Calling Out Sedition.
These two events are a wake-up call for progressives. They're telling us that it's time to openly confront the fact that conservatives have spent the past 40 years systematically delegitimizing the very idea of constitutional democracy in America. When they're in power, they mismanage it and defund it. When they're out of power, they refuse to participate in running the country at all -- indeed, they throw all their energy into thwarting the democratic process any way they can. When they need to win an election, they use violent, polarizing, eliminationist language against their opponents to motivate their base. This is sedition in slow motion, a gradual corrosive undermining of the government's authority and capacity to run the country. And it's been at the core of their politics going all the way back to Goldwater.
This long assault has gone into overdrive since Obama's inauguration, as the rhetoric has ratcheted up from overheated to perfervid. We've reached the point where you can't go a week without hearing some prominent right wing leader calling for outright sedition -- an immediate and defiant populist uprising against some legitimate form of government authority.
Moderates and liberals are responding to this rising threat with feckless calls for "a return to civility," as if all that's needed to put things right again is a stern talking-to from Miss Manners. Though that couldn't hurt, the sad fact is that we're well past the point where it's just a matter of conservatives behaving like tantrum-throwing spoiled brats (which they are). When a mob is surrounding your house with torches and telling you they intend to burn it down, "civility" really isn't the issue any more.
At that point -- and we're there -- criminal intent and action become the real issues. Progressives need to realize that the right began defiantly dancing back and forth over the legal line, daring us to do something about it, quite some time ago. And it's high time we called it out -- and, where appropriate, start prosecuting it -- for exactly what it is.
What is Sedition?
Before we start throwing around inflammatory terms like "sedition," it's essential that we understand the strict definition of the word -- and use it carefully and precisely, lest it lose all meaning.
(That's what happened with the word "fascism," which has been distorted into meaninglessness by hyperbolic overuse on the left and willful redefinition on the right. Once a word is abused and distorted this way, it's very hard to recapture it and restore its original meaning. And that's no small thing, because losing the word makes it functionally impossible to even discuss the political idea the word represents. Worse: as Orwell told us, when we no longer have the language to describe what we're dealing with, we also lose our ability to deal effectively with fascism at all. That's a real danger with loaded words -- so, please, let's be extremely careful about how we brandish this one.)
Here's the defining line we need to hold on to. People who promote subversive ideas, no matter how dangerous those ideas might seem, are completely protected under the First Amendment. Even calling for the overthrow of the government is protected (though not benign, as we'll see later, because it creates justification, permission, and incitement to seditious acts). That's why the conservatives have been safe -- so far.
It's only when those people start actively planning and implementing a government rebellion that it turns into criminal sedition. In this case: the weird rantings on the Hutaree website -- not seditious. The group's allegedly operational plans to assassinate a police officer, ambush the resulting funeral, and thus bring on a national militia uprising -- absolutely seditious, if the charges stick.
This bright-line distinction, which has been part of American sedition law for the past 50 years, parallels closely the line drawn by terrorism analysts in sussing out which groups are benign and which ones are headed for trouble. As I've noted before, one of the cardinal signs these experts watch and listen for is a fundamental shift in rhetoric. In the early stages of dissent, groups establish the lines of conflict by obsessively focusing on their enemies and loudly denouncing their essential evilness. You hear this kind of talk in politics all the time these days. It's always ugly, but not inherently dangerous.