If you’re at all plugged into this election year, you’ve been inundated with nostrums about the righteous rage of the “angry” electorate. That popular ire is not only widespread but legitimate. How much of it explains an unpredictable election season or the voting patterns in the primaries, however, is debatable. In exploring this angry sentiment among the politically active, a more noxious and dangerous sentiment has been promoted in the political press as though it were frustration’s equally righteous twin: incitement to violence.
With increasing frequency, political observers are privy to the mock anarchistic ideal that the American political system is so dysfunctional that it must be scrapped. The “burn it all down” crowd is not only hopelessly irresponsible — to a point at which they do not deserve the exposure they’re enjoying — but they also discredit the “angry” electorate they supposedly represent.
The immolation metaphor is not unique. It’s frequently deployed by those who seek to legitimize societal arson, as though it were just another socio-political affinity akin to supply-side economics or the support for a progressive regulatory environment. It’s not. Theirs is a juvenile angst-ridden illiberalism, and it is almost exclusively advanced by those who are the beneficiaries of American prosperity and stability.
“What’s needed now in American politics is consternation, confusion, dissension, disorder, chaos — and crisis, with possible resolution — and a Trump presidency is the best chance for this true progress,” wrote Christopher Ketcham in The Daily Beast, after professing his support for Bernie Sanders. “This is a politics of arson.”
“I’d rather see the empire burn to the ground under Trump, opening up at least the possibility of radical change, than cruise on autopilot under Clinton,” he added. If that means a reversion to overt, unalloyed totalitarianism and the death of the longest-lived democratic republic in human history, Ketcham averred, so be it. “Let the fire burn how it will.”
Ketcham, a freelance journalist with a degree from City University of New York-Brooklyn College who was “born and raised in middle-class Brooklyn,” has a history of prescribing political violence as a romantic remedy for societal ills. “A little violence can sometimes work to defend against predatory bankers,” he wrote for Vice in 2014. “The people have a moral right to rise up against such a government and, ultimately, to question its monopoly on violence; this is the imperative of revolution.”
This infatuation with “revolution” is a common sentiment among a set of tragically bored, despairingly comfortable, hopelessly well-fed Western youth. They see the most thriving and secure societies in modern human history as a problem that needs to be fixed. Surely, those who hold this view are a bizarre curiosity worthy of study, but they are entirely undeserving of admiration.
Those who have even a cursory familiarity with genuine political revolution – the bloody and common variety, not the velveteen brand that represents a modern exception to the historical rule – do not welcome it. You rarely hear “burn it all down!” from the residents of a refugee camp. Those who are acquainted with suffering do not wish for more of it. This is unique only to the young, lettered radical sent to the countryside to agitate for revolutionary violence and dare presume to speak for those who know true hardship. That dynamic is as old as revolution itself.
Ketcham may be among the more articulate, if misguided, advocates of the chaos of war, displacement, and terror – nightmares they surely imagine they would be fortunate enough to escape – but he is not alone. Michael Grunwald, a senior writer for Politico Magazine, discovered this sentiment in an unlikely place: within the hearts of two gainfully employed, liberal, suburban Miami residents. “The whole system if f***ed,” said Jason, a 32-year-old Cuban-American Miami area native who works at a local bank. “Why not vote for the craziest guy, so we can see the craziest s*** happen?”
Both Jason and his brother confessed they would vote for Barack Obama again if they could, and they contend that the economy as they experience it is relatively good. If you can make heads or tails of this, you should be a sociologist. It’s possible, just possible, that this sentiment isn’t a chin-scratching window into an unfathomably complex political moment. Maybe it’s just incoherence and an expression of ennui.
While this rebellion of the well off and languid may be curious, it is hardly harmless.
“A dark side of me wants to see what happens if Trump is in,” said the admirably honest (at least he acknowledges his sentiment’s darkness) Victor Vizcarra, a 48-year-old Los Angeles resident and Bernie Sanders supporter, in an interview with the New York Times. Detecting a pattern yet?
“There is going to be some kind of change, and even if it’s like a Nazi-type change, people are so drama-filled,” he continued. “They want to see stuff like that happen. It’s like reality TV. You don’t want to just see everybody be happy with each other. You want to see someone fighting somebody.”
That kind of sentiment is clinically disturbed, and the press should be more cautious about disseminating it. It is novel because it is estimably rare, but that rarity does not render these ideas valid or justifiable. What is interesting and lamentable is that these views are expressed by society’s stakeholders who do not view themselves as such. Men and women with careers, mortgages, children, and hope for the future do not wish for a violent and chaotic future. These are the sinister sentiments native only to a political activist – one who should be thankful they have never experienced the kind of repression and bloodletting they think would be a welcome change of pace.
This small minority with an extremely limited knowledge of history and an emotional desire to see social flux transform their boringly stable and comfortable lives do not merit veneration. These sentiments are only deserving of scorn or, if one were charitably inclined, withering mockery. They are nowhere near as common as the press would like to suggest. To legitimize their self-indulgent ignorance lends them disproportionate influence over America’s national political dialogue, and that is irresponsible.
There have been near revolutionary elections in America’s past. In 1932, an army of World War I veterans descended on Washington D.C., established semi-permanent encampments, and demanded remunerative relief from the Depression. The “Bonus Army” rebellion was disbanded by armed force. Racial riots, street fighting, and a year of assassinations preceded the election of 1968. If America were going to tear itself apart, it would have done so then. 2016 is not a revolutionary year, and those jaded, comfortable malcontents who welcome political violence are not 2016’s revolutionaries. The American press would be well-advised to stop treating them as though they were.