Is America right to worry about a rise in political violence?
Niall Ferguson says the attempted murder of Republican congressmen at a baseball practice in Virginia raises questions about the inflammatory language used by both the left and right in the era of Donald Trump
When ghastly events occur, the lawyers ask if an individual or entity was culpable. The politicians, by contrast, ask if some new law is needed to prevent similar events from happening again. How should we, the public, respond, other than with prayers for the victims and condolences for their families?
Last week, ghastly events happened in both America and Britain. In London, the 24-storey Grenfell Tower caught fire with heavy loss of life. In Virginia, a gunman sought to kill Republican congressmen – including the House majority whip, Steve Scalise – as they practised baseball. Five people were wounded, including Scalise.
Though the two tragedies differed considerably in scale, the fire in London began with an accident that got out of hand. The shooting in Virginia was a deliberate attempt at murder, which was prevented by the swift response of the police.
The British public now has a right to ask how many other tower blocks are at risk of an inferno that spreads with such devastating speed. But the fact that towering infernos are so rare in Britain suggests there may not be a system-wide problem.
The American public needs to ask itself a different question. What level of gun-related violence is it prepared to tolerate as the price of its exceptionally lax laws on gun ownership?
As always happens after mass shootings in the US, the liberal media last week seized the opportunity to argue for tighter gun controls. However, the usual rhetoric was made more difficult by the fact that the would-be assassin, James Hodgkinson, was himself a man of the left, an admirer of Senator Bernie Sanders. Hodgkinson had also signed an online petition calling for President Donald Trump to be impeached.
That a political attack such as this was likely now seems obvious. Ever since November’s presidential election, the American left has been using recklessly inflammatory language to encourage “resistance” to the Trump administration. Last month, to give just one example, comedian Kathy Griffin posted a picture of herself with a bloodied plastic model of the president’s head.
Nevertheless, it would be absurd to deny that there are elements on the American right that have used irresponsible language in their attacks on Democrats. The real question is this: could we be facing an upsurge in political violence? More than any other developed country, America has the potential to become politically violent. Data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that 36,252 Americans were shot to death in 2015, of whom just under 13,000 were victims of homicide.
This reflects above all the much greater availability of firearms. Mass shootings are more common than they were in the past. There have been more than 90 since 1982. So far this year, there have been six. That is almost as many as in the whole of the 1980s.
Of course, the overwhelming majority of mass shootings had no political motivation. Roughly half were perpetrated by individuals with records of mental illness. So it is too early to prophesy a new civil war. Political polarisation, yes. But armed conflict? Hardly.
And yet, and yet. In one of the most troubling books I read last year, Ages of Discord, the historian Peter Turchin argues that the rise of mass shootings is just one indicator of a coming era of civil strife comparable to the decade before the civil war of 1861-65.
The three causes he identifies are “(1) elite overproduction leading to intra-elite competition and conflict, (2) popular immiseration, resulting from falling living standards, and (3) the fiscal crisis of the state”. Turchin’s “political stress index” provides a statistical basis for this claim.
Too many insult-trading politicos, too few decent jobs, and a chronic fiscal imbalance: these are indeed symptoms of something rotten. And these are the things that ordinary citizens should be worried about, too. Ghastly events are bound to happen now and then. The thing to worry about is the historical trend. And the one I see in American politics worries me more and more.
Niall Ferguson is a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution, Stanford