Commentary on Political Economy

Tuesday 30 April 2024


Opinion | America’s New Mob Rule

For readers of a certain age, today’s protests at Columbia and other campuses echo 1968 and opposition to the Vietnam war. The kids even took over the same building at Columbia, Hamilton Hall. But the mass-protest method has become the political default for progressives when they lose the policy debate in Congress, the White House, the courts, or other institutions. They keep going to the barricades because it often gets them what they want.

The clearest example was the post-George Floyd riots of 2020. The left used that murder to trigger, and then condone, riots in numerous cities against what they claimed was widespread police abuse. Looting and vandalism were justified as social-justice rage.

Fearful of these protests, Democratic mayors and city councils around the country slashed police funding, eliminated cash bail, and stopped enforcing many crimes. Vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris tweeted support for a bail fund for protesters who were arrested in Minnesota. The Democratic convention in 2020 failed to condemn the rioting.

One result was an urban crime spree that broke out across the country, and cities from Philadelphia to San Francisco are still trying to recover. But in that election year the mob created the impression of disorder that probably hurt Donald Trump’s campaign for re-election. Political mission accomplished.

Post-Vietnam, a watershed of this mob method was the assault by the organized left against the World Trade Organization conference in Seattle in 1999. The riots put the “antiglobalization” movement on the political map and, anticipating the protests, the Clinton Administration issued an executive order to include environmental reviews in trade deals.

The so-called “occupy” protests in 2011 included encampments in public places in numerous cities, including lower Manhattan. The goal was to focus on income inequality, and Democrats were again loath to push back and slow to clear public spaces. The “occupiers” succeeded in changing the debate inside the Democratic Party in favor of much higher taxes and income redistribution.

Now, in this election year, the student protesters are trying to change American Middle East policy. They may not know much about the region, its history, or even that Hamas’s charter calls for annihilating Jews. But they are swept up in the anti-colonialist, anti-Western, anti-American themes that now dominate so much university instruction. They are the intellectual children of Frantz Fanon.

They are also changing the political debate inside the Democratic Party. President Biden has shifted from the strong pro-Israel stand he took immediately after the Oct. 7 massacre. He now opposes the destruction of Hamas in its Rafah redoubt in Gaza. And he is publicly critical of Israel’s coalition wartime government. This accommodation will encourage the protesters to continue even once college exams are over and students return home. As in 1968, the Chicago convention will be a target.


All of this bodes ill for the country’s political future, not least if Mr. Trump wins in November. The protests are likely to be widespread and perhaps violent if the election is close. Democrats and the press keep warning about a repeat of the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, which was a disgrace and for which hundreds have been rightly punished. But the political left is more organized for mass protests and more likely to take to the streets.

Today’s campus eruptions may be aimed at U.S. policy in the Middle East, but they are a symptom of a larger trend toward street protest and law-breaking to achieve political goals. Political and other leaders have a duty to call this out and enforce public order, whether the violators are on the left or right.

Main Street: Joe Biden may be in for a rerun of 1968, with a ruinous Democratic Chicago convention. Image: Jaime Carrero/ZUMA Press Wire


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Appeared in the May 1, 2024, print edition as 'America’s New Mob Rule'. 

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