Using violence for political purposes isn't just immoral and illegal; it's a mistake.
In light of the recent riot against democracy in the Capitol, it is time we rethought the lazy presumptions we all share about violence. Both Hollywood and the National Rifle Association endlessly, carelessly, and thoughtlessly tell us that violence sometimes is not only needed but works when nothing else will. In movies and NRA press releases, violence is the final solution, sometimes the only way that good can prevail over evil.
According to the NRA's mythology, gun owners are necessary to defend freedom. The NRA loves to quote Thomas Jefferson, "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants."
But the NRA and Hollywood are wrong about the virtues of violence, and the riot Trump incited at the Capitol shows how this philosophy can be perverted, turned into its opposite. The purpose of the riot against Congress was not freedom but sedition. It was incited, controlled, and condoned by a man intending to steal our freedom by overturning the results of an election he lost. Despite losing the Electoral College and over 60 legal challenges in court, Trump thought he could still win by bullying Congress into submission.
Political scientists, however, have recently discovered violence is not as nearly as effective at winning political conflicts as either the NRA or Trump's followers would have you believe. In a fascinating book, Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict, Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan report from their study of several hundred modern conflicts that nonviolence is almost twice as likely to prevail in conflicts as violence. Also, nonviolence is much more likely to have a democratic outcome.
According to Chenoweth and Stephan, one reason nonviolence is more effective than violence is that more people can join a nonviolent movement--grandparents, children, and mothers. Everybody, in short, not just angry men. Another reason for nonviolence's greater success is that the threshold for getting involved in nonviolence is lower because the risk of dying, being hurt, going to jail, or losing property is also lower. Getting more people involved gives the movement more legitimacy to contest the regime.
Even the most brutal dictatorships depend on people silently acquiescing, pretending support. If that pretense ends, and people start openly rebelling, no dictatorship can survive. It doesn't take violence to overthrow an illegitimate regime; it takes people going public with their dissent, refusing to obey. Of course, dissidents risk their lives, but when they are murdered or tortured or just threatened with either, they give others a cause to rebel, resulting in a legitimacy crisis for the regime. The more violence a regime uses to stay in power, the less legitimacy it has, forcing it to use yet more violence, making it even more vulnerable.
Nothing destroys moral authority like waving guns around, trashing the nation's Capitol, and threatening to hang the Vice President. Forcing people to do what you want at the point of a gun will not win their allegiance to your cause or even make them cooperate with it. According to nonviolence theory, violence is an expression of desperation and weakness, not of power. If you prevail by violence, you will always have to rule by violence, and you will never have legitimacy or security.
Instead of thoughtlessly heeding the NRA's call to arms, we should instead follow the teachings of Henry David Thoreau, Jannette Rankin, and Martin Luther King. Their nonviolence philosophy is the more authentic expression of the American experiment because the outcome invariably ends with a renewing of democracy. Not only that but, when push comes to shove, it is also more likely to prevail in political conflict. To truly defend our democracy, we must follow their example, not Trump's.
Wade Sikorski has a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. He is the author of "Sacrificial Rituals."