This week, we discussed the Oresteia in the Shimer capstone course. I have always marvelled at the conceptual daring of the Eumenides, which attempts to depict the transition from a divinely-sanctioned cycle of violence to a system of civil law. What Aeschylus does not foresee, however, is what is happening all around us: the weaponization of the system of civil law for the sake of vengeance, in which the system itself becomes not an alternative to civil war but the terrain of civil war.
In an ideal system of civil law, outcomes are based on persuasion and evidence, with the goal of depersonalizing disputes among citizens. That ideal is only ever approximated in practice, but there is still room to judge whether a given system is doing a better or worse job at any particular time. In our present moment, the American system is not even trying to approximate that ideal. The Democrats would clearly like to do so, but that very desire leads them to be constantly defeated by the much more aggressive Republicans. For their part, the Republicans are actively rigging the system — through partisan gerrymandering (making Republicans virtually impossible to dislodge from the House majority), regularizing Electoral College technicalities (two in the last two decades, both benefiting Republicans), and stacking the Supreme Court (not only through Electoral College technicalities, allowing them to appoint justices against the will of the voters, but now through the unprecedented act of refusing to even consider Obama’s nominee). And that is only at the Federal level — at the state level, things are arguably even worse.
Hence there is increasingly no legal recourse for those opposed to Republican rule. And on the level of “soft power,” things are equally bad. I’m not thinking only of conservative conspiracy theories and the rejection of scientific fact, but more of the overarching attitude that unites all these tendencies. Simply put, the Republican agenda is one of vengeance against liberals. The origin of many Republican policies is doubtless to service their donors, etc., but the way they are actually sold is by highlighting the ways it will piss liberals off. This tendency has culminated in the nomination of an obviously unfit candidate for the presidency, primarily on the strength of how much he violates political correctness. And now, a critical mass of Americans will support him seemingly no matter what he does, simply because he pisses off the right people. These are not people who are open to debate or persuasion — they conceive of political rhetoric primarily as a weapon to cause their opponents pain.
In Illinois, we have imtimate acquiantance with this phenomenon, since we have been afflicted with a Republican governor who has used a combination of institutional and rhetorical violence to paralyze the state for two years by refusing to sign a budget until his Tea Party-style demands were met. The legislature was finally able to cobble together a supermajority (including some Republicans) and override his veto — but only under the threat of another form of institutional violence, in the form of a credit rating downgrade. Overall, we are dealing with a person determined to abuse his institutional power, who is not open to any form of persuasion.
Even as they unleash institutional and rhetorical violence against their fellow citizens, Republicans still regularly fantasize about unleashing literal violence as well. The actual murder of a protestor in Charlottesville followed the template of a series of “jokes” and actual legislative proposals that envisioned the righteous conservative driving his car through a crowd of whiny protestors. Much of the rhetoric about “locking up” Hillary similarly verged toward violence, as Trump himself suggested there may be “second amendment solutions” available to stop her in the event she were elected.
There has been considerable handwringing about left-wing violence in the context of protests, but what is remarkable is how little of it there has been. The aspirations of a strong plurality, if not the outright majority, of the population are denied any institutional outlet, and those in power seem to derive satisfaction from their fellow citizens’ suffering and frustration — how long can a situation like that persist without eruptions of political violence? Republicans may even sense that, hence their reliance on “preemptive” violence meant to instill fear and intimidation. Here we can think of the irrational and brutal violence unleashed against protestors by the police, as well as the more “freelance” symbolic threats like the demand for omnipresent firearms and “open carry.” A movement that is actively delegitimizing the instiutional order by corrupting and weaponizing it will eventually need to rely on sheer force.
In other words, the only way for them to prevent a civil war will be to start one — and perhaps they already have. And all the while, they are telling themselves that it is self-defense and vengeance against the powerless and their representatives, who have literally never simultaneously controlled all three branches of government at the federal level since Reagan was elected. What is intolerable to them is not anything we have done, but the very fact that we exist.