Mob action, such as the riot at the Capitol, undermines freedom and democracy in two ways.
When citizens join a mob, they lose their individuality and give way to their passions, at the expense of their reason and the restraints of the law. Mob psychology takes away the freedom of both the victims of the riot and the rioters themselves. For this and other reasons, the American founders feared mob rule above all else. (See for example The Federalist Papers No. 9 and No. 10.)
But what truly finishes off freedom and democracy is that riotous mobs provoke a reaction of authoritarianism. Societies must have social order, so when anarchy breaks out, they often lurch to the other extreme, shutting down liberty completely with tyrannical controls.
“It is impossible to read the history of the petty republics of Greece and Italy without feeling sensations of horror and disgust at the distractions with which they were continually agitated,” writes Hamilton, “and at the rapid succession of revolutions by which they were kept in a state of perpetual vibration between the extremes of tyranny and anarchy” (Federalist No. 9). This has been the pattern throughout history, not just with the Greek democracies and the Roman Republic, but with the French Revolution, as the Reign of Terror gave way to Napoleon, and every one of the Communist revolutions, in which popular uprisings to throw off oppression set up police states. Plato in the Republic discusses this phenomenon, observing that tyrannies are an outgrowth of democracy, because an excess of freedom leads to too much slavery.
So it’s little wonder that the Capitol riot has already unleashed the authoritarian mindset.
Twitter has banned Trump, an action that might have led to his re-election if it happened four years earlier, but it demonstrates how riots create the impulse to crack down on the freedom of speech. And not just Twitter but Facebook, Google, Apple, and Amazon are taking action to “de-platform” not just the president but right wing forums in general.
Megan Kate Nelson has written an article for the Washington Post entitled 1871 provides a road map for addressing the pro-Trump attempted insurrection. She calls for dusting off President Grant’s Enforcement Acts designed to fight the Ku Klux Klan:
The third act brought Klan violence under federal jurisdiction, and allowed Grant to declare that actions that sought to overthrow or defy federal authority constituted a “rebellion against the government of the United States.” To suppress this rebellion, the president could lawfully suspend the privileges of the writ of habeas corpus, allowing military authorities to arrest Klan members immediately.
Suspending the write of habeas corpus means that individuals can be imprisoned without trial. This is forbidden by the Constitution “unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it” (Article I, Section 9, Clause 2). So the 1871 law declared that members of the Ku Klux Klan were in a state of “rebellion” against the government, resulting in a nationwide military action against them. Nelson, evidently thinking more broadly than the 500 protesters who broke into the Capitol building, thinks extreme Trump supporters are equivalent to Ku Klux Klan members and wants the same treatment given to them.
Wishing to prosecute not only those who illegally entered the Capitol, damaged property, and committed acts of violence–there are already plenty of statutes by which they could be prosecuted, Nelson also wants to go after “those who aided and abetted it.”
According to some observers, that includes conservative news organizations such as Fox News. Oliver Darcy published an article for CNN entitled TV providers should not escape scrutiny for distributing disinformation.
We regularly discuss what the Big Tech companies have done to poison the public conversation by providing large platforms to bad-faith actors who lie, mislead, and promote conspiracy theories. But what about TV companies that provide platforms to networks such as Newsmax, One America News — and, yes, Fox News?Somehow, these companies have escaped scrutiny and entirely dodged this conversation. That should not be the case anymore. After Wednesday’s incident of domestic terrorism on Capitol Hill, it is time TV carriers face questions for lending their platforms to dishonest companies that profit off of disinformation and conspiracy theories. . . .So why do AT&T (which I should note is CNN’s parent company), CenturyLink, and Verizon carry OAN? Why do AT&T, CenturyLink, Verizon, Comcast, Charter, and Dish carry Newsmax? And why do they all carry Fox — which is, frankly, at times just as irresponsible and dangerous with its platform as its smaller competitor networks?
The article is triply ironic: (1) CNN itself is dependent on these carriers, so the article reads like an attempt from one company to cancel its competitors; (2) liberals have been opposing attempts to change the law to make online platforms responsible for the material they carry, but now this liberal wants to make TV companies responsible for carrying Fox News; (3) journalists usually believe in freedom of the press.
Meanwhile, many people are wanting to apply the crime of sedition–rebellion against the government–to President Trump, the rioters, other election-deniers, and others. Anti-sedition laws, historically, have often been used to stifle dissent and to punish political opponents.
When Joe Biden takes office, he must be very careful how he responds. Many of his fervent supporters will want to punish not only Donald Trump but his supporters. Biden has said that he wants to unite the country, and this indeed should be a critical priority. This will mean uniting with Trump supporters, including those who do not trust the election results. Can he reach out to them? If he does–for example, by pardoning Donald Trump–his own supporters will be furious. But if he cracks down further on his opponents, he will risk keeping the divisions alive and compounding the damage to democracy that he believes Trump caused. Handling all of this will be an early test of Biden’s leadership, and, whether we supported him or not, we should hope that he moves the country past all of this trauma.
Illustration: Napoleon on the Eve of the Battle of Borodino by Horace Vernet via Thomas1313, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons