The Capitol assault was an act of expressive politics. A backlash is surely coming—against the left

With roots in the 1960s, this now-prominent form of protest politics has long proven futile and counterproductive

Published February 27, 2021 10:59AM (EST)

Jacob Anthony Angeli Chansley, known as the QAnon Shaman, is seen at the Capital riots.  (Brent Stirton/Getty Images)
Jacob Anthony Angeli Chansley, known as the QAnon Shaman, is seen at the Capital riots. (Brent Stirton/Getty Images)

For weeks now, the news media have been flooded by a tidal wave of news and commentaries about the January 6 violent assault against the U.S. Capitol building. Most mainstream commentators condemned the assault using terms like "insurrection," "terrorism," and even "fascism." Right wing media and many Republicans have echoed the ex-President's lies about blocking a "stolen" election, while his Congressional defenders blocked his impeachment conviction.

I would suggest an additional way we might think about the January 6 assault, as a form of "expressive politics" that has its roots in the 1960s — a now-prominent form of protest "politics" that is both futile and counterproductive.

The 1960s era was a time when powerful social movements brought about profoundly important changes in the United States. But it was also a time when the news media broadcast seemingly incessant images of violence: police attacks on southern civil rights activists, shocking assassinations, the horrific U.S. war in Vietnam, and five successive summers of inner-city rioting as Black Americans' frustrations boiled over.

Furthermore, some anti-war militants engaged in violent attacks on property while others displayed Viet Cong flags at antiwar protests, and for a while the media seemed saturated with bizarre images of hippies and their countercultural lifestyles.

Television imagery in particular became a vehicle for protesters to "gain attention" through militancy or provocative behaviors — in effect, to feel more "powerful," even though the same media were consistently dismissing or attacking their fundamental criticisms of America.

As one young Black man declared after images of the 1965 Watts riot shocked the American public, "We won, because we made the whole world pay attention to us."

Antiwar protester Jerry Rubin revealed the narcissistic element in "expressive politics" this way: "Media attention can be comforting. Someone is paying attention, we are having some impact — is the feeling."

Yet in actual fact, the inner-city uprisings, along with other media images, were used then as fuel for a profound backlash campaign led by politicians on the right from Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan to George Wallace and Richard Nixon. They appealed to people left out of, and often alienated by, the events they witnessed in the media.

Aided by a massive corporate campaign, the backlash turned the country's politics away from the democratic promise of the awakening social movements to a new creed that worshipped the so-called "free market" and rejected the use of government to meet the needs of people, the ideology known today as neoliberalism.

The mass media simply followed the cues. The 1960s became widely dismissed as an era of self-indulgence and mindless militancy. More precisely, the media romanticized a "good" sixties (civil rights and JFK) while condemning a "bad" sixties (virtually everything that happened after 1964). Consider, for example, how the imagery in the film "Forrest Gump" follows this demarcation to a T.

So now we have witnessed precisely those "left-out" and alienated populations on the right engaging in a violent assault against the U.S. Capitol. Not only did they feel the Congress was the enemy because it was going to validate an actual legitimate election outcome, but they took and broadcast so many selfies and videos that they provided law enforcement with a vehicle for arresting many of them.

Using burgeoning right wing social media, those who assaulted the Capitol continue to echo the wild conspiracy claims promulgated by neo-fascist organizations while simultaneously ranting about "revolution" or "civil war" and violence to come.

It doesn't take a genius to see that the Capitol event and its aftermath have had one dominant effect. They have energized the forces of backlash and repression — not only against groups on the Right, but any groups carrying out protests which officials might deem as threatening the social order.

The strident attacks and police violence against Black Lives Matter protests over the last year — reinforced by well-established patterns in our history — suggest that the impact of these repressive measures will fall not on white conservatives going forward, but disproportionately on racial minorities and others on the Left. 

What then do we make of "expressive politics" and what do they suggest about effective ways to bring about much needed change?

First, let us recognize how the media-captured provocative act is particularly seductive for those who are powerless in the political process. Despite Donald Trump's manipulative language, and except for the single factor of white supremacy, many of those assaulting the Capitol are as effectively cut off from political power as are racial minorities living in under-resourced neighborhoods and communities. White supremacy is, in effect, their only claim of "power" against Black Americans they feel threatened by.

Second, by itself, a media-captured episode of violence produces nothing but backlash and repression and fails to advance the real interests of those protesting.

How, then, can marginalized or oppressed groups effectively advance their interests? I would suggest both "inside" and "outside" strategies are necessary.

Inside strategy means tactics that cause political decision makers to reflect the interests of these groups. The 1960s are again a case in point — none of the significant, even historic, changes that occurred in that era would have occurred in the absence of mass movements from below. To achieve such a mass movement requires an outside strategy.

Obviously a great deal of networking and strategic on-the-ground organizing goes into creating a mass movement.  Mass protests become more powerful if they reach and draw into their ranks a wider slice of the population — or, according to a classic formula of direct action, if their audience becomes more sympathetic to the protesters' cause than to the target of their protest.

Both the civil rights and — until the media zeroed in on looters, and commentators attacked them — Black Lives Matter movements succeeded at this because their audiences saw the legitimate reason for their protest: police attacks on nonviolent civil rights protesters and the widely-viewed police murder of George Floyd that followed a long line of police killings.

A huge challenge facing those on the left is how they can get marginalized audiences on the right to see the threat of climate change, or the impact of racism, or the counter-productivity of U.S. militarism.

A pivotal first step, however, would be to get those audiences to see that their economic self-interests can be advanced by joining with others who are also struggling economically, at the same time recognizing that right wing claims about hot-button emotional issues are essentially just that. 

This suggests that class inequality can be an effective focal point for coming together around a range of issues — jobs, health care, inequitable taxes, inadequate pay, demeaning work, etc.— that can often be addressed in a variety of ways at the local level, but which ultimately direct attention to the nature of our capitalist economy. Joint collaboration, in turn, is a catalyst for growing trust and interaction.

President Biden often speaks of his desire for "unity" in the nation. However, he doesn't mean "unity" among all those who are struggling. Probably nothing scares the economic elites of this country more than a unified working majority mobilized to address economic inequities across the board.

That's a radically different animal from "expressive politics."

By Ted Morgan

Ted Morgan is emeritus professor of political science at Lehigh University and the author, most recently, of “What Really Happened to the 1960s: How Mass Media Culture Failed American Democracy.”

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