America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter, and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves. -Abraham Lincoln
Certain scenes from this week left us uncertain as to whether we should laugh or cry. And as this tragic comedy unfolded on the global stage, the American Story featured a front-line debut of some truly colorful characters, including the....
And while these particular groups sound about as terrifying as a middle school math club, scout troop, and boy band, they all represent something far less innocuous.
In October of 2020, the Department of Homeland Security officially recognized white supremacy groups (and far-right extremists) as terrorist organizations and the "most persistent and lethal threat" to national security. Neither ANTIFA nor BLM were ever identified as national threats or terrorist organizations - except by those who were actually identified as national threats and terrorist organizations.
These anti-government, fringe groups have been forced into the center of our democratic dialogue, and challenge us to examine how we got here.
What Factors Contribute to Radicalization?
The age of social media has contributed to the acceleration of radicalization in the United States. It only takes 4 months for right-wing constituents to become “radicalized”, where it used to take years in contexts like ISIS.
The United States Institute of Peace explains that extremists harness conflict dynamics and structural challenges, which enable them to exploit the grievances of individuals and communities. Empirical research published by USAID reveals that violent extremism is caused in large part by the grievances tied to social marginalization, political exclusion, lack of access to justice or resources, and repression or abuse.
The truly unsettling fact here is that there are more guns than people in the US. And it's fairly safe to assume that most of those guns lie predominantly on one side of the ideological line. And with more guns in the United States than in any other country in the world (and almost as many as all other countries combined), this has maintained the potential to be the most violent election transition in history. This presents itself as a war of ideologies. And unlike the civil war, which had the benefits of being geographically contained, and conveniently short on automatic weapons, this division is like a disease that’s metastasized and spread throughout the entire United States, with plenty of automatic weapons in tow.
So How Did We Get Here?
Here's the issue. The enemy is not the people who stormed the capitol. The problem is the system that made it all too easy to radicalize them.
The reality is, society did fail these groups. In fact, it failed about 90% of Americans. Because exactly 50 years ago, we allowed corporate dollars to infiltrate our politics. In any other context, we'd call this bribery. But we've slapped on a fancy label, legalized and legislated it, and continue to call it lobbying. And that has effectively turned our government into this mutant institution that pushed policies that would systematically disenfranchise the majority of Americans.
We've seen exponential economic growth over the last few decades, and we have more wealth than any country in the world. Meanwhile, the median wage for American workers has stagnated, and even decreased, adjusted for inflation. Where is all that money going? To the top. Companies could invest more in their workers, their wages, their healthcare, and their education... but they don't, in the name of 'deregulation.' And the government offers more tax cuts to big companies, in exchange for unfettered campaign contributions, and forgo trillions of dollars in taxes that could be invested in building up the middle class through education, healthcare, and opportunities.
Democracy and Capitalism at its Best
A democracy flourishes to the extent that the greatest number of people can participate. And the strength of capitalism is in its ability to create prosperity that affords more people the ability to participate. That's not socialism; that's capitalism at its best. That's the form of capitalism we had in the 1960's, when America had the strongest middle class in the world, and the upward mobility that we so proudly characterized as "The American Dream." But as corporations purchased policies that shamelessly skewed our country's economic gains in one direction, Americans suffered. It eroded the middle class, and it is well on its way to creating a two tiered society. (Which is also not a real democracy.)
That's the problem. Extremism is "caused in large part by the grievances tied to social marginalization, political exclusion, lack of access to justice or resources, and repression or abuse." People are angry, and that anger and disillusionment is easily manipulated. It poisons the very fabric of society, replacing tolerance with hate, and critical-thinking with conspiracy theories. But people's rage is misplaced and misdirected, at each other. And our politicians and policy makers are seeing - with uncomfortable clarity - how mass resentment, fueled by unjust policies, can take even the strongest democracy to its brink.
Democracy and capitalism are what we make of them. They can reflect our values. And if we want this American Experiment to succeed, they must. Because violent extremists are just a symptom of a systemic problem: the real "persistent and lethal threat" to national security is bad policy.