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A Brief Taxonomy of Political Brawls

The explosive exchange between Greek politicians earlier this week—peaking with Ilias Kasidiaris of the far-right Golden Dawn party throwing water on one of his female opponents before slugging another—was certainly jarring. But it’s hardly an isolated example of politicians forgoing verbal sparring for the satisfaction of the real thing. In fact, it’s not even exceptional. So what kinds of outbursts put this shameful, and completely inexcusable bout of violence to, well, shame? I’m glad you asked.

To the death.

You can’t discuss politician-on-politician violence without mentioning the genre’s gold standard: the Hamilton-Burr Duel. The disadvantage of not having youtube was countered by the fact that an American politician shot another American politician and killed him. The duel bore out the personal grudges between the two men, to be sure, but it also gave a bloody capstone to the struggle between Burr’s Democratic-Republicans and Hamilton’s Federalists.

To the near-death.

Just below out-and-out dueling is another American example: The caning of Senator Charles Sumner on the Senate floor in 1856. As the debate over slavery became increasingly embittered, Sumner—a Republican from Massachusetts, and ardent leader in the abolitionist movement—delivered a scathing speech, “The Crime Against Kansas.” In it, he maligned two Democratic Senators. Three days later, Representative Preston Brooks approached Sumner in the mostly empty chamber and beat him half to death with his cane, while a compatriot held any protestors back at gunpoint. There was a happy ending, though: Sumner recovered (eventually) and served another 18 years, becoming a hero for the abolition movement.


From here, we descend into scenes that look they might have been pulled from Kanye and Jay-Z’s “No Church in the Wild” video, only with more suits and fewer horses. And these happen more often than you might expect. A quick perusal of notable mid-session brawls from the last few years turns up at least three major fights in South Korea (one of which involved barricades), two rollicking brawls in Ukraine, and good-old-fashioned throwdowns in Italy, Russia, Taiwan—not to mention a dustup involving Czech dentists. In fact, if you watch closely as members of Ukrainian Parliament hurl eggs and smoke bombs at each other in the building, you’ll notice that no one looks all that surprised by what’s going on. It’s just democracy in action.

Off-hours pub fight.

Finally, from the land that gave us the Magna Carta and Manchester football hooligans, we have the off-hours pub fighting version of political debate. In February, Labour MP Eric Joyce wandered into the Strangers Bar, which is reserved for members of parliament; after a few drinks, he exclaimed, “This bar is full of fucking Tories” and set about trying to fight them out of the bar, punching two and headbutting another. While Joyce has announced he won’t be running for reelection, he’s already confirmed everything I (and other viewers of The Thick of It) always secretly believed about British politics.

So yes, the spat on Greek TV is shameful, and indicative of the volatility of the political climate there right now. But with their financial woes becoming more dire by the day, I think they have bigger things to worry about.