As the children went to their elementary school in Glen ellyn, Illinois, in September, anti-mask protesters showed up to protest the school’s mask mandate. Following an observed trend on the other side the country, they harassed the students, calling them slaves and Hitler Youth.
This is just one recent example of the use of nonviolent action by the political right in the United States. In recent years, we have seen a global increase in the use of non-violent action by members of the far right on a range of issues, including opposition to immigration, abortion and control. guns, as well as mask warrants and blockades during the covid19 pandemic. This raises important questions: First, is there a qualitative difference in the use of nonviolent action by those on the political right? And, second, should we view their use of nonviolent action as legitimate, given that civil disobedience and nonviolent resistance are often linked to causes of social justice?
my recent research project “The Dark Side of Nonviolent Action: Right-wing Populism and the Use of Nonviolent Action,” attempted to answer this question by examining three case studies. One was the recent right-wing movement under Donald Trump that led to the Jan.6 assault on the United States Capitol. The other two were international examples, including the Islamist-led 2/12 movement in Indonesia and the anti-immigrant youth identity movement in Austria. These last two movements have engaged in very public nonviolent actions. In the case of Indonesia, the movement used mass protests to overthrow the popular Christian mayor of Jakarta. Meanwhile, in Austria, the identity movement embarked on a series of publicity-generating non-violent actions that contributed to a rise in anti-immigrant sentiment.
Through my research, I discovered three key tensions that illustrate the problematic characteristics of the right wing‘s use of nonviolent action. Understanding these tensions helps us to better assess the legitimacy of these actions, as well as the phenomenon of right-wing populism that fuels the right-wing movements that support them.
From dissent to political disobedience
When we discuss nonviolent action in democracies, we can distinguish three different modes of nonviolent action: dissent, civil disobedience, and political disobedience. Dissent is part of normal democratic political contestation. Democracies generally allow non-violent actions – such as vigils, marches, and strikes – if they follow certain rules. Since most democracies are imperfect, these actions contribute to the health of democracies.
Far-right actors often strike when engaging in non-violent action, which means they target socio-economically or politically “weaker” parties, especially minorities.
Meanwhile, when people break laws they consider unjust through civil disobedience, they step outside the bounds of usual dissent. They accept the legitimacy of the political structure and / or political institutions but resist the moral authority of the laws that flow from it and are ready to take responsibility for the consequences of their actions.
Political disobedience is the most radical use of nonviolent action, as it challenges the legitimacy of the state – often rejecting the political system as a whole. While political disobedience against dictators has proven to be very effective, it is questionable whether political disobedience is legitimate in fully democratic systems, and therefore it is generally considered illegal and subject to state repression.
My research has found many parallels between the various right-wing movements and their use of nonviolent action, some of which can be explained by looking at the phenomenon through the prism of populism. Right-wing populism has a distinct tendency towards political disobedience, as it often questions the legitimacy of elites and liberal political institutions which, in its view, do not sufficiently represent the will of the “people”. Populists are also impatient with proceedings and often seek a quick way to achieve their political goals without going through the courts or the ballot box. In many cases, therefore, they flirt with political disobedience, which, according to the case studies, triggers repressive responses from governments. This repression can in turn be used again by the movements to mobilize the sympathy of the supporters.
Means versus ends
Far-right actors have become more adept at applying nonviolent tactics in recent years. The identity movement in Austria, for example, studied nonviolent theory and applied a wide range of nonviolent methods. So while many of his actions technically follow the manual of non-violence, they are used to foster an anti-immigrant platform.
There are clearly many issues that are highly contested in democracies, and nonviolent action can be a nifty tool for nonviolent conflict resolution. Nonetheless, we should ask ourselves whether we can qualify nonviolent action as legitimate if it is not for the pursuit of justice. When it comes to many of the issues raised by far-right actors, these goals are highly questionable – whether trying to prevent the certification of U.S. election results or pushing for the weakening of health measures. that mitigate the COVID-19 pandemic.
Another problem with the question of ends is that far-right actors often strike when they engage in non-violent action – meaning that instead of targeting authorities or large corporations, they target their own. non-violent action on socio-economically or politically “weaker” parties, in particular minorities. The Austrian identity movement, for example, has often targeted asylum seekers – once counter-occupying a church in Vienna, where several asylum seekers were on hunger strike highlighting the risks they would face if they were expelled, in order to “seek asylum” for an imaginary white Austrian troubled by the number of immigrants. This repression is a symptom of far-right populism, which often attributes the ills of society to minority groups and is clearly problematic in terms of legitimizing the use of non-violent action.
Non-violence against violence
When looking at the use of nonviolent action by the far right, it is striking that many of its actions extend, if not cross, the boundaries from nonviolence to violence. This line is of course blurred, and what some still consider nonviolent, others would already consider violent. While the assault on the United States Capitol clearly falls outside the bounds of non-violence, does that make the entire January 6 rally a violent event? Is calling primary school children “slaves” and “Hitler Youth” still non-violent?
The problem of crossing the border from nonviolence to violence is based on the pragmatic approach that right-wing actors have towards nonviolent action. Since they see it more as a tactical tool to get their way – not a moral commitment – it’s easier to slip into behavior that includes threats and intimidation. Many right-wing actors, such as parts of the Indonesian Islamist movement that I have studied, regularly bully minorities and tend to do so when engaging in non-violent action.
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Likewise, the American right also has a long history of intimidation. Just think of how the anti-abortion movement has frequently engaged in heckling and insulting women seeking abortions, as well as threatening abortion service providers and their workers. However, Gene Sharp’s List of 198 Methods of Nonviolence includes haunting and taunting by officials and non-violent harassment.
Here again, the questions of ends and crushing are in the foreground. In his book, Sharp cites the harassment of slave hunters as a case study of non-violent harassment. The haunting and taunting should also target government officials and not masked children or ethnic or religious minorities.
Are they illegitimate?
These tensions in the far-right’s use of nonviolent action make many nonviolent actions undertaken by far-right actors highly questionable in terms of legitimacy or even legality. While one can see why right-wing actors might want to reap the tactical benefits of engaging in nonviolent action, their lack of commitment to the principles of nonviolence taints much of their use.
Nonetheless, given that there are many issues on which we can have strong reasonable disagreement in democratic societies, the tendency of far-right actors to use non-violent action cannot be viewed as totally negative. If actors on the fringes of politics choose to engage in non-violence rather than using violence to achieve their ends, this could in fact be a positive trend. However, this commitment must remain within the limits of dissent or civil disobedience, must not cross the border of violence, not strike and be scrutinized according to its ends.