Linda Hirshman: We are living in a Hobbesian state of nature

Summary: Cellphone cameras play a big role in revealing the deep lawlessness in some areas of law enforcement, but those revelations began 30 years ago with the filmed beating of Rodney King.


The union representing Minneapolis Police Officers has long felt that the democratically elected mayor, Jacob Frey, should not be the boss of them. Across the country, armed insurgent demonstrators have expressed similar feelings about their governors: In Michigan, a gang with assault weapons drove the state senators to abandon the capitol. Turns out, in uniform or out, white men with guns can pose a real problem for old-fashioned representative government. In attitudes and political loyalties, a scary number of the people professing to defend the government look more like the problem than the solution.

Just six months ago, Frey issued an order forbidding police officers from wearing their uniforms on the podium at political events. This angered Police Federation of Minneapolis union President Bob Kroll, a President Donald Trump supporter who was set to take the stage alongside Trump at a Minneapolis rally in November. More recently, Frey terminated the warrior-style police training program called "killology," a system linked to the earlier killing of black Minneapolis citizen Philando Castile. The mayor's directive about how his city's police should be trained was "illegal," Kroll announced; the union chief committed to continue teaching police how to apply lethal force to the population that employed them. The officers keep reelecting him. When he retires next year, his second-in-command is set to succeed him.

This sense of revolt among uniformed officers β€” a distrust of the very state they pledge to protect and serve β€” has been growing. Police officers are more invested in gun rights than the public is, 74% to 53%; two-thirds of the public support bans on assault weapons, while only one-third of police surveyed do, according to Pew. Cops prefer politicians who give them complete, unquestioned license: members of the NYPD routinely turn their backs on New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, when he appears at occasions like slain officers' funerals. Kroll says his union supported Trump because, while President Barack Obama embraced "the handcuffing and oppression of police," Trump "let cops do their job." The Fraternal Order of Police, the largest and oldest police union, has often endorsed the more conservative candidate in each election since it backed George Wallace in 1968. (The FOP didn't endorse a presidential candidate in 2012.)

Why weren't the officers of the law deployed more effectively when armed opponents of stay-at-home orders chased elective officeholders out of town? Where were they when protesters gathered, from coast to coast, in blatant disregard of the quarantine orders? The answer may lie in the many ways that members of law enforcement hold attitudes that are more like contemporary Second Amendment activists than those of defenders of the state.


This may look like politics as usual in the era of the conservative revival. Since the controversy over the FBI's raid on the heavily armed Branch Davidian religious compound in Waco, Texas, in 1993 during the Clinton administration, the federal government has been skittish about deploying force in face of armed resistance. When rancher Ammon Bundy and his allies occupied government lands in Oregon to protest the imprisonment of ranchers for arson on public land, federal officials during the Obama administration did nothing to force them out; eventually, Trump pardoned Bundy. A conservative majority of Supreme Court Justices created an almost limitless Second Amendment doctrine in support of maximum gun distribution and reversed the half-century of federal voting rights enforcement. The armed resistance in Lansing followed Trump's tweet to "LIBERATE MICHIGAN."

It was not supposed to be like this. When people stopped believing that God had picked the ruler and were starting to think about why we have governments, they figured this out. In a state of nature, without collective institutions like government, people would be β€” as the defiant Michiganders are β€” scary. Greedy, proud and fearful, they would kill each other for their crops, or to prove they were just as good as the smarter kid, or because they were afraid the others would kill them first. Life would be, as philosopher Thomas Hobbes famously suggested, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short. Better to get together and contract to make a government to protect us all from each other. Follow-on thinkers soon added the requirement that government must not make matters worse, either. The English, and then others, began establishing governments that satisfied these tests.

The social contract state has two salient features, and both are jettisoned when armed resisters take over a capitol building and a police union defies a ban on "killology" training. The government is inherently equal, as each person is as threatening and as possessed of human rights, as any other in the imagined state of nature. However imperfect, elected representative government manifests that inherent equality. And the elected government must have a meaningful monopoly on the use of force. Otherwise it cannot protect us from each other.

When the gun-toting protesters openly walked into the Michigan statehouse and the Senate vacated the chamber in face of future threats, egalitarian representative government surrendered to the rule of the strong. Threatening death and brandishing death, both in the form of firearms and the often unmasked contagion, the demonstrators proved how potent was the threat of anarchy and how fragile the contract that had contained it for so long. When the police establish their own killology-driven order, the democratically elected government similarly loses its monopoly on force, and mayors sit by, wringing their hands while the unelected police take over the role of the state.

Cellphone cameras play a big role in revealing the deep lawlessness in some areas of law enforcement, but those revelations began 30 years ago with the filmed beating of Rodney King. The persistence of the uniformed revolt and the retreat before the coronavirus protesters are just the most recent in a long retreat from the experiment in self-government. With a critical election looming, the prospect is ominous.

Linda Hirshman is author of "Reckoning: The Epic Battle Against Sexual Harassment and Abuse."

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