The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why the left should reject politics-by-mob

Mobs can unseat unpopular leaders — but risk unmaking democracy, too.

Protesters and police clash on the streets of the nation's capital on the day of Donald Trump's 2017 inauguration as president of the United States. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

As the political climate has grown more heated, we’ve seen numerous public officials harassed by crowds in restaurants, workplaces and neighborhoods. Last week, a group of Antifa protesters gathered in front of the home of Fox News TV host Tucker Carlson. His wife was the only one home. The crowd loudly chanted “Racist scumbag leave town” and, Carlson claimed, even did damage to his front door, though a police report and photographic evidence contradict this claim. In the aftermath of such events, some observers began referring to such protesters as a “mob” — including President Trump, who turned it into a GOP slogan for the 2018 midterms: “jobs not mobs.”

Supporters of this style of confrontational politics have countered that such tactics are necessary in what they see as an era of rising authoritarianism, when the future of the democratic system is at stake. But they should beware: Mob politics alienates allies and triggers repression, and can weaken the very democratic system the crowd claims to be defending.

Crowds (or mobs, take your pick) have played a significant role in world politics. In revolutionary thinking, crowds often played a vital, indeed essential, role. For Karl Marx, all history was a history of class struggle. Crowds resulted from a natural tension produced by powerful forces such as economic inequality, repression and hunger. As the term “struggle” implies, Marx even sometimes seemed to hint vaguely at revolutionary violence. That’s why 20th-century Marxist historians such as George Rudé believed the “crowd” played a more critical role in events than even political or military figures.

But fear of the mob also drove many reactionary European policymakers to the anti-revolutionary camp. Horrified by what they saw as a world turned upside down, early 19th-century conservatives usually emphasized stability. In North America, fears of violent slave revolts drove similar thinking.

Long before Carlson and White House press secretary Sarah Sanders, public people were tormented by crowds in their private, personal spaces. During the French Reformation in 1534, Protestant zealots targeted the private residence of King Francis I during the famous Night of the Placards. They placed signs — placards — expressing inflammatory religious and political slogans around the royal domicile. Not unlike the protesters at Carlson’s house, they seemed intentionally to target personal spaces and family members. They even placed some posters near the family’s sleeping quarters.

The tactic backfired. The Night of the Placards prompted an otherwise humanistic King Francis to suppress the Protestant movement in France. Many prominent French Protestants fled the country, including John Calvin. In retrospect, the Night of the Placards was an opening salvo in the bloody period of the French Civil Wars.

Targeting public officials in their private lives also became a recurring theme of the French Revolution. In October 1789, huge crowds stormed the private royal residence at Versailles. They forced King Louis XVI to bring his wife Marie Antoinette and their two children back to the old downtown royal palace, the Tuileries. In 1792, huge crowds again invaded the royal living quarters, now in downtown Paris. The royal family was arrested, and Louis and Marie both were beheaded the following year. After three years of imprisonment, the 16-year-old Princess Maria Theresa ultimately made it into exile. Her brother Louis Charles — Louis XVII according to the royalists — died in 1795 under suspicious circumstances at the age of 10.

Crowds targeting people in their personal spaces once again played a role in the French Revolutions of 1830 and 1848. In 1830, huge throngs menaced the royal residence where King Charles X stayed with his family. Charles and his family fled the country. His Absolutist government collapsed and was replaced by a constitutional monarchy. But this government, too, proved vulnerable to the power of the crowd. In 1848, another revolutionary crowd taking to the streets threatened the home of François Guizot, the French prime minister. Clearly rattled, Guizot resigned his post and fled to England. His departure helped spark the fall of France’s constitutional monarchy.

These events aren’t randomly selected incidents. They highlight landmark moments in French history, decisive moves toward social unrest, violence and political upheaval. Other times and places could and do provide countless other similar examples.

Many people support the often laudable goals of the revolutionaries — freedom, equality, democracy and human rights. Yet the extremes of such revolutionary chaos raise serious questions about the extent to which the end justifies the means — or is even successful in achieving these goals.

Hopefully the United States isn’t standing on the brink of some violent revolutionary upheaval like those made famous in France. Time and again, however, history has proved wrong those arguing that “it could never happen here.”

Probably few Americans today would embrace history’s more radical examples of crowds in action. And labeling groups as “mobs” shouldn’t stifle legitimate public debate or dissent. Americans should cherish the fundamental right to protest. But basic decency also is required. History tells us that this tendency toward attacking people in their personal spaces often reflects not just contempt for the people in power, but for the system of government itself.

Harassing people as they go about their personal business is a serious, albeit sometimes effective, political tactic. It should give all thoughtful Americans pause, regardless of political persuasion.