get there. But sadly, things will get crazier. I’m trying to figure out how.

UPDATES: Events keep overtaking me. Now, we have the horrific news from Pittsburgh, where a monster with a gun committed the worst act of anti-Semitism in U.S. history. I love this country, it has been amazing for the Jewish people (my people!) I am heartsick, but I am also heartened that the people of Pittsburgh – and almost everyone – are rallying around their neighbors.

I would also say that both in responding to the bombings and the synagogue shootings, our law enforcement agencies have acted with utter professionalism. There is still a commitment to rule of law in this country.

I ended the initial post (above) saying things are not as bad as they were in previous eras of Creedal Passion – but that the madness we are in is nowhere near over. I stand by that.

I don’t have any hot-takes, but I’ll make this observation. At some point some forms of serious gun control will be passed. The NRA has been winning battles for a very long time. Eventually it will lose – possibly soon. This will be to the good. There is simply no way to ignore the simple reality that access to firearms enables individuals and small groups to do absolutely terrible things.

However, the forces of Creedal Passion cut in many different directions – it is not simply left or right. For some Americans gun control threatens a sacred right. Most gun owners are law abiding, and they may grumble, but they will obey the law. For some however this gun control will be an enormous offense and lead them to more radical positions – and yes – to violence.

The only way out of this is through.

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