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June 10, 2014 12:10 PM Violence and the Right to Revolution

By Ed Kilgore

At TNR, Brian Beutler addresses the emotionally fraught subject of whether there’s something about contemporary American conservatism that encourages the kind of right-wing violence we saw in Las Vegas last weekend when Jared and Amanda gunned down two police officers and a civilian in an explicitly political act.

After carefully noting that right-wing violence (and for that matter, Islamic Jihadi violence) isn’t the sort of compelling threat most Americans need to personally worry about, Beutler proceeds to note that virtually all the domestic political violence occurring since 9/11 has been from the Right (“40 people [the number of victims of right-wing violence in this span] is more than zero people, which is the number killed by left-wing extremists over the same stretch”). He then goes on to argue that conservatives can help keep the carnage down by engaging in less destructive, dehumanizing rhetoric about their political enemies:

The basic story Democrats tell voters about Republicans and their donors is that they’re plutocrats who don’t really care about poor and middle class people, and are deeply beholden to an increasingly aged, increasingly resentful white base.
The GOP’s story about Democrats is a bit more diffuse, but it tends toward invocations of tyranny. They’ll take your (money/guns/freedoms/lives). Pick your poison.
When Democrats tried to pass extremely an modest gun law in the aftermath of the Newtown massacre, Ted Cruz said the real goal was “a federal list of every gun owner in America.” When Democrats more recently proposed a constitutional amendment to effectively reverse the consequences of the Citizens United ruling, he said they were trying to “repeal the First Amendment.”
Paul Waldman cited Senator Ron Johnson, who lamented last year that the survival of the Affordable Care Act had denied the country its “last shred of freedom.” But you could just as easily cite the “death panel” smear from the beginning of Obama’s presidency or the martyrization of Cliven Bundy just a few weeks ago, and a dozen other misbegotten efforts in between. If I bought into all of it, I’d probably take certain paranoid suspicions of the American far right more seriously.

I agree with all that, but would add one important observation: contemporary conservatives—particularly (and ironically) the “constitutional” brand—tend to insist on a right to armed revolution as a remedy of last resort if the normal mechanisms of representative democracy and the courts do not suffice to stop what they regard as “tyranny,” defined, as Beutler notes, rather loosely. Indeed, Second Amendment ultras, a class that now includes probably a majority of Republican pols around the country, frequently argue that virtually unlimited access to weaponry, including military weaponry, is essential to the maintenance of liberty on grounds that patriots might need to emulate the original American Revolutionaries and undertake the armed overthrow of the government.

Given the rather flexible definitions on the Right of the kind of “tyranny” necessary to trigger this right to armed revolution, it’s not surprising that people who may think legalized abortion or Obamacare or “voter fraud” are big steps on the road to serfdom may connect the dots and consider using those stockpiled weapons on enemies or symbols of authority.

Yes, conservatives do need to tone down extremist and dehumanizing rhetoric aimed at liberals of agents of the federal government, as Beutler suggests. But I strongly believe the more immediate demand liberals are justified in making of our conservative friends is a repudiation of the kind of self-defined “right of revolution” that can serve as dynamite in the minds of the self-deluded. As I argued (also at TNR) in the wake of the Tucson shootings back in 2011:

I’d like to think the tragedy in Tucson would convince conservatives (and anyone on the left with similar tendencies) to begin showing more respect for the rule of law and democratic processes even if they produce results they don’t like—which would mean no more talk about liberals or Democratic politicians or “bureaucrats” as if they belong to a different country or even a different species, and no more suggestions that conservative policies are mandated by some higher law, divine or natural.
But at a minimum, I think circumstances call for this: an absolute self-disciplinary ban among conservatives against revolutionary rhetoric, particularly in conjunction with defense of the right to possess lethal weaponry.

Unfortunately, we’ve heard nothing of the kind, even as the death toll of political violence slowly rises.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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