Various commentators, mostly from the conservative side but also a few sober-minded liberals, are expressing concern that a mob mentality—coming especially from the political left—is taking hold in America. They point to the disturbing evidence: clashes between groups in Charlottesville and Portland, Antifa commandeering busy streets in Portland and attacking motorists while police look the other way; the hounding of Republican members of Congress and Trump administration officials in public establishments; the in-your-face confrontations in Congressional office buildings during the Kavanaugh hearings; a few cases of outright physical attacks—including a shooting—on members of Congress; a flood of threats of violence against prominent conservative politicians and their families; the shutting down of anyone but leftist speakers on many campuses; the excusing and urging-on of such confrontational behavior by Democratic party figures like Hillary Clinton, Maxine Waters, and Eric Holder; physical assaults on pro-life picketers and sidewalk counselors; mobs taking it upon themselves to tear down Confederate statues; and social media mobs that try to pressure and intimidate those who don’t tow the leftist line (something even I have experienced). And the list could go on and on.
Along with a rising mobocracy goes a rejection of the legally constituted means of making public decisions and of constitutional procedures to bestow and transfer political power. Instead of going through the proper decision-making procedures to have Confederate statutes taken down and replaced, in some cases a lawless element decided to do this by itself, irrespective of the sentiments of the majority who live in the community. Some consider the Electoral College illegitimate because Hillary Clinton won the popular vote but still lost the election. Donald Trump could be impeached based on any partisan accusation, irrespective of what the Framers thought or American constitutional history indicates. Instead of a willingness to wait for the next national election, we see someone like Rosie O’Donnell—one of your typical self-appointed Hollywood moralists and political guiding lights—calling for a military coup d’état to oust Trump from power.
One writer recently recalled Abraham Lincoln’s Lyceum Speech of 1838. Animated by a vigilante episode and the murder of an abolitionist newspaper editor by a pro-slavery mob, he lamented growing lawlessness and warned that it could result in the rise of a strongman leader who, in the name of restoring order, would become a despot and destroy the country’s cherished liberties. Lincoln understood that order is—to quote Russell Kirk—“the first need of all and to secure it once it has widely broken down people will surrender their freedom.” The Lyceum Speech certainly is a sober thing to reflect on in the face of these current developments.
A number of disturbing thoughts come to mind with these recent happenings. First, when confrontations and even physical assaults increase as a way to further political objectives—and prominent political figures give their approval—the rule of law is at stake. Activists and politicians should think about the implications of this—it means that the door is opened to arbitrary and even absolute rule. The rule of law—applicable to everyone—is the way in which repressive, arbitrary government is prevented. The leftists in the streets decry fascism, but this is the same behavior that characterized the European fascists of the third and fourth decades of the twentieth century.
It follows that if laws one doesn’t like can be selectively ignored or discarded—without serious, learned analysis or recourse to sound moral principles to show that they are truly unjust—then law means nothing. Those who have the most power become the ones who rule. Those who are tempted to join the mobs in the streets should reflect on how great an achievement the rule of law principle has been for mankind. One can understand why Lincoln called for citizens to not just obey the laws but to have reverence for them—almost as if they were religious precepts.
Second, the desire, for all practical purposes, to bludgeon one’s opponents to achieve political objectives not only shows an abject rejection of the value of debate, give-and-take, and compromise in politics—which thinkers as far back as Aristotle understood were essential to political life—but it also demonstrates an utter arrogance regarding politics. What it says is that we know better, and will not tolerate any challenge to the way we think. It is an exercise in modern-day Gnosticism—we simply know better, no matter what. It is curious that these political Gnostics—despite the all-knowing aura that they try to project—display a striking mindlessness, devoid of deep and extensive reflection. They often embrace positions merely because they are the standard leftist position or because they are considered “enlightened.” The educational experience of many young activists amounts to indoctrination without any serious requirement to think independently. Then there are those like the Rosie O’Donnells who speak impulsively before they think.
Third, if the rule of law is seen as dispensable or can be subordinated to higher ideological objectives, the innocent will be readily victimized by the unscrupulous. We witnessed this vividly in the Kavanaugh hearings where truth and hard evidence seemed to be irrelevant, and accusers, regardless of their intentions, were supposed to be listened to. We see the same thing with the sexual harassment/sexual assault question generally, where not only the presumption of innocence and due process are discarded, but the very nature of the offense is never clearly defined. So, too, with child abuse and neglect, with the result that innocent parents are routinely investigated and have their families disrupted by the so-called child-protective system. In other words, the assault on rule of law has been accelerating over the course of many years.
Perhaps what is different from Lincoln’s time, and so even more disturbing, is that at least some of the current mob-like behavior appears to be orchestrated. We hear reports of George Soros-funded organizations paying protestors to be disruptive and other organizations whose purpose is to arrange protests and confrontations for their clients.
A troubling pattern has emerged that is similar to what happened to the nation in Lincoln’s time. The pro-slavery extremists—the firebrands—gained the upper hand in the South and all possibility of any kind of accommodation or even looking objectively at the realities and evils of slavery went by the boards. As time went on, the mainstream Southern politicians followed them; effectively, they let the firebrands forge the path and set the agenda. In our time, we witness mainstream Democratic Party politicians embracing the policy agenda of the hard left—consider the near extinction of pro-life Democratic members of Congress—and now see some of them maintaining silence about the mob-like behavior while others urge it on.
Aristotle was the first great Western political thinker to speak at length about the rule of law. He also stressed the importance of a community of friendship to insure a stable political order. As we see the lineaments of a bubbling mobocracy, we—and especially civic leaders and governmental officials in both parties—should give attention to his wise counsel. There is no question that it has perennial relevance. None of us will be winners if the rule of law is eviscerated and the prevailing political, social, and cultural polarization as well as the attacks on basic rights such as religious liberty—born especially of the repudiation of the natural law and the growing influence of cultural radicalism—tear ever further at the nation’s social fabric. Civic friendship seems in many ways to have long since disappeared. Mobs generate counter-mobs, which we have begun to see in places like Charlottesville and Portland, and that is one step away from civil war in the classic sense of the term.
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