Political Risk Brief
Summer 2019

From Competition to Conflict

Introduction

American politics has shifted from a rules-bound competition of ideas to a sectarian-style conflict.  The bitter struggle between Left and Right has been building for decades and reflects increasingly incompatible worldviews, rather than narrow disputes regarding the best policy mechanisms for achieving shared aspirations.  Although the causes of the conflict defy simple explanation, the decline in social capital, exacerbating effects of the Great Recession, and associated rejection of the post-World War II elite policy consensus have been important factors.1  Within this environment, companies find themselves entangled in an intensifying ideological struggle. 

Overview

The “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville catalyzed a wave of criticism from left-of-center leaders condemning President Donald J. Trump as a “white supremacist,” and today they accuse him of “leading the GOP into outright racism.”2  In the words of former Congressman and current Democratic presidential candidate Robert “Beto” O’Rourke, “I [have] compared the rhetoric that the President has employed to rhetoric that you might have heard during the Third Reich.”3  

As such, the Left has launched a righteous “resistance” designed to prevent a “dictator” from compelling millions of Americans to “act like slave[s].”4  Once unleashed, the cause of defeating a tyrant cannot easily be restrained.  President Trump’s recent attacks on four progressive minority Members of Congress (“the Squad”), telling them to “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came,” only has reinforced the Left’s conviction that he threatens the country.5  As Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA-12) remarked, “Every single Member of this institution, Democratic and Republican, should join us in condemning the President’s racist tweets.  To do anything less would be a shocking rejection of our values and a shameful abdication of our oath of office to protect the American people.”6

Concurrently, conservative leaders perceive that the Left increasingly deploys violence as a deliberate mechanism of intimidation and, ultimately, repression.  In a Wall Street Journal op-ed describing the attack he suffered at the hands of Antifa in Portland, conservative journalist Andy Ngo recounts that he was “punched and kicked by perhaps a dozen masked people in black [and] was beaten so badly that [he] was hospitalized for a brain hemorrhage.”7  The Portland episode, which was captured on video and viewed online by millions, appeared to conservatives as especially ominous in that local law enforcement did not intervene: “Police watched from a distance and did nothing.”8  Senators Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Bill Cassidy (R-LA) wrote in a resolution condemning Antifa and the Portland attack that “there is no place for violence in the discourse between people in the United States, or in any civil society, because the United States is a place where there is a diversity of ideas and opinions.”9 

In this context, the imperatives of self defense and deterrence rapidly overwhelm reliance on the “marketplace of ideas.”  Conservative commentator and editor-in-chief of The Daily Wire Ben Shapiro captured this sentiment in his book titled, Bullies: How the Left’s Culture of Fear and Intimidation Silences Americans.10 

Whatever the merits of the fears harbored by America’s vying political factions, the mere perception by both the Left and Right that the disloyal opposition desires abhorrent ends through extra-legal means has ignited a self-propelling escalation.

Historical Precedents

American history regularly has featured intense political strife.  In addition to the obvious examples of the American Revolution and Civil War, the nation has experienced other convulsive periods of political fracturing and animosity.  The late 19th and early 20th century, for example, included the violent labor strikes of the Gilded Age, the Wilmington Insurrection, and the rise of anarchists, which led to the assassination of President William McKinley and a bomb attack on Wall Street that killed 38 people and injured hundreds.11  In 1939, more than 20,000 supporters of the German American Bund held a pro-Nazi rally in Madison Square Garden, with police straining to prevent violence outside the arena.  Assessing the violence of the 1960s, Brookings Institution Senior Fellow William Galston concluded, “1968 has long been my nominee as the single worst year in America since the Civil War – and in hindsight, I have no reason to withdraw that judgment.”12  Once again, the nation seems to have entered an era of acrimony. 

American Politics in the Twenty-First Century: The “Culture War” Gains Momentum 

The ongoing “culture war” that has defined much of modern American politics has the quality of a theological conflagration.  New York Post op-ed editor Sohrab Ahmari recently exhorted his fellow conservatives to “fight the culture war with the aim of defeating the enemy and enjoying the spoils in the form of a public square re-ordered to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good.”13  Similarly, 2020 Democratic presidential candidates have condemned the Administration, using explicitly religious language: Mayor Pete Buttigieg expressed during the June 27 debate that the Republican Party “has lost all claim to ever use religious language.”14  Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) recently tweeted, “I am a person of faith, and I believe Republicans have distorted the conversation about Christianity in this country,” adding that President Trump’s policy “isn’t Christian.  It’s evil.”15  

Government Discredited

In recent elections, claims of presidential illegitimacy – such as questions surrounding George W. Bush and the “hanging chads,” Barack Obama’s citizenship, or Russian support for then-candidate Trump – have been a pervasive theme.  Today, 72 percent of Democratic voters prefer a popular vote to the Electoral College.16  Similarly, the majority of Democratic presidential candidates wish to abolish the Electoral College.17  A slight majority (52 percent) of Republicans believe that widespread voter fraud has compromised elections.18    

The Judiciary has not been immune to the consequences of a conflict-based political system.  Supreme Court nominations now inevitably resemble gladiator fights or “guerrilla warfare,” with the outcome almost solely dependent on the political equivalent of brute force.19  Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) proclaimed the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings the “most unethical sham since [he’s] been in politics,” while Senator Tom Carper (D-DE) declared “the obstruction of Judge [Merrick] Garland’s nomination unprecedented and shameful.”20  If this pattern continues, the Judiciary likely will face the same claims of illegitimacy the presidency already has encountered.  As the Notre Dame Law Review described, “The [Supreme] Court is asking no more questions of advocates; instead, the justices are providing conclusions and rebutting their colleagues.  [This] form of judicial behavior constitutes advocacy, rather than judging.”21     

Conclusion

American politics today defers more to Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals than the Constitution.  With theological-like conflict replacing policy-based competition, Alinsky’s call to “pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it” increasingly dominates the political arena.22  A political system unconstrained by the rule of law compels participants to adopt extreme measures.  This “winner-takes-all” dynamic forces otherwise neutral entities to choose sides and produces more frequent and severe swings in public policy, as demonstrated by the recent presidential transitions from Bush to Obama and Obama to Trump.  The “Era of Political Volatility” now unfolding presents corporations with an especially treacherous legislative and regulatory landscape.23  The great dilemma confronting the private sector: whether to embrace short-term political alliances that risk becoming liabilities with the next election, or preserve a disciplined neutrality that cedes the initiative to opportunistic competitors.

1 Political Risk Brief, “Super Trends: Drivers of U.S. Political Risk,” Baron Public Affairs, Summer 2018, https://www.baronpa.com/prb/super-trends-drivers-of-u-s-political-risk; and Political Risk Brief, “The Political Isolation of Corporate America,” Baron Public Affairs, Spring 2019, https://www.baronpa.com/prb/the-political-isolation-of-corporate-america.

2 Twitter post, Representative Maxine Waters, August 13, 2017, https://twitter.com/repmaxinewaters/status/896796259675238400; and Twitter post, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, July 15, 2019, https://twitter.com/AOC/status/1150746839790039040.

3 Robert Mackey, “Trump’s Rhetoric Echoes Nazi Germany, Beto O’Rourke Says, Accurately,” The Intercept, April 5, 2019, https://theintercept.com/2019/04/05/beto-orourke-trump-nazi-germany.

4 Ibram Kendi, “Anti-Racist Historian: Attacks on Rep. Omar Rooted in Belief ‘America Is for White People’,” Democracy Now!, July 19, 2019, https://www.democracynow.org/2019/7/19/donald_trump_ilhan_omar_racist_attacks; and Twitter post, Senator Bernie Sanders, May 6, 2019, https://twitter.com/SenSanders/status/1125413881155915777.

5 Twitter post, President Donald J. Trump, July 14, 2019, https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/1150381395078000643.

6 Press release, “Pelosi Floor Speech in Support of Resolution Condemning President Trump’s Racist Comments Directed at Members of Congress,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi, July 16, 2019, https://www.speaker.gov/newsroom/71619.

7 Andy Ngo, “A Leftist Mob Attacked Me in Portland,” The Wall Street Journal, July 2, 2019, https://www.wsj.com/articles/a-leftist-mob-attacked-me-in-portland-11562109768.

8 Andy Ngo, ibid.

9 Press release, “Sens. Cruz, Cassidy: Antifa is a Domestic Terrorist Organization,” Senator Ted Cruz, July 18, 2019, https://www.cruz.senate.gov/?p=press_release&id=4592.

10 Ben Shapiro, Bullies: How the Left’s Culture of Fear and Intimidation Silences Americans, New York, NY: Threshold Divisions, 2013.

11 “Notable labor strikes of the Gilded Age,” Weber State University, http://faculty.weber.edu/kmackay/notable_labor_strikes_of_the_gil.htm; “How the Only Coup D’Etat in U.S. History Unfolded,” National Public Radio, August 17, 2008, https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=93615391; and “Topics in Chronicling America – Anarchist Incidents, 1886-1920,” The Library of Congress, June 9, 2017, https://www.loc.gov/rr/news/topics/anarchy.html.

12 Eleanor Clift, “Was 1968 the Worst Year in America Since the Civil War?” Daily Beast, January 15, 2018, https://www.thedailybeast.com/was-1968-the-worst-year-in-america-since-the-civil-war.

13 Sohrab Ahmari, “Against David French-ism,” First Things, May 29, 2019, https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2019/05/against-david-french-ism.

14 “2019 Democratic Debates Night 2: Full Transcript,” The New York Times, June 28, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/28/us/politics/transcript-debate.html.

15 Twitter post, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, July 17, 2019, https://twitter.com/SenGillibrand/status/1151620903756845056.

16 Steven Stepard, “Poll: Voters prefer popular vote over Electoral College,” Politico, March 27, 2019, https://www.politico.com/story/2019/03/27/poll-popular-vote-electoral-college-1238346.

17 Orion Rummler, “Where each 2020 Democrat stands on abolishing the electoral college,” Axios, April 7, 2019, https://www.axios.com/electoral-college-2020-presidential-election-candidates-94d89ca6-b402-4de3-ae8e-06139592408e.html.

18 Alex Vandermaas-Peeler, Daniel Cox, et. al., “American Democracy in Crisis: The Challenges of Voter Knowledge, Participation, and Polarization,” Public Religion Research Institute, July 17, 2017, https://www.prri.org/research/american-democracy-in-crisis-voters-midterms-trump-election-2018.

19 Mark Bauerlein, “It’s Guerrilla Warfare,” American Greatness, July 17, 2019, https://amgreatness.com/2019/07/17/its-guerrilla-warfare.

20 Abigail Abrams, “Lindsey Graham Calls the Kavanaugh Hearing ‘Most Unethical Sham Since I’ve Been in Politics’,” Time, September 27, 2018, https://time.com/5409141/lindsey-graham-brett-kavanaugh-hearing; and E-newsletter, “Doing the right thing by Merrick Garland,” Senator Tom Carper, March 31, 2017, https://www.carper.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/2017/3/doing-the-right-thing-by-merrick-garland.

21 Tonja Jacobi and Matthew Sag, “The New Oral Argument: Justices as Advocates,” Notre Dame Law Review, Volume 94, 2019, https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3125357.

22 Saul Alinksky, Rules for Radicals: A Practical Primer for Realistic Radicals, New York, NY: Random House, 1971.

23 Political Risk Brief, “The Era of U.S. Political Volatility,” Baron Public Affairs, November 2016, https://www.baronpa.com/prb/the-era-of-u-s-political-volatility.