Anti-Government Unrest and American Vigilantism

The crash of a shattering window as a brick is hurled at a politician's office; the hiss of gas from a slashed utility line outside the home of a congressman's relative; snarling epithets left in the voice mailboxes of elected officials. These are among the most unsettling noises of the backlash against the new health care law, and to some, they sound like an echo of a checkered American tradition: vigilantism, taking the law into one's own hands.

Vigilantism is often presumed to be synonymous with racism or irrational political extremism. True/Slant's Sarah Libby decries "the notion of vigilante justice" as "a scary one that has deeply racist roots" in the post-Civil War lynchings of southern blacks. Frank Rich of the New York Times termed the spate of post-vote incidents "vigilante violence" and compared the perpetrators to the Nazis on Kristallnacht. Even the Associated Press is using the magic V-word in its write-throughs about the unrest.

Since 2008, instances of anti-government outrage have gradually escalated, from Joseph Stack's plane crash into an Austin federal building to the vandalism, death threats and intimidation of the past few weeks. According to a report by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the United States has enjoyed a 244 percent increase in the number of active patriot groups--"militias and other extremist organizations that see the federal government as their enemy"--in 2009. Pundits nervously wonder what the future of vigilante violence will hold. "The weapon of choice for vigilante violence at Congressional offices has been a brick hurled through a window," penned Rich. "So far."

While the facts of some of the recent incidents are disputed, it's incredibly appropriate that vigilantism is being invoked to brand the instances of political violence. Vigilante justice is not a historical artifact of the Wild West, where American pioneers on the lawless frontier banded together to protect life, liberty, and property. From the "Dirty Harry" movies of the 1970s through the eco-terrorism of the animal rights and anti-mansionization movements, the impulse to impose "justice" where the system fails to is not confined to one era or ideological extreme. Recalling the historical roots of American vigilantism can help us understand where the current anti-government violence fits and where it may be headed.
While vigilantism has been defined in a variety of ways by academics, there is broad agreement that it is essentially a conservative impulse. Vigilante scholars H. Jon Rosenbaum and Peter C. Sederberg situate vigilante activity between revolutionary and reactionary violence, as "acts of threat or coercion in violation of the formal boundaries of an established sociopolitical order, which, however, are intended by the violators to defend the order from some form of subversion." Historian Richard Maxwell Brown, a long-time scholar of American violence, sees vigilantism as inherently driven by the desire to restore the sociopolitical order to a previous level of stability. The sources of instability vary throughout history--crime, demographic shifts, government corruption--but the impulse remains the same: to restore stability to a world turned upside down, and reinforce those values at risk in a rapidly changing world.

No wonder, then, that conservative backlash and the vigilantism associated with some of its adherents has been accelerating since the economic collapse and the 2008 election; notions of "change" coinciding with economic instability are a classic recipe for anxiety and paranoia.

While vigilantism was a fixture on the American frontier in small settler communities since the end of the 18th century, the current uproar has much in common with the granddaddy of large-scale American vigilante movements, the San Francisco Vigilance Committee of 1856. San Francisco had already been home to a small vigilante movement in 1851, when fears of arson and larceny in the face of the California gold rush prompted the organization of a temporary militia until municipal law enforcement could take control. But a few years later, with street crime in check, the issue was soaring municipal debt, rising taxes, and bankruptcy under corrupt political leadership, in a city described by Brown as a "seething caldron of social, ethnic, religious, and political tensions." The political elite exploited those tensions to mobilize support from its base, strong-arming elections and mobilizing the Irish-Catholic and mostly Democratic working class of the city as its political backbone. After a muckraking journalist, James King, who had been exposing machine abuses, was murdered by a political operative, enrollment in the vigilance committee soared. The vigilantes saw the municipal courts as corrupt and ineffective, so they methodically collected material evidence of election fraud and municipal corruption before ousting the machine.
The San Francisco Committee shares many of the same features and focus as the recent political unrest: frustration with government, underpinnings of socio-cultural strife, and urgency to act promoted by an aggressive, inflammatory press. Students of today's anti-Obama, anti-Washington rhetoric will recognize the style King employed, portraying his city as caught in the grip of a "second class" of men who "stand all day at the street corner, flourishing whale bone canes and twirling greasy mustachios. At night they flock to the gambling halls, abounding in all our thoroughfares, where they feast and carouse, bet and blackguard, damn their own souls and take the name of God in vain. Or else, flushed with wine and lust, they throng the houses of prostitution." Concluded this latter-day Glenn Beck: "Men without one particle of claim to the position have filled the post of Mayor and Councilman in the city, for the sole purpose of filling their pockets with the ill gotten gains of their nefarious schemes, their pilfering and dishonesty." King's editorials created a "near-panic psychology" concerning municipal crime (despite low crime rates reported by the California Alta), bringing the anger of average citizens to a boiling point before focusing their popular rage on the negligent state government.

This phenomenon was repeated in the Montana vigilante movement of the 1880s, where leader Robert Fisk used the territorial press to hype a declining crime problem and feed the vigilante fever by demonizing his adversaries: "There is no disguising the fact that Helena at this time is the rendezvous for a score or more of very hard characters--men that have no visible means of livelihood and that are watching for opportunities to rob and even murder, if necessary, to carry out their infamous purposes," wrote Robert Fisk in the Helena Daily Herald. "Would it not be a wise precautionary step to invite some of these desperate characters to 'take a walk' or shall we wait for other murders and robberies, and perhaps until they burn the town down again?" Next to this, Sarah Palin's use of "crosshairs" to mark her political targets almost seems tame.

Such scare tactics have found fertile soil in modern media. Cries of socialism, Marxism, communism, and totalitarianism broadcast--usually unchallenged--across the airwaves and blogosphere resonate with those already unnerved by "change you can believe in." Thus, a bill that true leftists abhor promoted by a president unloved by the hard left is easily spun into a subversive effort by committed enemies of the American way to undermine the fabric of American society. Rep. Michelle Bachmann's (R-MN) recent calls for civil disobedience are self-explanatory. Steve Benen highlights the incendiary rhetoric of Rep. Todd Akin (R-MO), who claims "Americans are reacquainted with the danger of an arrogant all powerful government, a deadly enemy within, a clear and present danger in Washington." Or, as Glenn Beck puts it: "the end of America as we know it."

History suggests this level of fear--and the activism, non-violent and otherwise, it fuels--is difficult to sustain. Even with control of the press, the leaders of the San Francisco and Montana vigilantes could not maintain a panic psychology after justice was served, and their movements dissolved. But today's digital media provides a wider--and more accessible--avenue for rabble rousing, and there's nothing to stop those who want to keep the fire burning from doing so. Take away her book, speaking engagements, and Fox News platform, and Palin could still have an impact; during her post-resignation months in the political wilderness, she built a loyal base entirely through her Facebook page. And no one can control the likes of Mike Vanderboegh, the 57-year-old former militiaman from Alabama who encouraged those who agree with him to throw bricks through the windows of Democratic offices nationwide in protest of "Pelosi's Intolerable Act." (profile) The easily accessible platforms of the blogosphere and social media can make any wing nut an overnight pundit with a digital bully pulpit.

The sight of partisans quickly taking sides and pointing fingers in the debate over the emerging vigilante culture and violence associated with it suggests another reason why the phenomenon may linger--it's in the self-interest of some to keep it going. We're already seeing how both Democrats and Republicans have recently sought to capitalize on these months of political upheaval as a fundraising tool. Even if saner heads do prevail, they'll likely be drowned out by media outlets catering to an ideological ("narrowcast") demographic. Video of rabid right-wingers hoisting signs equating Obama with Hitler is mother's milk to the talk-show hosts on MSNBC, just as ceaseless garment-rending over the "Cornhusker Kickback" is a ratings-grabber for Fox. Any hope of more sober dialogue will surely have to wait until after the November election, or perhaps beyond--unlike the social and political grievances that inflamed 19th century San Francisco and Montana, our economic woes and complex health-care reforms won't be resolved in short order. The "mad as hell" crowd of the moment seems destined for a madder than hell future.
Today's journalists and politicians correctly invoke vigilantism to describe the recent violence. But having done so, they bear responsibility for learning history's lessons. For instance, Reason's Matt Welch chides journalists for their emphasis on the "narrative" of politics and encourages them to focus on policy rather than inflammatory sidebars. Politicians should also heed Welch's advice and reconsider the need for narratives, for as much as modern vigilantism reflects the cycle of populist violence in America's history, the prospect of a never-ending crisis spun by message-makers is cause for concern that vigilantism's comeback might be a permanent one.