The absolute norm of nonviolence in American politics

As details emerge regarding today’s awful shooting, the incident provides a timely reminder. There are many unbalanced people out there, in every faction across the country. Especially in this awful and contentious time, we need to reinforce the absolute norm of nonviolence on all sides in American politics. We yell. We hold up obnoxious signs. Maybe we engage in civil disobedience. But we never put an unkind hand on any political adversary. We never incite violence. We don’t promote stupid memes that blur the lines like the punch-a-Nazi thing.

The fact that President Trump and others violate these norms does not weaken our own obligation. Indeed it strengthens it.

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect,, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

7 thoughts on “The absolute norm of nonviolence in American politics”

  1. I seem to recall actions by our nation's forefathers that would put question to your assertions. What do oligarchs have to fear in these times but the threat of violence? And this while they haughtily go out of their way to enact disgraceful healthcare legislation that will result in the needless death of thousands. As they haughtily deny science and enact disgraceful anti-environmental legislation that will likely result in the slow motion murder of billions. As they gleefully preside over the destruction of the American dream.

    While I can not endorse any specific act of violence, I think it is way past time for despicable politicians to understand the "politics" of just retribution.

    1. To approve of political violence in general, as you do, is wrong. To approve of political violence in general while deploring all specific acts of violence is cowardly as well as wrong.

    2. It is said that the winner in a violent confrontation is often the one with the faster reflexes. Or the one who lacks the civilized aversion against harming another human. They're sociopaths and psychopaths, and that means they were -made- with violence in mind.
      Violent revolution will only empower and enable them. And do you really want to become the sort of person who would harm your fellow citizens? And ISTR poli sci studies showing that democratization of authoritarian regimes rarely occurs via violence. But rather thru the slow accretion of civil society and their resistance.

      Please don't think these things. Or at least, don't *say* these things.

    3. I've got to join the dissent on this comment. What happened this morning in VA bears no resemblance to any actions by our nation's forefathers, who had the courage and conviction to convene, formally declare independence and then back it up. The comparison to a lone nut-job taking pot-shots is unfair to the forefathers in the extreme.

      I get it – we all hate Trump. Republicans hated Obama too. They had to live with his presidency for 8 years, so what did they do about it? Well there were some random acts of violence on their part too (e.g. Gifford) and I recall a lot of harsh criticism from this side for those who tried to justify it, but in the end the violence harmed more than helped their cause. Collectively, they spent those 8 years working as hard as they could to regain control over government through the ballot box. It wasn't always (more like ever) pretty but they succeeded. That's how it's done, Dems, time to get on with it!

    4. Our nation’s forefathers didn’t ambush unarmed civilians. They made a public declaration of their intention to sever ties with the British government, and raised an army to pursue their objective. That's not to say that the revolutionary war was free of disgraceful acts of violence (on both sides), but as far as I know such acts were not sanctioned by the founders.

      1. Our nation's forefathers did, indeed, ambush unarmed civilians. Not most of the ones whose names we know, though Sam Adams at least toed right up to that line. Their political allies did, and the Founders were happy to have them as allies. And I'm not sure how to classify the slavery practiced by many of those forefathers as anything but violence against unarmed civilians. One of the items that held up a peace treaty was American insistence (which Hamilton tried to sabotage) that the British return all of the blacks that they had freed over the course of the war.

        That said, it's tough to come up with any country whose political legacy doesn't involve problematic elements of political violence. What's important is to deal with it.

  2. Thanks for this post, and the punch-a-nazi meme at places like Lawyers Guns and Money was execrable (and for some there, encouraged with sincerity and not as a stupid joke).

    I have no problem with mockery and intense anger. Promoting violence is the main problem, but dehumanizing your opponents is another. The LGM blog above is a good example again, first saying repeatedly that punching people you consider nazis is good, and then saying repeatedly that immigration police forces (ICE) are "Gestapo." Other bloggers there have referred to conservatives as having "punchable faces". Still others there to their own credit have pushed back.

Comments are closed.