How Senate brawls and House shoves signal bigger problems in our government

On Tuesday, Nov. 14, Republican Senator Markwayne Mullin challenged a hearing witness to a fight. In the viral video he goes so far as to stand up and push back his chair — indicating he would descend from the dais to engage the witness physically.

Yes, the Senate is the site of the most egregious incident of legislative violence in U.S. history (“The Caning of Charles Sumner” by Preston Brooks). But these kinds of violent outbursts are still incredibly rare compared to governments around the world.

When a legislator resorts to violence, it can leave citizens feeling as if their democracy is descending into chaos. However, this kind of legislative violence is not as genuinely chaotic and spontaneous as it may appear. But it can be an indication of very serious political divisions in a society.

My research on legislative violence around the world delves deeper into the strategy behind Mullin’s seemingly hot-headed outburst.

Counter intuitive as it may seem, legislators engage in violence to help their careers. In fact, acts or threats of violence serve as signals to those who may be undecided about what type of person a legislator is.

Mullin’s background as an MMA fighter makes him unique among parliamentary brawlers. Typically — where legislative violence is concerned — individuals who have a physical advantage tend to take a backseat.

In Ukraine, for example, former legislator and heavyweight boxing champion Vasliy Klitschko intentionally avoided the fray of parliamentary brawls. However, the fact that Mullin was a former MMA fighter didn’t dissuade him from engaging violently. Likely, what encouraged the use of violence is that he hasn’t been a legislator for very long.

Our research shows the signaling value of legislative violence is particularly important for younger legislators — who don’t have established reputations in politics. Mullin, who came into the Senate in a special election last year, is a prime example of the type of legislators who tend to use violence.

Additionally, our research on citizen responses to brawling in Taiwan, has shown citizens with the highest levels of partisan loyalty like it when members of their party fight. We have studied this topic extensively, and in approximately 90% of the instances of legislative violence, the message a primed audience seems to receive is: legislators are willing to fight (literally) for the party. And in many cases, they seem to buy it: brawlers often improve their chances of getting re-elected.

The circumstances surrounding the Mullin incident, however, make it look more like the other 10% of brawling incidents we observe — what we call “honor brawls.” This is where violence escalates from personal insults and someone’s honor is being called into question.

Even with honor brawls, the intent behind the violence is still to send a message to those who may be watching — to help the fighter develop a reputation. Furthermore, popular perceptions of the Teamsters union in the U.S. will no doubt fuel a narrative, particularly among staunch Republicans, that Mullin is not afraid to stand up to a group traditionally aligned with the Democratic party.

Even though stunts like Mullin’s are largely strategic, rather than any serious attempts to commit violence, they are often indicative of deeply divided societies — where politics ceases to be about democratic representation and policymaking, and instead turns on highly-charged issues of political identity.

My research focuses on brawling behaviors in Taiwan and Ukraine, two countries where legislative violence is all-too frequent. Though different in many respects, these countries share a common political feature of being fundamentally divided along a core issue of political identity. Such divisions fuel the erosion of civility in political discourse and can lead to reinforcing cycles of legislative violence.

As the U.S. continues to experience deeper political polarization, the Mullin incident may well be the canary in the legislative coalmine.

Emily Beaulieu BacchusEmily Beaulieu Bacchus

Emily Beaulieu Bacchus

Emily Beaulieu Bacchus is professor and chair of the Department of Political Science at the University of Kentucky. Her book with Nathan Batto “Making Punches Count: The Individual Logic of Parliamentary Brawling” is forthcoming with Oxford University Press. This article represents the opinions of the author and not necessarily those of the University of Kentucky.

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