In Spain, members of rival political parties beat each other up as demostrators and counter-demonstrators clash, controversial arrests can lead to street protests, and informal labor actions have put Spanish air traffic controllers under martial law supervision, Portugal has had a widely successful general strike, Greece is experiencing general strikes and violent clashes between demonstrators and law enforcement, controversial parlimentary votes in Italy trigger riots in Rome, the streets of Dublin are full of Irish citizens protesting austerity plans, and even London has tens of thousands of demonstrators doing things like walking over police cars and breaking the windows of Prince Charles' car while he was in it.
All of that was just in the past month, and is confined to Europe. The spin would be different from different sources, but nobody denies that major strikes, general strikes, street demonstrations, violent clashes between demonstrators and police, and all sorts of "street politics" outside formal political channels are far more common in most European political systems and labor relations than they are in the United States. If you looked back just a little further, you'd find similar activity in France and many other European countries. Spain, France and Italy have all had general strikes since the 1980s. Spain and Northern Ireland have had on and off armed insurgencies in my lifetime. Greece and Germany have both had domestic terrorism in that time period.
Latin America, and much of the rest of the world, has followed this pattern of politics that spill outside the constitutional process into the streets, and of labor relations that produce frequent labor actions as strategic tools in negotiations between labor and management.
There are occassional large marches and public demonstrations in the United States, and even some small scale clashes between police and demonstrators. But, the United States has really seen nothing like what Europe and much of the rest of the world is experiencing right now in terms of street politics in the last thirty years. Even the turbulent activism and political violence of the 1960s and 1970s in the United States was probably not quite as intense as what much of Europe is experiencing right now.
The Growing Docility of American Labor Relations
Wikipedia notes six general strikes in U.S. history, one in 1919 in Seattle, and four in 1934, at the height of the Great Depression, one in Toledo, one in Minneapolis, one in San Francisco and one at West Coast Ports. There was also a general strike in the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico in 1998. The last one in the English Speaking United States was 76 years ago, and very few people living today remember it. The United States has never had a nationwide general strike and just two general strikes in its history, on restricted to a single industry, and the other to a U.S. territory, extended beyond a single city.
Union-management relations in the United States used to look a lot like they do in Europe. Strikes were large, frequent and involved a large share of the work force. National guard forces or private security forces were frequently called in to put them down in bloody conflicts. Openly socialist political parties were organized.
In 1950, a year that revisionist history remembers as a tranquil period in American history, there were 424 strikes involving 1,000 or more workers, in all involving 1,698,000 workers, which was more than one in nine members of the unionized workforce of 14.3 million workers who made up 31.5% of the total work force.
In 2008, there were 15 strikes involving 1,000 or more workers, in all including 72,000 workers which was one in two-hundred and twenty-three members of the unionized workforce of 16.1 million workers who made up 12.4% of the total workforce. The public sector which is 36.8% unionized, is as unionized as the private sector was at its peak. The private sector, which is 7.2% unionized, has the lowest level of unionization in the private sector since the 1920s, if not earlier.
The unionized workforce has remained more or less constant for half a century, despite a growing workforce, and that masks the fact that there has been substantial growth in public sector union membership and a substantial decline in private sector union membership over that time period.
The United States, there has been only one year since 1983 that more than 3% of unionized workers went on strike (1986), and there has only been one year since 1998 (the year 2000) when more than one in eighty union members went on strike. In the entire United States from 1990 to 2008, there wasn't a single year that there were more than 45 strikes involving 1,000 or more workers in the entire United States, in a period that started with a labor force of 103 million workers and peaked at just short of 130 million workers. In contrast, there wasn't a single year from 1950 to 1987 that had less than 46 strikes, despite that fact that the workforce was signficiantly smaller. Prior to the 1980s there were a couple hundred major strikes in the United States per year, about ten times current levels of labor action.
Almost all strikes in recent memory have involved workers at just a single employer. Those strikes that do happen have mostly been pretty tame by international standards. American labor unions do not, as the French do, for example, kidnap members of management until a deal is reached.
Japan is probably the only other developed country in the world with a lower level of recent labor action.
The Rarity of American Political Violence
Political violence has been very rare, and mass demonstration have been both rare and mostly peaceful. The only real riot worth mentioning in that time period was the L.A. riots of 1992 sparked by the acquittal of a policeman whose acts of racially tinged brutality were captured on videotape; the riots left 53 dead and thousands injured. In brief summary:
FIFTY-THREE PEOPLE DIED in L.A.'s riot . . . Gunfire killed 35, including eight people shot by law enforcement and two by National Guardsmen. Six died in arson fires. Attackers used sticks or boards to kill two others. Stabbings killed two. Six died in car accidents; two in hit-and-runs. One was strangled. The violence crossed racial and ethnic lines. The dead included 25 African-Americans, 16 Latinos, eight whites, two Asians, one Algerian, and one Indian or Middle Easterner. Men outnumbered women, 48 to 5.
A lot of the killings in L.A. appeared to be random. Some of the killings in L.A. involved people trying to loot businesses or defending themselves from looting.
There have been other periods of civil disorder, in college towns after major wins and defeats in sports, and in connection with natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina, but few that could properly be called political or labor related. Most of the other politically driven incidents of civil unrest, like the L.A. riots, involved instances of alleged toleration of police brutality.
You can count the number of politicans and judges assassinated in the United States in the last thirty years on your fingers (nine out of hundreds of thousands of politicians and judges over that time period) and in addition eight other successful assassinations of people for political reasons, a failed attempt to assassinate President Reagan in 1981 (that seriously injured three others), and a failed attempt to assassinate a civil rights leader in 1980. In the same period there have been more than a hundred political assassinations in Europe.
While we haven't been entirely free of domestic terrorism, particularly in support of animal rights and far right anti-government movements, it has been exceedingly rare and lacked any kind of mass support. But, the only fatal instances of terrorism in the United States by U.S. citizens were the Oklahoma City bombing and a couple of anti-abortion assassinations (one included in the list of political killings above).
There have been a few instances of deadly terrorism in the United States perpetrated by foreigners (e.g., the first World Trade Center bombing, an attack on CIA headquarters, and 9-11), but these instances have generally not involved a network of domestic supporters. Suspected foreign terrorist plots involving networks of domestic supporters have thusfar all been stopped.
It isn't that the U.S. has had particularly low levels of violence generally. Its murder rate was the highest in the developed world for much of this time period. Crime rates in the U.S. are quite low by historical standards at the moment, but the lack of political violence in the United States in the last thirty years hasn't been strongly linked to overall violent crime rates.
For whatever reason, perhaps demographic, perhaps in the political and legal system, perhaps because few issues have stirred Americans like the draft and civil rights movement did in the last major episode of street politics and political violence in the United States, politics has worked out the way we are taught in civics classes in schools, through voting, legislative action, and political litigation.
The Clarity of American Electoral Outcomes
The closest the United States has come to the kind of disputed Presidential election result that routinely come up in new democracies, such as the one pending in Ivory Coast right now, the most recent Presidential election in Afghanistan and Haiti, and the Presidential election in Ukraine a few years ago, each of which brought masses of supporters for both sides into the streets in mass demonstrations, was the 1876 Presidential election. We've had very close elections, such as the 2000 Bush v. Gore election, but that was resolved in courtrooms and election committees through basically normal channels and never led to public unrest.
Despite the fact that the 2010 election in the United States featured some of the most vitriolic and violent political rhetoric of a generation, and even a few instances of menancing with weapons, not a single person in the United States was killed or serious injured in election related violence, and no violence or threats of violence had no significant effect on the outcome of the election. The results didn't produce street protests or demonstrations. The election didn't even produce that many really large political gatherings in the course of the campaigns. The most notable rally of the campaign season was held October 30, by a couple of TV comedians on a more or less non-partisan basis.
The Demise of the Civil Jury Trial and Other Coincidences
Perhaps it is a coincidence, but the decline of labor union actions, street politics and political violence in the United States has coincided with the "vanishing trial" in which fewer and fewer civil cases actually are tried before a jury (or go to trial at all), despite swelling civil dockets. Criminal trials are also less frequent, although the decline has been less marked.
The decline has also coincided with a general decline in civil society membership organizations, and with declining church attendance and religious denominational affiliation.
A long period of economic growth may be a factor. The past thirty years has been a largely prosperous one of sustained economic growth with only short or mild recessions, until the current Great Recession. It has also been a period in which blue collar economic stagnation has been steady but mostly gradual.
Whatever the reason, the question of why American's politics and labor relations are so tame by international standards is a question worth considering.