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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Does the ‘Antifa’ Movement Help or Hurt the Democratic Cause?

The resistance to the Trump Administration’s assault on civil and human rights includes the emergence of a controversial group known as ‘Antifa,’ whose participants have made it clear that they have no objection to using physical violence to challenge hate groups. Most recently, Antifa was highly-visible at the Charlottesville protests, in which a young woman was killed by an auto driven by a right-wing terrorist.

“Antifa is short for anti-fascists,” writes Jessica Suerth at cnn.com. “The term is used to define a broad group of people whose political beliefs lean toward the left — often the far left — but do not conform with the Democratic Party platform. The group doesn’t have an official leader or headquarters, although groups in certain states hold regular meetings.” There is a longer tradition of ani-fascist resistance groups in Europe and elsewhere.

As Peter Beinart notes at The Atlantic,

The movement traces its roots to the militant leftists who in the 1920s and 1930s brawled with fascists on the streets of Germany, Italy, and Spain. It revived in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, when anti-racist punks in Britain and Germany mobilized to defeat Neo-Nazi skinheads who were infiltrating the music scene. Via punk, groups calling themselves anti-racist action—and later, anti-fascist action or antifa—sprung up in the United States. They have seen explosive growth in the Trump era for an obvious reason: There’s more open white supremacism to mobilize against.

As members of a largely anarchist movement, antifa activists generally combat white supremacism not by trying to change government policy but through direct action. They try to publicly identify white supremacists and get them fired from their jobs and evicted from their apartments. And they disrupt white-supremacist rallies, including by force.

Antifa in the U.S. is really more of a loose aggregation of resistance groups, most of whom share a general belief that progressives should not shrink from returning the violence committed by Klan, neo-nazis or other Alt-right groups. Judging by news videos, the Antifa does appear to be growing in size, which is understandable, given the uptick in hate group activity. Brenna Cammeron reports at bbc.com that the closest thing Antifa has to a web page, the “It’s Going Down” website received around 300 hits daily in 2015, now garners between 10-20,000 hits a day.”

Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino said of the Antifa in Suerth’s article, “What they’re trying to do now is not only become prominent through violence at these high-profile rallies, but also to reach out through small meetings and through social networking to cultivate disenfranchised progressives who heretofore were peaceful.”
Beinart argues that “some of their tactics are genuinely troubling.” Specifically,
They’re troubling tactically because conservatives use antifa’s violence to justify—or at least distract from—the violence of white supremacists, as Trump did in his press conference. They’re troubling strategically because they allow white supremacists to depict themselves as victims being denied the right to freely assemble. And they’re troubling morally because antifa activists really do infringe upon that right. By using violence, they reject the moral legacy of the civil-rights movement’s fight against white supremacy.
However, adds Beinart, “saying it’s a problem is vastly different than implying, as Trump did, that it’s a problem equal to white supremacism. Using the phrase “alt-left” suggests a moral equivalence that simply doesn’t exist…Antifa’s vision is not as noxious. Antifa activists do not celebrate regimes that committed genocide and enforced slavery.”

According to the Anti-Defamation League, Beinart writes, “right-wing extremists committed 74 percent of the 372 politically motivated murders recorded in the United States between 2007 and 2016. Left-wing extremists committed less than 2 percent.” Few rational swing voters are likely to be convinced that violence from the political left is as pervasive as that from the right.

Suerth reports that “White nationalists and other members of the so-called alt-right have denounced members of Antifa, sometimes calling them the “alt-left,” which Trump repeatedly referred to in his widely-criticized remarks yesterday at Trump Tower.

Antifa supporters might argue that a little physical confrontation of the Brooks Brothers Rioters back in 2000 might have prevented a lot of human misery. They also believe that, when a neo-fascist knows that they can easily be on the receiving end of violence, they will temper their behavior.

But opening the door to violent resistence is a more dangerous strategy in that there are millions more guns circulating today than back in the mid-late 1960s, when progressives debated the choice between violent and nonviolent methods for social change. Despite the mass shooting in Alexandria, what is remarkable is how few incidents have occurred in which the perpetrator of violence can be accurately identified as a left-progressive of any sort. How long can this last in a society increasingly poisoned by social anger and the unrestricted proliferation of assault weapons?

Going forward, it seems a sure bet that Trump and the Republicans, particularly their alt-right flank, will make broad-brush characterizations of the American left as violent. Trump’s Tuesday rant is a signal that this strategy, which appears to have  Bannon’s fingerprints, is already being implemented. They will hold up the example of the mass shooting in Alexandria, VA that wounded U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise  as corroborating evidence that the left is as violent as the right, and they will have the bully pulpit and GOP echo chamber to parrot this false equivalence meme. Many will believe them and many others will take the bait just because it fits their comfort zone with their families and friends.

I imagine that many of the Antifa protesters are admirers of Martin Luther King, Jr. But those who would follow Dr. King should remember his insistence that “means and ends must cohere.” Had Dr. King at any juncture legitimated violent resistance to injustice, his credibility would have been squandered, and we would be living in a very different nation. It’s an impressive tribute to his leadership and the dedication of his S.C.L.C. staff and coworkers in the Civil Rights Movement that this principle was never compromised, even when they were being brutalized and murdered by racists.

Adhering to an exclusively nonviolent strategy is not about basking in the glories of ideological purity. It is every bit a strategic consideration. As King often pointed out, nonviolence confers a unique credibility and dignity on its practitioners. When an individual is assaulted and refuses to return the violence as a matter of principled self-discipline, witnesses of the incident, which today could be many millions of television and internet viewers, will be moved toward a profound emotional sympathy with the victim and antipathy towards the perpetrator.

Thus far Antifa has not been very violent, at least in comparison to the alt-right. But they should take care not to project an overly violent spirit, which is easilly captured on video and in photos and can be amplified and exaggerated in different media formats. It wouldn’t hurt to give more thought to the optics of yelling threats and brandishing sticks. They can be made to look more violent than they are in reality.

Regardless of the direction the Antifa chooses, now would be a good time for progressive groups who espouse exclusively nonviolent means to proclaim and amplify their uncompromising commitment to their principles. Enduring credibility is more likely to come from consistent nonviolence than physical retaliation.

9 comments on “Does the ‘Antifa’ Movement Help or Hurt the Democratic Cause?

  1. Tony on

    Don’t forget Democrats were the original KKK and white supremacy groups. There were more KKK members in congress as Democrats. Democrats were the original slave owners too.

    • Proud Democrat on

      Don’t worry, we Democrats have not forgotten. We remember it perfectly well.
      That’s why we were so proud when Martin Luther King and Lyndon Johnson
      passed the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act to correct the
      historic wrongs that had been done by previous generations of Democrats.

      We also remember that all of the white racists and KKK members and
      confederate nostalgia bigots fled the Democratic Party at that point,
      cleansing the party of the racist filth in its ranks. The racists and KKK
      members and confederate nostalgia bigots then crawled and slithered into the
      Republican Party where they remain up to this day.

    • Jan Bufkin on

      The democratic party has changed. It’s that simple. I am a democrat because of its values in my lifetime, not a century and a half ago. That’s the thing about us liberals. We understand that change can be for the better.

  2. Robert E. Savage on

    Once the Left in the United States turns to violence they lose all influence on policy. They also take the Democratic Party with them because the electorate suspects that they either support them or are the unwilling to take decisive action against them. When the Left turned to violence in the late 1960s to 1970s (http://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/307365/days-of-rage-by-bryan-burrough/9780143107972/) Richard Nixon was elected twice 1968 and 1972) and Ronald Regean was elected twice (1980 and 1984). The last major civil rights bill to be enacted until the 1990s was the Fair Housing Act in 1968, after MLK Assassination. It will happen again unless liberals forcibly denounce Left-wing violence. Richard Nixon, as with Donald Trump now, was not admired by the majority of the electorate in 1972 but George McGovern was seen as an apologist for the violent Left. Nixon won 49 of 50 states.

    • Lawson Hull on

      I’m a Democrat and these people absolutely disgust me. Search for Antifa violence videos on youtube and you will find tons of them FROM THIS YEAR! The right wing racist groups are absolutely disgusting but they are dogs with no teeth! They are reviled by 100% of our media, have no allies anywhere, and nobody takes them seriously. The Republican party will not support them, though I’m sure behind closed doors some still do.

      But Antifa is different, they have the power to EVISCERATE the Democratic Party, burning away any chance we have to make gains in 2018 and get back the WH in 2020. These people must be denounced RIGHT NOW by liberals everywhere, we are already on a colossal losing streak- one of the largest in this country’s history. The answer is NOT to double down on extremist far left identity politics and violent purity tests. This is utter insanity and if we ever want to win again we HAVE GOT TO stop turning the other way. If the devil was real (and i know he isn’t) this would be the perfect strategy- convince people HATE is the new love, and that nobody is good enough, divide us all into tribes and then watch us eat each other.

      We either get back to ‘big tent’ or we die. We keep going down this road and the Democratic Party officially become authoritarian fascists- the very thing we hate most.

  3. Raymond Smith on

    Those that want to believe what the GOP and Trump says about the Left in their heart already believe the propaganda pushed on them from their RW sources of info.
    History clearly shows that doing absolutely nothing results in Nazi escalation with different groups being eliminated one at a time.
    Remember the following for it may be different groups that they come for in the USA but this is the pattern they have historically followed and will again if America allows them to.

    “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
    Because I was not a Socialist.
    Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
    Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
    Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
    Because I was not a Jew.
    Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”

    They have already made numerous gains politically by the willing compliance of the GOP.
    Who or what will they go after next?
    The DOJ is assisting by demanded info from anti-Trump sites this is the beginning of a list for what, look above and see what history shows you. It took a world war to stop them last time. Doing nothing is what allowed them to gain that kind of power.
    What do you suggest that we do in the USA to stop the Nazi, Fascist, KKK growth, for it will not stop on it’s own.
    How about and article on alternative choices of (EFFECTIVE) suggested forms of action?

    • J.P. Green on

      Doing nothing is not really an option. MLK, who had the track record to back it up, still provides the best guidance for anti-fascist resistance. As Dr. King said, “Our course of action must lie neither in passively relying on persuasion nor in actively succumbing to violent rebellion, but in a higher synthesis that reconciles the truths of these two opposites while avoiding the inadequacies and ineffectiveness of both. With the person relying on persuasion, we must agree that we will not violently destroy life or property; but we must balance this by agreeing with the person of violence that evil must be resisted. By so doing we avoid the nonresistance of the former and the violent resistance of the latter. With nonviolent resistance, we need not submit to any wrong, nor need we resort to violence in order to right a wrong.” For some specific examples of nonviolent tactics and actions that can work in our times, two books stand out: Gene Sharp’s “The Politics of Nonviolent Action” and “Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for Revolution” by Andrew Boyd and David Oswald Mitchell, which together provide numerous examples of nonviolent actions.

    • Jack Olson on

      You say that “They (Nazis) have already made numerous gains politically by the willing compliance of the GOP.” What gains? How many Nazi Party members have won elections in the United States? For that matter, in which elections have they even appeared on the ballot? If the answer to both questions is “none”, then you know how “numerous” their political gains have been and how much help they have gotten from the GOP.

      • Lawson Hull on

        Exactly. The American Nazi Party is a joke, according to NYT 2500-3000 members in the US tops, nobody in public life takes them seriously, and they were UTTERLY irrelevant until resurrected by the media (much like David Duke) who desperately wanted a boogieman. We already proved NEGATIVE press does not work- Trump got $3 billion of free hate and look what happened? HE WON THE ELECTION. But our clickbait media can’t help itself. We must stop GIVING these racist monkeys power and talking them up like some kind of national force (which they most certainly ARE NOT) and THEN they will wither and die.

        Or on the other hand we could stay the course, paint the ENTIRE Democratic Party as oppressed losers who never win- and guarantee we’ll keep that losing streak going. I feel like I’m taking crazy pills. Every position I vote for is LEFT, yet I’m watching my party dissolve into an army of infants afraid to stand up to the growing hate movement screaming over everyone else from within the party. I’ve already given up on 2018 I think we’ll get crushed, but someone like Kamala Harris could win back the White House- and guess what I’m reading about her now? Progressives saying she’s not pure enough, not Left enough.

        When will we learn. Four more years of Trump IS NOT BETTER than a moderate Democrat with the power to actually unite. /facepalm


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