A rising sense of domestic insecurity made a dramatic mark on the 2016 U.S. presidential election. To add historical perspective on the rise in violence in America and its impact on political alignments, we spoke with Beverly Gage, professor of 20th-century American history at Yale University, about the history of violence in America and its effects on American politics and immigration policy.
Q: Why do Americans tend to consider acts of civil violence an anomaly when terrorism and civil unrest have a long history in the United States?
A: Americans are attached to a narrative of progress, the idea that our country is always moving forward and that people in the country share the same vision of what American society is supposed to be. However, I think we’re increasingly coming to talk about our own politics in terms of divided politics — the politics of competing visions — much more than we were at other points in our history.
In certain ways, that story about progress tends to push aside or obscure the real levels of conflict that have always been there, particularly violent conflict. It is sometimes hard to reconcile those two stories: the one of conflict and the one of consensus.
Q: What are the goals that motivate present-day violent groups and how do they differ from those during what you call America’s First Age of Terror, 1886 to 1920?
A: Despite our current fears, one of the interesting things that has happened in American history over the past 150 years is that we have much less political violence in our society than at the turn of the 19th century or early 20th century.
For instance, strikes in the late 19th century tended to be extraordinarily violent affairs on both sides. Corporations would hire private armies of mercenaries, and private detectives were armed to engage literally in armed warfare with strikers, who themselves were often armed.
There were often real gun battles, and politics were carried out through that kind of deep conflict. A sustained series of armed conflict between employers and employees is almost unimaginable today.
Q: Foreign-born account for about 15 percent of the U.S. population, the highest level since the early 20th century. Are there any parallels between now and the first decades of the 20th century regarding the level of mass immigration, unemployment, stagnant wages, and the level of ideological violence and anti-immigrant attitudes?
A: Statistically we look a lot like a hundred years ago in terms of mass immigration and the percentage of foreign-born in the U.S. population. Most Americans think of the United States as a nation of immigrants, but in fact we had “peak” immigration in the early 20th century.
In the 1920s, the United States swung the doors shut, and from the 1920s until the 1960s you had very little immigration into the country due to restrictive immigration laws. Revisions to immigration laws in the 1960s opened the United States up to a much wider range of people from around the world. Thus, a pretty dramatic shift has occurred, and you can see the political reactions to it.
Q: Is there any relationship between the high levels of violence now and a century ago?
A: There are similar social anxieties around that question. Then, as now, there was deep concern that people with radical political ideas were coming into the United States from other areas of the world, and that some of those radical politics involved the use of terrorist violence. The conversations going on today actually look quite a lot like what was happening a hundred years ago.
At that time, the anxieties were about anarchists as well as Communists and Socialists, particularly from Italy, Eastern Europe and Russia. This concern was heightened in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. There were also concerns about Irish revolutionaries.
The character of what was happening was different, the kinds of conflict and the kinds of politics that were the source of violence looked different. Still, those anxieties did actually help to push the kind of immigration restrictions and civil liberties violations you saw in the early 20th century.
Q: In the 1920s, the doors were shut to further immigration for about 40 years. Do you see any relationship between closing our borders and subsequent levels of violence?
A: The 50-year stretch of violence in industrial conflict, and particularly the use of terrorist violence within industrial conflict, really began to come to an end in the 1920s. There were many factors contributing to this. To some degree immigration restrictions played a role, but in the context of a concerted campaign by the federal government to repress and break up radical groups.
Action against groups like the Industrial Workers of the World or various anarchist groups in the United States during The First Red Scare actually did have a dramatic effect on those organizations. A lot of this was very controversial and was one of the things that produced the modern civil liberties movement. Government was conducting deportation raids against radical organizations and was passing speech restrictions, particularly during and after the First World War.
Also in the 1930s, the United States came up with a structure for mediating labor conflict when it passed the National Labor Relations Act in 1935, which produced an expansive federal machinery for helping employers and workers to mediate conflicts and strikes.
Q: During the Progressive Era there was a hopeful sense that societal challenges could be addressed through rationality, education, government reforms and better planning. In our present day, there’s deep cynicism about government dysfunction. Can you contrast that cynicism with the Progressive Era? Are we at an extreme now?
A: You’re absolutely right that the Progressive Era was animated by the idea of progress: that there were social problems and they could be solved through the proper application of social science, the right political leaders, tweaks to political institutions and expansion of the role of the federal government. Progressives certainly believed that with these changes you could have a really dramatic impact on the quality of people’s lives and American society.
The Progressive Era was also driven by fear of social disintegration, which was related to the levels of violence and conflict in society. There was a real sense of fragility at that moment and a sense that unless certain changes were made, the entire system and society was going to fall apart.
Many people in the United States did not buy into the progressive vision at all. In many ways, the Progressive Era was the start of an expansive vision of what the federal government should do and also the beginning of a deep reaction against this approach and the types of people, i.e., technocrats and well-educated people, who claimed to be able to solve social problems.
Polls today suggest that many Americans do not believe the future will be better than the past. This is a pretty significant shift that is under way and does contrast with what we saw a hundred years ago. Even if you were a Socialist a hundred years ago, you thought the revolution and utopia were going to come. These days, I don’t think there are many people in the United States or around the world who have a truly utopian vision that all social problems can be solved.
Q: Given the disaffection of many voters with both the Democratic and Republican parties, is it possible that we are in the early stages of a major party realignment?
A: That is the big question of the moment. It does seem like this really may be happening. The question is what will the realignment look like and where will the populist energies go? Will there be a space within the Democratic party for all those Sanders voters? Will the Democratic party peel off the globalist business Republicans and become much more a party of global business, the cosmopolitan party as opposed to the protectionist party?
Immigration statistics look similar to a hundred years ago, but labor union membership in the private sector is back down to levels of, or even lower than, a hundred years ago. Currently, only 6 to 7 percent of private-sector workers belong to a union, which is what it was around 1900.
The public sector looks different. There is no indication, for better or worse, that the Democrats are going to do anything about the shrinking of organized labor. Once it shrinks even further, if it in fact does, that is a pretty fundamental change in who has power and influence within the Democratic party.
A third statistic very similar to a hundred years ago is inequality. It looks roughly like it did during the Gilded Age. If there is some growing consensus that the levels of inequality are not ideal, then the question becomes what will the tools for addressing it be.
Q: How does violence affect politics and governance? Does it make change in policy and approach more or less likely?
A: Politicized terrorist violence tends to have a perverse effect. In my book The Day Wall Street Exploded, I discuss how the 1920 cluster-bombing on Wall Street that killed 38 people, along with other acts of political violence at this moment, helped to produce some very severe restrictions on political speech and immigration. Though these were aimed at groups that really did use violent language and actual revolutionary or terrorist violence, they also had broader effects. Often acts of violence brought down the weight of the state against radical groups and really discredited their causes. It is very unusual for acts of dramatic terrorist violence to produce the outcome that the people who commit them believe they are going to produce.
Login in below to access content exclusive to clients of The GailFosler Group.
Not a client yet? For more information on the benefits of becoming a client, please contact us.