The atomic bomb

Richard Rhodes’ history of the development of the atomic bomb, The Making of the Atomic Bomb, is now thirty years old. The book is crucial reading for anyone who has the slightest anxiety about the tightly linked, high-stakes world we live in in the twenty-first century. The narrative Rhodes provides of the scientific and technical history of the era is outstanding. But there are other elements of the story that deserve close thought and reflection as well.

One is the question of the role of scientists in policy and strategy decision making before and during World War II. Physicists like Bohr, Szilard, Teller, and Oppenheimer played crucial roles in the science, but they also played important roles in the formulation of wartime policy and strategy as well. Were they qualified for these roles? Does being a brilliant scientist carry over to being an astute and wise advisor when it comes to the large policy issues of the war and international policies to follow? And if not the scientists, then who? At least a certain number of senior policy advisors to the Roosevelt administration, international politics experts all, seem to have badly dropped the ball during the war — in ignoring the genocidal attacks on Europe’s Jewish population, for example. Can we expect wisdom and foresight from scientists when it comes to politics, or are they as blinkered as the rest of us on average?

A second and related issue is the moral question: do scientists have any moral responsibilities when it comes to the use, intended or otherwise, of the technologies they spawn? A particularly eye-opening part of the story Rhodes tells is the research undertaken within the Manhattan Project about the possible use of radioactive material as a poisonous weapon of war against civilians on a large scale. The topic seems to have arisen as a result of speculation about how the Germans might use radioactive materials against civilians in Great Britain and the United States. Samuel Goutsmit, scientific director of the US military team responsible for investigating German progress towards an atomic bomb following the Normandy invasion, refers to this concern in his account of the mission in Alsos (7). According to Rhodes, the idea was first raised within the Manhattan Project by Fermi in 1943, and was realistically considered by Groves and Oppenheimer. This seems like a clear case: no scientist should engage in research like this, research aimed at discovering the means of the mass poisoning of half a million civilians.

Leo Szilard played an exceptional role in the history of the quest for developing atomic weapons (link). He more than other physicists foresaw the implications of the possibility of nuclear fission as a foundation for a radically new kind of weapon, and his fear of German mastery of this technology made him a persistent and ultimately successful advocate for a major research and industrial effort towards creating the bomb. His recruitment of Albert Einstein as the author of a letter to President Roosevelt underlining the seriousness of the threat and the importance of establishing a full scale effort made a substantial difference in the outcome. Szilard was entirely engaged in efforts to influence policy, based on his understanding of the physics of nuclear fission; he was convinced very early that a fission bomb was possible, and he was deeply concerned that German physicists would succeed in time to permit the Nazis to use such a weapon against Great Britain and the United States. Szilard was a physicist who also offered advice and influence on the statesmen who conducted war policy in Great Britain and the United States.

Niels Bohr is an excellent example to consider with respect to both large questions (link). He was, of course, one of the most brilliant and innovative physicists of his generation, recognized with the Nobel Prize in 1922. He was also a man of remarkable moral courage, remaining in Copenhagen long after prudence would have dictated emigration to Britain or the United States. He was more articulate and outspoken than most scientists of the time about the moral responsibilities the physicists undertook through their research on atomic energy and the bomb. He was farsighted about the implications for the future of warfare created by a successful implementation of an atomic or thermonuclear bomb. Finally, he is exceptional, on a par with Einstein, in his advocacy of a specific approach to international relations in the atomic age, and was able to meet with both Roosevelt and Churchill to make his case. His basic view was that the knowledge of fission could not be suppressed, and that the Allies would be best served in the long run by sharing their atomic knowledge with the USSR and working towards an enforceable non-proliferation agreement. The meeting with Churchill went particularly badly, with Churchill eventually maintaining that Bohr should be detained as a security risk.

Here is the memorandum that Bohr wrote to President Roosevelt in 1944 (link). Bohr makes the case for public sharing of the scientific and technical knowledge each nation has gained about nuclear weapons, and the establishment of a regime among nations that precludes the development and proliferation of nuclear weapons. Here are a few key paragraphs from his memorandum to Roosevelt:

Indeed, it would appear that only when the question is raised among the united nations as to what concessions the various powers are prepared to make as their contribution to an adequate control arrangement, will it be possible for any one of the partners to assure himself of the sincerity of the intentions of the others.

Of course, the responsible statesmen alone can have insight as to the actual political possibilities. It would, however, seem most fortunate that the expectations for a future harmonious international co-operation, which have found unanimous expressions from all sides within the united nations, so remarkably correspond to the unique opportunities which, unknown to the public, have been created by the advancement of science.

These thoughts are not put forward in the spirit of high-minded idealism; they are intended to serve as sober, fact-based guides to a more secure future. So it is worth considering: do the facts about international behavior justify the recommendations?

In fact the world has settled on a hybrid set of approaches: the doctrine of deterrence based on mutual assured destruction, and a set of international institutions to which nations are signatories, intended to prevent or slow the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Another brilliant thinker and 2005 Nobel Prize winner, Thomas Schelling, provided the analysis that expresses the current theory of deterrence in his 1966 book Arms and Influence (link).

So who is closer to the truth when it comes to projecting the behavior of partially rational states and their governing apparatuses? My view is that the author of Micro Motives and Macro Behavior has the more astute understanding of the logic of disaggregated collective action and the ways that a set of independent strategies aggregate to the level of organizational or state-level behavior. Schelling’s analysis of the logic of deterrence and the quasi-stability that it creates is compelling — perhaps more so than Bohr’s vision which depends at critical points on voluntary compliance.

This judgment receives support from international relations scholars of the following generation as well. For example, in an extensive article published in 1981 (link) Kenneth Waltz argues that nuclear weapons have helped to make international peace more stable, and his argument turns entirely on the rational-choice basis of the theory of deterrence:

What will a world populated by a larger number of nuclear states look like? I have drawn a picture of such a world that accords with experience throughout the nuclear age. Those who dread a world with more nuclear states do little more than assert that more is worse and claim without substantiation that new nuclear states will be less responsible and less capable of self- control than the old ones have been. They express fears that many felt when they imagined how a nuclear China would behave. Such fears have proved un rounded as nuclear weapons have slowly spread. I have found many reasons for believing that with more nuclear states the world will have a promising future. I have reached this unusual conclusion for six main reasons.

First, international politics is a self- help system, and in such systems the principal parties do most to determine their own fate, the fate of other parties, and the fate of the system. This will continue to be so, with the United States and the Soviet Union filling their customary roles. For the United States and the Soviet Union to achieve nuclear maturity and to show this by behaving sensibly is more important than preventing the spread of nuclear weapons.

Second, given the massive numbers of American and Russian warheads, and given the impossibility of one side destroying enough of the other side’s missiles to make a retaliatory strike bearable, the balance of terror is indes tructible. What can lesser states do to disrupt the nuclear equilibrium if even the mighty efforts of the United States and the Soviet Union cannot shake it? The international equilibrium will endure. (concluding section)

The logic of the rationality of cooperation, and the constant possibility of defection, seems to undermine the possibility of the kind of quasi-voluntary nuclear regime that Bohr hoped for — one based on unenforceable agreements about the development and use of nuclear weapons. The incentives in favor of defection are too great.

So this seems to be a case where a great physicist has a less than compelling theory of how an international system of nations might work. And if the theory is unreliable, then so are the policy recommendations that follow from it.

Survey research on the extreme right in Europe


Earlier posts have addressed the issue of the rise of extreme-right parties and ideologies in many parts of the world, including Western Europe and the United States. A valuable multi-country research project now seeks to shed light on these phenomena based on large-scale surveys of attitudes among young people. MYPLACE (Memory, Youth, Public Legacy and Civic Engagement) is a multi-country data set in order to assess the distribution and variation of extreme right ideologies across countries and social groups (link). This research project provides substantial survey data about the civic and political attitudes of young people in numerous European countries. Here is a brief description of the research project on the MYPLACE website:

MYPLACE can provide a hugely rich and sophisticated dataset, covering young people’s attitudes and beliefs in relation, specifically, to far-right and populist ideologies, but in practice covering issues such as class, xenophobia, racism, education and trust in democratic processes and associated social and political exclusion.

MYPLACE methodology is described in these terms:

The MYPLACE project used a case study approach, using 30 carefully selected research locations (illustrated in Figure 1) which provided within country contrasts in terms of hypothesised receptivity to radical politics. MYPLACE work strands include:

  • Questionnaire survey (N = 16,935, target = 600 per location) of young people aged 16-25;
  • Follow up interviews (N = 903, target = 30 per location with a sub-sample of these young people;
  • 44 ethnographic studies of youth activism, in 6 thematic clusters;
  • Ethnographic observation at 18 sites of memory including expert interviews with staff (N = 73), focus groups with young people (N = 56) and inter-generational interviews (N = 180). (link)

Participant researchers have provided summary reports on eight topic areas: democracy, history and memory, European issues, citizenship, attitudes and trust, political activism, religion, and attitudes towards minority groups (link). These reports were released in late 2015.

A recent article in Sociological Review seeks to extend this research. Inta Mieriņa and Ilze Koroļeva’s “Support for far right ideology and anti-migrant attitudes among youth in Europe: A comparative analysis” (link) makes use of the MYPLACE datasets to evaluate different theories of the factors that encourage right wing extremism among European young people. This piece provides valuable reading for anyone concerned about the rise of authoritarian and racist politics in many parts of the democratic world. Here is the abstract of the article:

The last decade has seen a notable increase in support for far right parties and an alarming rise of right-wing extremism across Europe. Drawing on a new comparative youth survey in 14 European countries, this article provides deeper insight into young people’s support for nationalist and far right ideology: negative attitudes towards minorities, xenophobia, welfare chauvinism and exclusionism in relation to migrants. We first map the support for far right ideology among youth in Europe, and then use multilevel regression analysis (16,935 individuals nested in 30 locations) to investigate which individual or contextual factors are associated with a higher propensity among young people towards getting involved in far right movements. (183)

Mieriņa and Koroļeva consider several fundamental theories of the rise of far right activism: social psychological theories of the effects of ethnic diversity on an individual’s conception of his or her own identity; the effects of modernization and urbanization on political attitudes; socio-structural explanations (“level of immigration, economic conditions and level of support for the political system”; 187); and the impact of media on political attitudes.

Here is a plot of a particularly important pair of variables observed in the study, ethnic nationalism and negative attitude towards minorities:

Mieriņa and Koroļeva summarize their key findings in these terms:

Using new data collected as part of the MYPLACE youth survey, in this article we have explored young people’s support for far right ideology and analysed which factors are associated with holding far right views. We find that despite comparatively low immigration rates, young people in post-socialist locations, along with Greek locations, tend to have more negative predispositions and to be more xenophobic and exclusionist towards immigrants than young people in Western European locations. Moreover, we have demonstrated that young Europeans’ views on immigrants vary greatly even within the boundaries of one country, thus below-national level analysis should be the preferred strategy in future studies.

Our analysis shows that negative attitudes towards minorities and immigrants are often rooted in ethnic nationalism, that is, a belief that one has to be born in a country or have at least one ethnic parent for being a citizen of a country. A more over-arching civic national identity – based on respect for countries’ institutions and laws – is more likely to create an inclusive, cohesive society.

The data strongly support the instrumental model of group conflict, confirming that resource stress over money, status and, most of all, jobs is an essential source of group conflicts. Living in poverty or seeing poverty facilitates negative attitudes towards minorities and significantly increases xenophobia, welfare chauvinism and exclusionism, especially if immigration rates are high. Far right ideology is especially appealing to groups of society who experience a higher level of insecurity and perceived competition. (199)

Or in other words, Mieriņa and Koroļeva find that there are important geographical patterns to intolerance; ethnic nationalism appears to be a cause of intolerance of minorities and immigrants; and economic stress on specific groups appears to be a cause of xenophobia and chauvinism in those groups.

The article reports some very important empirical findings on the subject of the prevalence and variation of support for far-right ideologies across Western Europe. But equally interesting are the efforts the authors make to clarify the central terms involved, including especially the idea of a “far right ideology.” They refer to work by Cas Mudde on this topic:

Cas Mudde’s research suggests that radical right ideology typically rests on nationalism, xenophobia, welfare chauvinism, and law and order…. The ideological core of the new ‘populist radical right’ ideology … is a combination of nativism, authoritarianism and populism, of which nativism is considered as the key feature. It holds that ‘states should be inhabited exclusively by members of the native group (‘the nation’) and that non-native elements (persons and ideas) are fundamentally threatening to the homogeneous nation-state. (185)

This is an astute, clear, and focused analysis of the heart of far-right ideologies in many countries. And people who have lived through the Trump presidential campaign and the extreme rhetoric the candidate used consistently throughout the preceding year will recognize the point-for-point correspondence that exists between Trumpism and this definition of radical right nativist ideology.

New structural economics

Does economic theory provide anything like a concrete set of reliable policies for creating sustained economic growth in a middle-income country? Some contemporary economists believe that it is possible to answer this question in the affirmative. However, I don’t find this confidence justified.

One such economist is Justin Yifu Lin. Lin is a leading Chinese economist who served as chief economist to the World Bank in 2008-2012. So Lin has a deep level of knowledge of the experience of developing countries and their efforts to achieve sustained growth. He believes that the answer to the question posed above is “yes”, and he lays out the central components of such a policy in a framework that he describes as the “new structural economics”. His analysis is presented in New Structural Economics: A Framework for Rethinking Development and Policy. (The book is also available in PDF format from the World Bank directly; link.)

Lin’s analysis is intended to be relevant for all low- and middle-income countries (e.g. Brazil, Nigeria, or Indonesia); but the primary application is China. So his question comes down to this: what steps does the Chinese state need to take to burst out of the “middle income trap” and bring per capita incomes in the country up to the level of high-income countries in the OECD?

So what are the core premises of Lin’s analysis of sustainable economic growth? Two are most basic: the market should govern prices, and the state should make intelligent policies and investments that encourage the “right kind” of innovation in economic activity in the country. Here is an extended description of the core claims of the book:

Long-term sustainable and inclusive growth is the driving force for poverty reduction in developing countries, and for convergence with developed economies. The current global crisis, the most serious one since the Great Depression, calls for a rethinking of economic theories. It is therefore a good time for economists to reexamine development theories as well. This paper discusses the evolution of development thinking since the end of World War II and suggests a framework to enable developing countries to achieve sustainable growth, eliminate poverty, and narrow the income gap with the developed countries. The proposed framework, called a neoclassical approach to structure and change in the process of economic development, or new structural economics, is based on the following ideas:

First, an economy’s structure of factor endowments evolves from one level of development to another. Therefore, the industrial structure of a given economy will be different at different levels of development. Each industrial structure requires corresponding infrastructure (both tangible and intangible) to facilitate its operations and transactions.

Second, each level of economic development is a point along the continuum from a low-income agrarian economy to a high-income post-industrialized economy, not a dichotomy of two economic development levels (“poor” versus “rich” or “developing” versus “industrialized”). Industrial upgrading and infrastructure improvement targets in developing countries should not necessarily draw from those that exist in high-income countries.

Third, at each given level of development, the market is the basic mechanism for effective resource allocation. However, economic development as a dynamic process entails structural changes, involving industrial upgrading and corresponding improvements in “hard” (tangible) and “soft” (intangible) infrastructure at each level. Such upgrading and improvements require an inherent coordination, with large externalities to firms’ transaction costs and returns to capital investment. Thus, in addition to an effective market mechanism, the government should play an active role in facilitating structural changes. (14-15)

So a state needs to secure the conditions for well-functioning markets; and it needs to establish an industrial strategy that is guided by a careful empirical analysis of the country’s comparative advantage in the global economic environment. In practice this seems to amount to the idea that the middle-income economy should identify the leading economies’ declining industries and compete with those on the basis of labor costs and mid-level technology. Lin also emphasizes the important role of the state in making appropriate infrastructure investments to support the chosen industrial strategy. This is a “structural economic theory” because it is guided by the idea that a developing economy needs to incrementally achieve structural transformation from a given mix of agriculture, industry, and service to a successor mix, based on the resources held by the economy that give it advantage in a particular set of technologies and production techniques. Here is a representative statement:

Countries at different levels of development tend to have different economic structures due to differences in their endowments. Factor endowments for countries at the early levels of development are typically characterized by a relative scarcity of capital and relative abundance of labor or resources. Their production activities tend to be labor intensive or resource intensive (mostly in subsistence agriculture, animal husbandry, fishery, and the mining sector) and usually rely on conventional, mature technologies and produce “mature,” well-established products. Except for mining and plantations, their production has limited economies of scale. Their firm sizes are usually relatively small, with market transactions often informal, limited to local markets with familiar people. The hard and soft infrastructure required for facilitating that type of production and market transactions is limited and relatively simple and rudimentary. (22)

Some common development strategies fail to conform to these ideas. So, for example, import substitution is a bad basis for economic development, because it subverts the market and it distorts the investment strategies of the state and the private sector; it fails to guide the given economy on a path pursuing incremental comparative advantage (18).

What this analysis leaves out completely is the goal of economic development — improving human wellbeing. Indeed, the word “wellbeing” does not even appear in the book. And certainly the perspective on development offered by Amartya Sen in his theory of capabilities and realizations is completely absent. This is unfortunate, because it means that the book fails to address the most important issue in development economics: what the fundamental good of economic development is, and how we can best approach that good. Sen’s answer is that the fundamental good is to increase the wellbeing of the globe’s total population; and he interprets that goal in terms of his idea of human flourishing. (Sen’s theory of economic development is provided in many places, including Development as Freedom. Here is a recent statement by Sen, Stiglitz, and Fitoussi on why GDP and growth in GDP are inadequate ultimate measures of development success; Mismeasuring Our Lives: Why GDP Doesn’t Add Up.) Sen’s fundamental view is this: the most important goal that a state can have is to create policies that enhance the development of the human capabilities of its population. In particular, social resources should be deployed to enhance education, health, domicile, and personal security. In such an environment individuals can have the fullest satisfaction of their life goals; and they can be the most productive contributors to innovation and growth in their societies. Well-educated and healthy people are an essential component of economic success for a country. But significantly, Lin does not address these “quality of life” factors at all (another phrase that does not occur once in the book).

Even less does Lin’s theory address the kinds of issues raised by “post-development” thinkers like Arturo Escobar in Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World. Escobar challenges some of the most basic assumptions of classical economic development theory, beginning with the idea that industry-lead structural transformation is the unique pathway to human flourishing in the less-developed world. Escobar’s critique involves several ideas. First is the observation that economic development theory since 1945 has been Eurocentric and implicitly colonial, in that it depends upon exoticized representations of the industrialized North and the traditional agricultural South. Against this colonial representation of global development Escobar emphasizes the need for a more ethnographic and cultural understanding of development. Second, this Eurocentric view brings along with it some crucial distributive implications — essentially, that the resources and labor of the developing world should continue to provide part of the surplus that supports the affluence of the North. Third, Escobar casts doubt on the value of development “experts” in the design of development strategies for poor countries in the South (46). Local knowledge is a crucial part of sound economic progress for countries like Nigeria, Brazil, or Indonesia; but the development profession seeks to replace local knowledge with expert opinion. So Escobar highlights local knowledge, the importance of culture, and the importance of self-determination in theory and policy as key ingredients of a sustainable plan for economic development in the countries of the post-colonial South.

Why do these alternative approaches to development theory matter? Why is the absence of a discussion of wellbeing, flourishing, or culture an important lacuna in New Structural Economics? Because it results in a view of economic development that lacks a compass. If we haven’t given rigorous thought to what the goal of development is — and Sen demonstrates that it is entirely possible to do that — then we are guided only by a rote set of recommendations: increase productivity, increase efficiency, increase market penetration, increase per capita income. But the fact of substantial rise in economic inequalities through a growth process means that it is very possible that only a minority of citizens will be affected. And the fact that a typical family’s income has risen by 50% may be less important than the availability of a nearby health clinic for their overall wellbeing. And both of these kinds of considerations seem to be relevant in the case of China. It is well documented that there has been a substantial increase in China’s income (and wealth) inequalities in the past thirty years (link, link). And it is also reasonably clear that China’s commitment to social security provisioning is far lower than that of OECD countries. So it is far from clear that China’s recent history of growth has been proportionally successful in enhancing the quality of life and human flourishing of the mass of its population (link).

The unstated assumption is that countries that pursue these prescriptions — “maintain efficient markets, adopt an industrial strategy that accurately tracks shifts in comparative advantage, support investment in appropriate infrastructure to reduce transaction costs” — will have superior long-term growth in per capita income and will be better able to ensure enhancements in the quality of life of their citizens. But this is nothing more than naive confidence in “trickle-down” economics. It ignores completely the problem of the likelihood of rising economic inequalities, and it doesn’t provide any detailed analysis of how quality of life and human flourishing are supposed to rise. Development economics without capabilities and wellbeing is inherently incomplete; worse, it is a bad guide to policy choices.

Thurgood Marshall’s future

Thurgood Marshall was awarded the Liberty Medal by the National Constitution Center in 1992 (link). Marshall had stepped down as a justice of the US Supreme Court as its first African-American justice. Prior to his distinguished service on the Supreme Court he was the lead lawyer in the 1954 Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. He was appointed by President Johnson in 1967 and retired from the Supreme Court in 1991. He was an astute and engaged observer concerning the state of race relations and racial discrimination in the United States.

The acceptance speech that he provided on the occasion of the Liberty Medal ceremony is deeply sobering in virtue of the observations Marshall made about the state of racial equality in America in 1992, twenty-four years ago. Here are a few lines from the speech:

I wish I could say that racism and prejudice were only distant memories…. 

Democracy just cannot flourish amid fear. Liberty cannot bloom amid hate. Justice cannot take root amid rage. America must get to work. In the chill climate in which we live, we must go against the prevailing wind…. 

We must dissent from the fear, the hatred and the mistrust…. We must dissent because America can do better, because America has no choice but to do better.

In 2016 these observations seem equally timely, in ways that Marshall could not have anticipated. First, his observation that racism and prejudice persist remains true today in the United States (link). It doesn’t take a social-science genius to recognize the realities of racial disparities in every important dimension of contemporary life — income and property, health, education, occupation, quality of housing, or life satisfaction. And most of these disparities persist even controlling for factors like education levels. These disparities are the visible manifestation of the workings of racial discrimination.

The next paragraph of Marshall’s speech is equally insightful. Several currents of political psychology are particularly toxic when it comes to improving the status of race relations in a democracy. A polity that embodies large portions of fear, hate, and rage is particularly challenged when it comes to building an inclusive polity founded on democratic values. Democracy requires a substantial degree of trust and mutual respect, if the identities and interests of various groups are to be fully incorporated. And yet democracy fundamentally requires inclusion and equality. So stoking hatred, suspicion, and fear is fundamentally anti-democratic.

Marshall closes with a theme that has almost always been key to the Civil Rights movement and the struggle for full racial equality and respect in our country: a basic optimism that the American public both needs and wants a polity that transcends the differences of race and religion that are a core part of our history and our future. We want a society that treats everyone equality and respectfully. And we reject political advocates who seek to undermine our collective commitments and civic values. “America can do better.”

Why do we have “no choice” in this matter? Here we have to extrapolate, but my understanding of Marshall’s meaning has to do with social stability, on multiple levels. A society divided into large groups of citizens who distrust, fear, and disrespect each other is surely a society that hangs at the edge of conflict. Conflict may take the form of group-on-group violence, as is seen periodically in India. Or it may take a more chaotic form, with isolated individual acts of violence against members of some groups, as we see in the US today through the rise in hate crimes against Muslims.

But there is another reason why we have no choice: because we fundamentally cherish the values and institutions of a pluralistic democracy, and because the politics of hate are ultimately inconsistent with those values and institutions. So if we value democracy, then we must struggle against the politics of hate and suspicion.

There are always political opportunities available to unscrupulous politicians in the rhetoric of division, mistrust, and hate. It is up to all of us to follow Marshall’s lead and insist that our democracy depends upon equality and mutual respect. We must therefore work hard to maintain the integrity of the political values of equality and civil respect associated with our political tradition. “America has no choice but to do better.”

Survey research on right-wing extremism in Europe

European research and policy organizations have devoted a fair amount of attention to the rise of extremist movements and intolerance in European countries in the past ten years. Attention has been directed towards both aspects of the problem that have been mentioned in earlier posts — rising public attitudes of intolerance, and the mobilization and spread of hate-based right-wing organizations. (The topic has also received a great deal of attention in the press — for example, in the Guardian (link), the New York Times (link), and Spiegel (link).)

One useful report is Intolerance, Prejudice and Discrimination: A European Report (link), authored by Andreas Zick, Beate Kupper, and Andreas Hovermann (Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, 2011). The study is based on survey research in eight countries (Germany, Britain, France, Netherlands, Italy, Portugal, Poland, and Hungary). Particularly interesting are the results on anti-semitism, anti-muslimism, and homophobia (56 ff.). Here are the opening paragraphs of the authors’ foreword:

Intolerance threatens the social cohesion of plural and democratic societies. It reflects the extent to which we respect or reject social, ethnic, cultural and religious minorities. It marks out those who are “strange”, “other” or “out- siders”, who are not equal, less worthy. The most visible expression of intolerance and discrimination is prejudice. Indicators of intolerance such as prejudice, anti-democratic attitudes and the prevalence of discrimination consequently represent sensitive measures of social cohesion.

Investigating intolerance, prejudice and discrimination is an important process of self-reflection for society and crucial to the protection of groups and minorities. We should also remember that intolerance towards one group is usually associated with negativity towards others. The European Union acknowledged this when it declared 1997 the European Year against Racism. In the 1997 Treaty of Amsterdam the European Union called for joint efforts to combat prejudice and discrimination experienced by groups and individuals on the basis of their ethnic features, cultural background, religion, gender, sexual orientation, age or disability. (11)

And here are a few of their central findings, based on survey research in these eight countries:

Group-focused enmity is widespread in Europe. It is weakest in the Netherlands, and strongest in Poland and Hungary. With respect to anti-immigrant attitudes, anti-Muslim attitudes and racism there are only minor differences between the countries, while differences in the extent of anti-Semitism, sexism and homophobia are much more marked. 

About half of all European respondents believe there are too many immi- grants in their country. Between 17 percent in the Netherlands and more than 70 percent in Poland believe that Jews seek to benefit from their forebears’ suffering during the Nazi era. About one third of respondents believe there is a natural hierarchy of ethnicity. Half or more condemn Islam as “a religion of intolerance”. A majority in Europe also subscribe to sexist attitudes rooted in traditional gender roles and demand that: “Women should take their role as wives and mothers more seriously.” With a figure of about one third, Dutch respondents are least likely to affirm sexist attitudes. The proportion opposing equal rights for homosexuals ranges between 17 percent in the Netherlands and 88 percent in Poland; they believe it is not good “to allow marriages between two men or two women”. (13)

These researchers find three underlying “ideological orientations” associated with these patterns of intolerance and discrimination: authoritarianism, “social dominance orientation”, and the rejection of diversity. And the factors that work against intolerance include “trust in others, the ability to forge firm friendships, contact with immigrants, and above all a positive basic attitude towards diversity” (14).

The topic of the incidence of intolerance in European countries is also the subject of research in the Eurobarometer project. Here are two Eurobarometer reports from 2008 and 2012 that attempt to measure changes in levels of discrimination and prejudice (Discrimination in the European Union, 2008; link; 2012; link). 

Also from the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung is the report Is Europe on the “Right” Path?: Right-wing extremism and right-wing populism in Europe (link). This report provides country studies of the radical right in Germany, France, Britain, Netherlands, Italy, Switzerland, Spain, Bulgaria, Poland, Hungary, Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. Here is how Britta Schellenberg undertakes to synthesize these wide-ranging findings:

Taken as a whole, the contributions in the present volume clearly illustrate the common features and differences within the radical right in Europe. Analyses of the current phenomenon of the various radical-right movements and a differentiated analysis of their origins are fundamental for considering counter-strategies. Obviously, there is no single, generally valid strategy that guarantees an optimal way of combating the radical right. In fact, strategies can be successful only if they match up to the specific political and social context and if the maximum possible number of players from politics, the legal system, the media, educational institutions and civil society are agreed upon them.

However, we can identify general requirements for strategies against right-wing extremism and xenophobia that form a framework broad enough to allow a European perspective. For concrete work in a particular place, this framework must be filled out with individual measures and activities specific to the situation and location. But for now, we shall now proceed to take a bird’s eye view and answer the basic questions as to what preconditions have to be created for maximum success in combating radical-right-wing attacks, parties and attitudes. (309)

Each country study is detailed and interesting. The France study focuses on the Front National and Jean-Marie Le Pen’s success (and later Marine Le Pen’s success) since the 1984 European election in gaining visible support and electoral success with 10% to 15% of the vote (84). The Mouvement pour la France (MPF) and its leader Philippe de Villiers also receive attention in the report. And the resurgence of skinheads and direct action neo-fascists like the “violence-prone street brawlers of the Groupe Union Defense” are discussed (89-90).

The essay develops a handful of strategies for combatting right-wing movements:

  1. A comprehensive approach: Identifying and naming problems and strategically combating the radical right
  2. Political involvement: Confront, don’t cooperate
  3. Determining the focus: Protection against discrimination, and diversity and equality
  4. Allowing civil society to develop, and strengthening civic commitment
  5. Education for democracy and human rights

The Heinrich Boll Stiftung report authored by sixteen representatives from EU countries, “How to Counter Right Wing Populism and Extremism in Europe”, summarizes current progressive thinking about how best to resist the rise of right-wing extremism (link). This document was the result of a conference held in Brussels and Antwerp in October 2015. Here are some key findings and recommendations:

  • The EU is being degraded into an enforcer of austerity measures across the continent. It is essential to restore the idea of the EU as a regional network of states that stand together in solidarity in order to promote mutual wellbeing, good living standards, tolerant societies, and democratic values that are shared by all. 
  • Furthermore it is vital to explain the local benefits of EU membership to ordinary people with a clear and understandable message. 
  • There need to be more efficient and accessible training and exchange programmes in order to decrease the distance between EU institutions and citizens. 
  • Diversity must be increased and a greater inclusiveness within EU institutions is required, with mechanisms to enable a much more accurate representation of the European population in EU institutions.
  • Progressives should be strident in defending greater global and European integration against the often empty criticisms of right-wing populists and extremists.
  • We recommend that different stakeholders collaborate with each other in a knowledge exchange in order to provide public officials with EU-wide training.
  • Establishing quotas for those who are elected as candidates, by increasing leadership in minority groups, and via private-public partnerships to help promote equality in business as well as the public sector.
  • Hate speech has to be monitored in the European Parliament by an independent body and the existing sanctions regarding hate speech need to be reviewed.
  • Social media should be used in this effort to confront the advocacy of hatred and that a dialogue should be promoted between internet providers and social media companies, examining among others the possibility of creating a new platform for non-governmental organizations and the civil society. (5-6)

Another FES study addresses the “massive challenges” faced by the EU in the context of citizens’ expectations (link). Richard Himler’s public opinion survey (2016) considers eight countries (Netherlands, Sweden, France, Germany, Slovak Republic, Spain, Italy, and the Czech Republic).

Here is a summary table based on results from all eight countries ranking the relative weight of EU priorities for EU citizens. Solving the refugee crisis dwarfs concern about other issues, though unemployment comes in as a substantial second.

Given Brexit, it is interesting to see the relative levels of dissatisfaction with EU membership in other countries as well. An average of 34% of respondents found that “disadvantages exceed advantages” in EU membership for their country, with the Czech Republic at 44% on this question and Spain at only 22%.

These are interesting survey results describing the growth of right-wing extremism in Europe. But these studies are limited in their explanatory reach. They are largely descriptive; they give a basis for assessing the dimensions of the problem in terms of population attitudes and right-wing extremist organizations. But there is little by the way of sociological analysis of the mechanisms through which these extremist attitudes and processes of activism proliferate and grow. In an upcoming post I will review some recent work on the ethnography of right-wing movements that will allow a somewhat deeper understanding of the dynamics of these movements.

Ideologies and organizations as causes of political extremism

In a recent post I addressed the issue of the rise of mass intolerance and hate from the point of view of the public — the processes through which sizable numbers of members of society come to be more intolerant in their attitudes and behaviors. This involves looking at the problem as being analogous to epidemiology — the contagion through a population of the social psychology of hate and intolerance.

But this is only a part of the story. Right-wing political movements are fueled by ideologies and organizations, and when they come to power their success is at least partially attributable to these higher-level social factors. A movement can’t succeed without gaining grassroots followers, to be sure. But it may be that the authoritarian and racist politics of a movement derive more from the higher-level factors of ideology and organization than the retail racism and social psychology of the populace. 
This is the heart of the approach taken by Fritz Stern in The Politics of Cultural Despair: A Study in the Rise of the Germanic Ideology, where he gives a careful and detailed accounting of the philosophies and mental frameworks that underlay the progress of reactionary and racist parties in Germany (link). It is also the approach taken by Janek Wasserman in Black Vienna: The Radical Right in the Red City, 1918-1938, where the ideas of conservative religious dogmas, anti-semitism, and a hatred of modern secularism fueled the rise of Austrofascism. Wasserman gives little attention to the street-level politics of the struggles and mobilizations of left and right in Austria (unlike Arthur Koestler’s gritty accounts of the mobilizations and street fighting of communists and fascists in Berlin; link).
If we look at the problem from this point of view, then the rise of right-wing extremist movements needs to be analyzed in terms of the ideologies that lead them and the organizations through which they attempt to bring about their political ends. In the United States the ideology of the right has a number of leading values: religious fundamentalism, nativism, anti-government and anti-tax rhetoric, free market fundamentalism, suspicion, homophobia, and cultural conservativism. And these threads have been woven together into powerful and motivating narratives of American history and the political choices the country faces for tens of millions of Americans. 
In this light the writings of Richard Hofstadter, discussed in an earlier post, are quite important. Hofstadter traces the specifics of a fairly distinctive conservative ideology in the United States, a worldview of society and politics that has persisted in the organs of public expression — newspapers, activists, professors, clergy — over a very long time. And these tropes in turn find expression in the activism and mobilization of extremist groups like the armed groups who took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge last winter. These ideological strands become currents of extremist values around which individual entrepreneurs organize their appeals to potential followers. (Many of these themes are finding expression on the convention stage in Cleveland this week.)
It is a very interesting question to consider how mass consciousness in a population maintains a “folk” political philosophy over generations. How have American nativism and mistrust of government been sustained in the populace since 1900? Why does anti-semitism persist so strongly in some European countries where the Holocaust left almost no Jewish residents at all? What are the mechanisms of transmission and reproduction that make this possible? To what extent is this an organic process of popular transmission, and to what extent is it the result of ongoing ideological struggles? It is clear that ideologies have institutional embodiments. And it is an important task for political sociology to map out the ways these institutions work. Obviously newspapers, media, religious centers, and universities play key roles in the transmission of political frameworks to new generations of citizens; and the influence of family traditions and daily discussions of current events play a crucial role in the transmission of values and frameworks as well.
The organizations of the right include a range of configurations of groups in civil society — right-wing political parties, religious organizations, anti-government groups, and cause-based organizations (anti-gay marriage, pro-gun groups, business advocacy groups, conservative student organizations). The hate groups tracked by the SPLC are the extreme fringe of this world. These kinds of organizations do their best to frame political choices and antagonisms around their core ideological tropes, and they do everything possible to stir up the emotions and angers of their followers and potential followers around these values.

Ideologies and organizations are clearly intertwined. Organizations have purposive agendas; and one important mechanism for furthering their agendas is to influence the content and nature of prominent expressions of social worldviews. So funneling cash into right-leaning think tanks, enhancing the visibility and credibility of their spokesmen, and turning up the volume on extreme right-wing media outlets are all understandable strategies of ideological conflict. (Naomi Oreskes’ and Eric Conway’s important book Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming documents these strategies in the case of climate science; link.) But likewise, the currency of a bundle of ideological beliefs and values in a part of the population is a huge boost for the ability of an organization to finance itself, draw followers, and exercise influence.

So we can look at the rise of large social movements, including those based on hate and suspicion, from two complementary perspectives. We can consider the micro-level processes through which beliefs and activism spread through a population, and we can look at the higher-level factors of ideology and organization within which these political processes unfold. In reality, of course, the kinds of causation involved in both levels are always involved in political transformation, and it may not be productive to try to sort out which level has greater causal importance.

Making change happen


There are many large social ills that we would collectively like to change. We would like to see an end to debilitating poverty; we would like to end the systematic disparities by race that exist in our society, in health, education, or income; we would like to see gun violence rates drop to levels found in other advanced countries; we would like to see a dramatic reduction in the smoking rate among young people. And we would like to see crucial public institutions like public schools function at a superlative level. How feasible is it to deliberately bring about change in these kinds of social realities? In particular, how much real leverage do change agents like mayors, governors, presidents, or corporate or foundation leaders have in bringing about these kinds of social progress? How about community activists and community-based organizations?

There are a few considerations that make it clear that reforms leading to large social change in a short time will be very difficult. The example of the War on Poverty discussed in the prior post is instructive (link). On the one hand this case demonstrates that determined political leadership can succeed in focusing large amounts of resources in deliberate policy packages aimed at solving big problems. On the other hand detailed review of the WoP shows that there are very hard questions about causation and policy effectiveness that are still hard to answer (Bailey and Danzinger, Legacies of the War on Poverty).

One reason for the difficulty of large interventions is that these social problems are “wicked problems” with densely interconnected sets of causes (link). John Kolko defines a wicked problem in these terms:

A wicked problem is a social or cultural problem that is difficult or impossible to solve for as many as four reasons: incomplete or contradictory knowledge, the number of people and opinions involved, the large economic burden, and the interconnected nature of these problems with other problems. Poverty is linked with education, nutrition with poverty, the economy with nutrition, and so on. These problems are typically offloaded to policy makers, or are written off as being too cumbersome to handle en masse. Yet these are the problems—poverty, sustainability, equality, and health and wellness—that plague our cities and our world and that touch each and every one of us. (link)

The interconnected nature of these difficult social problems means that attacking one component of causes may inadvertently worsen another source of causation, making the original problem worse. This is one of the discoveries that emerged from the effort to invoke systems engineering and the expertise of the aerospace industry to address urban problems in the 1960s (Hughes and Hughes, Systems, Experts, and Computers: The Systems Approach in Management and Engineering, World War II and After).

Another source of difficulty in addressing large system social problems is the question of scale of the resources that any actor can bring to bear on a large social problem. Private organizations have limited resources, and governments are increasingly constrained in their use of public resources by anti-tax activism. Cities are chronically caught in fiscal crises that make long-term investments difficult or impossible. And Federal funding since the Reagan revolution has been subject to intense opposition by the right. Finally, it is almost always true that a given strategy of change produces winners and losers, and groups that stand to lose something of value through the exercise of a strategy have many means of resisting change — through lobbying, through strategic use of the legal system, or through exit. It is often difficult to build a sustainable consensus of political support for a large strategy of transformation or to overcome self-interested opposition.

That said, change sometimes occurs, and it sometimes occurs as a result of determined and intelligent strategic work by one or more agents of change. Recent examples in Michigan include the “Grand Bargain” that resolved the Detroit bankruptcy; the substantial progress achieved by a new Detroit mayor on delivering city services; substantial economic recovery in the state of Michigan since the 2007 recession; and the success of the Affordable Care Act in bringing health coverage to tens of millions of previously uninsured Americans (including about 600,000 in Michigan alone).

So it is possible for important social change to occur through deliberate political and policy action. But notice the limits of each of the examples cited here. Each involves taking a fairly simple policy step and maintaining political support for carrying out that policy. Too many uninsured people? Design a way of expanding an existing program to make health insurance more available to poor and middle-income individuals and families. The politics were horrendously difficult for President Obama, but the mechanics were clear. Need to save pensions and a world-class art collection from the  Detroit bankruptcy process? Do some fundraising on a very large scale to allow an acceptable resolution of the bankruptcy process that preserves these two core things. Again, the task of maintaining the coalition was enormously difficult, but the mechanics of the strategy were not very different from other kinds of fundraising efforts in support of collective goods.

Let’s think about the problem from another angle. What needs to happen in order for large social change to occur? Here are a couple of categories of change: change of law and policy; change of widespread social values; change of widespread patterns of behavior and disposition (smoking, racism, education); change of distribution of outcomes across a diverse population (health, income, residence). These examples fall in a couple of large types: setting legal and bureaucratic structures (Civil Rights Act, Department of Housing and Urban Development), influencing behavior, and changing values and attitudes.

What are the levers of change for these different kinds of social reality? Consider first structures. Law, policy, and taxation are the result of political and legislative competition. So legislative agendas by politicians and advocacy by interest groups and lobbyists are the main variables in determining the success or failure of a given initiative. The War on Poverty is a good example; the Johnson administration sought to create a number of large funding programs affecting housing, education, and employment, and it succeeded in part in many of these initiatives because the Democrats controlled both houses of Congress. (Though recall the frustration expressed by President Johnson at Congressional underfunding of many of these initiatives, expressed in his message to Congress on cities; link.)

Governments can address problems like these from two broad avenues: anti-discrimination law and policy initiatives aimed at addressing the obstacles that stand in the way of economic opportunity. Civil rights legislation supporting voting rights and legislation aimed at eliminating discrimination represent the first lever. Using federal funds to improve urban transportation and housing illustrates the latter.

Using the power of the state to raise revenues for initiatives like these through taxation is crucial. The War on Poverty was not chiefly an effort at persuasion; it was a determined political effort to direct Federal resources at enormously important national problems.

Policy change is hard. But achieving behavioral, attitudinal, and cultural change is even harder, it would appear. There is a lot of uncertainty about the causal mechanisms that might drive culture and behavioral change on a large scale. Further, there is often deep conflict about the content of culture change: what is a favorable attitude change for one group is anathema for another. Both considerations point in the direction of privileging non-governmental organization and community-based organization strategies over governmental strategies. Government and law must pay attention to behavior, not attitudes. So the burden of striving to change attitudes and values seems to belong to private initiatives within civil society. So the non-profit Michigan-based social service organization ACCESS can create and promote the “Take on Hate” program for young people as a way of addressing anti/Muslim bigotry, whereas the Department of Education probably couldn’t. The national movement aimed at changing the public’s attitudes towards same-sex marriage is a good example of a broad coalition of non-governmental organizations and groups successfully bringing about substantial change in public attitudes over a relatively short time.

In order to achieve lasting solutions to major social problems, it seems that all the avenues mentioned here will be needed: legislative action providing for real equality of opportunity and access for poor people to society’s positions and advantages; public investment in factors like improved transportation, education, internet access, and green spaces; and private and collaborative efforts at generating public support for change of policy and behavior on a short list of particularly important social problems.

LBJ’s commitment to cities

In the United States we have been in the desert for decades when it comes to big, transformative policy reforms aimed at addressing our most serious social issues. But the 1960s marked a decade of vigorous national effort to address some of our most serious and difficult social problems — racial discrimination, war, poverty, education, and the quality of life of poor children and the elderly. It is worth thinking back to the large ambitions and strategies that were adopted between 1960 and 1968, the election of Richard Nixon.

A very interesting place to begin is Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, and especially his 1968 Special Message to the Congress on Urban Problems: “The Crisis of the Cities.” (link). Martha Bailey and Sheldon Danziger’s volume Legacies of the War on Poverty provides a rigorous specialist assessment of the achievements (and shortcomings) of the war on poverty. Johnson’s message is powerful in each of its rhetorical components — aspiration, diagnosis, and policy recommendations.

The document paints a high-level picture of the way in which cities had developed in the United States in the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century. And the narrative for the 20th century builds to a sense of deepening urban crisis.  

We see the results dramatically in the great urban centers where millions live amid decaying buildingswith streets clogged with traffic; with air and water polluted by the soot and waste of industry which finds it much less expensive to move outside the city than to modernize within it; with crime rates rising so rapidly each year that more and more miles of city streets become unsafe after dark; with increasingly inadequate public services and a smaller and smaller tax base from which to raise the funds to improve them.

The document identifies a host of key problems in American cities: inner-city youth with limited education and opportunity; violent crime; deep penetration of prejudice and discrimination in the normal workings of social life; poor public health levels; and disaffection among inner city citizens, both young and old.

The city will not be transformed until the lives of the least among its dwellers are changed as well. Until men whose days are empty and despairing can see better days ahead, until they can stand proud and know their children’s lives will be better than their own — until that day comes, the city will not truly be rebuilt.

The document emphasizes both material and psychological factors — poor housing and “empty and despairing” lives. Johnson links the crisis of cities with the goals and achievements of the fundamental Civil Rights legislation of the recent past. 
Johnson’s urban policy recommendations focus on several key city-centered crises: poor housing, inadequate public mass transit, extensive urban blight, high unemployment for young people, and institutions supporting lending and insurance for urban homeowners. The document also recommends increased support for urban-centered social-science research. 
What is most noteworthy is the overall ambition of Johnson’s agenda: the goal of devoting substantial organizational effort at the federal level (through the establishment of new agencies like HUD) and billions of dollars to implement effective solutions for these awesomely difficult and important social problems. It is striking that we have not had national leaders since LBJ with the courage and vision to set such an ambitious agenda for progressive social change. The persistent problems of poverty, race, and educational failure will be amenable to nothing less. 
There is one other aspect of Johnson’s message that is of interest here — the sociology of knowledge implications of the document. This is a good example of a place where an STS approach would be helpful. There is probably an existing literature on the policy expertise that underlay Johnson’s reasoning in this document, but I haven’t been able to identify the person who drafted this message on Johnson’s behalf. But there is obviously a high level of expertise and judgment implicit in this document — and this certainly doesn’t derive from the president himself. What is the paradigm of urban theory and policy that drives the reasoning of the document and the associated policy proposals? And what are the blindspots associated with that historically situated research framework? Causes, outcomes, and levers of change for urban decline are all identified. Are these still credible as empirical theories of urban realities?

The Kerner Commission report

The Kerner Commission released its report in 1968, following months of intensive study of the series of major race riots and rebellions that had occurred in 1967. Here is the executive summary (link), and here is a detailed review of the context and reception of the report in Boston Review (link).

It is enormously important for us today, almost fifty years later, to reread the report with an eye to the diagnosis the commissioners arrived at — the underlying structural and experiential conditions that had set the stage for 164 riots, rebellions, and disturbances across the country during 1967 — and the recommendations they made for healing these fundamental contradictions within our American democracy. Newark and Detroit were the most destructive during 1967, but there were many others during that year, and equally destructive uprisings took place in many major American cities in the following year as well. The Commission’s “most basic conclusion” is stark, unblinking, and profoundly troubling: “This is our basic conclusion: Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.”

The Commission was careful and deliberate in its assessments of causation of individual rebellions, and they identified broad standing conditions as crucial parts of the causal pathway to the eruption of violence:

Disorder did not erupt as a result of a single “triggering” or “precipitating” incident. Instead, it was generated out of an increasingly disturbed social atmosphere, in which typically a series of tension-heightening incidents over a period of weeks or months became linked in the minds of many in the Negro community with a reservoir of underlying grievances. At some point in the mounting tension, a further incident-in itself often routine or trivial-became the breaking point and the tension spilled over into violence.

“Prior” incidents, which increased tensions and ultimately led to violence, were police actions in almost half the cases; police actions were “final” incidents before the outbreak of violence in 12 of the 24 surveyed disorders.

What the rioters appeared to be seeking was fuller participation in the social order and the material benefits enjoyed by the majority of American citizens. Rather than rejecting the American system, they were anxious to obtain a place for themselves in it.

(6)The report considers the nature of the grievances and demands that motivated participants in these uprisings, and classifies them according to urgency:

First Level of Intensity

1. Police practices

2. Unemployment and underemployment

3. Inadequate housing 

Second Level of Intensity

4. Inadequate education

5. Poor recreation facilities and programs

6. Ineffectiveness of the political structure and grievance mechanisms 

Third Level of Intensity

7. Disrespectful white attitudes

8. Discriminatory administration of justice

9. Inadequacy of federal programs

10. Inadequacy of municipal services

11. Discriminatory consumer and credit practices

12. Inadequate welfare programs

The Commission report is also explicit about the severity of the gap between black and white citizens with respect to crucial elements of life quality:

Social and economic conditions in the riot cities constituted a clear pattern of severe disadvantage for Negroes compared with whites, whether the Negroes lived in the area where the riot took place or outside it. Negroes had completed fewer years of education and fewer had attended high school. Negroes were twice as likely to be unemployed and three times as likely to be in unskilled and service jobs. Negroes averaged 70 percent of the income earned by whites and were more than twice as likely to be living in poverty. Although housing cost Negroes relatively more, they had worse housing–three times as likely to be overcrowded and substandard. When compared to white suburbs, the relative disadvantage is even more pronounced. (7)

To this list of racial gaps we must now add the health disparities gap, including disparities by race in infant mortality, disease incidence, and longevity.

And consider these troubling observations about hopes and expectations by young African-American men and women that the Commission discovered. These lines were intended to describe conditions in the late 1960s; but they have great relevance for today’s environment in many American cities:

Frustrated hopes are the residue of the unfulfilled expectations aroused by the great judicial and legislative victories of the Civil Rights Movement and the dramatic struggle for equal rights in the South.

A climate that tends toward approval and encouragement of violence as a form of protest has been created by white terrorism directed against nonviolent protest; by the open defiance of law and federal authority by state and local officials resisting desegregation; and by some protest groups engaging in civil disobedience who turn their backs on nonviolence, go beyond the constitutionally protected rights of petition and free assembly, and resort to violence to attempt to compel alteration of laws and policies with which they disagree.

The frustrations of powerlessness have led some Negroes to the conviction that there is no effective alternative to violence as a means of achieving redress of grievances, and of “moving the system.” These frustrations are reflected in alienation and hostility toward the institutions of law and government and the white society which controls them, and in the reach toward racial consciousness and solidarity reflected in the slogan “Black Power.” (9)

The second point is particularly salient today in a political environment in which racial antagonisms have been encouraged by leading presidential candidates, and an encouraging nod has been offered to adherents willing to use violence against peaceful demonstrators at political rallies.

The report’s observations about failures of public school systems in segregated cities are particularly relevant to the city of Detroit, and a partial explanation of the growing sense of separation between white and black Michiganders and between Detroit and Lansing:

Education in a democratic society must equip children to develop their potential and to participate fully in American life. For the community at large, the schools have discharged this responsibility well. But for many minorities, and particularly for the children of the ghetto, the schools have failed to provide the educational experience which could overcome the effects of discrimination and deprivation.
This failure is one of the persistent sources of grievance and resentment within the Negro community. The hostility of Negro parents and students toward the school system is generating increasing conflict and causing disruption within many city school districts. But the most dramatic evidence of the relationship between educational practices and civil disorders lies in the high incidence of riot participation by ghetto youth who have not completed high school.

What have the succeeding five decades brought us? The twelve sources of grievance listed above are entirely relevant to today’s realities in Detroit, Chicago, or Cleveland. Youth unemployment, crisis conditions in public school systems, highly visible and recurring instances of excessive use of deadly force by police across the country, and ineffective political institutions are high on the list today in African-American communities in virtually all large American cities, including especially Detroit.

If we are honest about the facts of race in America, it is hard to claim that there is substantial progress in the key concerns of the Kerner Commission report. Here is one key finding in 1967: “Segregation and poverty have created in the racial ghetto a destructive environment totally unknown to most white Americans.” And in cities throughout the United States, this devastating reality persists. Racial residential segregation continues; there are continuing racial gaps in education, health, employment, and quality of life; and there continues to be a pattern of police violence against young black men. And, predictably, there is a rising level of anger and disaffection among many millions of young people whose lives are limited by these basic facts. We need to re-read the Kerner Commission report; and we need to act on its wise recommendations.

Hofstadter on the American right

Richard Hofstadter opened his 1963 Herbert Spencer Lecture at Oxford with these prescient words:

Although American political life has rarely been touched by the most acute varieties of class conflict, it has served again and again as an arena for uncommonly angry minds. Today this fact is most evident on the extreme right wing, which has shown, particularly in the Goldwater movement how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority. Behind such movements there is a style of mind, not always right-wing in its affiliations, that has a long and varied history. I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the qualities of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind. (3)

This lecture became the title essay of The Paranoid Style in American Politics. Its emphasis on “uncommonly angry minds” is of obvious relevance to the politics of the right in the United States today. There is more that has a great resonance today:

But there is a vital difference between the para noid spokesman in politics and the clinical paranoiac: although they both tend to be overheated, oversuspicious, overaggres sive, grandiose, and apocalyptic in expression, the clinical paranoid sees the hostile and conspiratorial world in which he feels himself to be living as directed specifically against him; whereas the spokesman of the paranoid style finds it directed against a nation, a culture, a way of life whose fate affects not himself alone but millions of others…. His sense that his political passions are unselfish and patriotic, in fact, goes far to intensify his feeling of righteousness and his moral indignation. (4)

Hofstadter mentions the particular objects of paranoid wrath in the 1950s and 1960s: gun control, fluoridation of municipal water, and international Communist conspiracy. Most especially, the paranoid philosophy is nativist; it directs fear and hostility against “others” (in the first half of the twentieth century in the United States, Masons, Catholics, and Mormons, for example; 9). We can hear these same strands of thought to be expressed in current political bigotry against immigrants, Muslims, and transgendered people.

Hofstadter offers perspective on this strand of American political thought from an historian’s point of view. He takes up the American campaign against Illuminism and Masonry in the early part of the nineteenth century as an example.

The anti-Masonic movement of the late 1820’s and 1830’s took up and extended the obsession with conspiracy. At first blush, this movement may seem to be no more than an exten sion or repetition of the anti-Masonic theme sounded in the earlier outcry against the Bavarian Illuminati–and, indeed, the works of writers like Robison and Barruel were often cited again as evidence of the sinister character of Masonry.  But whereas the panic of the 1790’s was confined mainly to New England and linked to an ultra-conservative argument, the later anti-Masonic movement affected many parts of the northern United States and was altogether congenial to popu lar democracy and rural egalitarianism. (14)

So what about the content of paranoid politics in the twentieth century?

If we now take the long jump to the contemporary right wing. we find some rather important differences from the nineteenth-century movements. The spokesmen of those earlier movements felt that they stood for causes and personal types that were still in possession of their country–that they were fending off threats to a still well-established way of life in which they played an important part. But the mod ern right wing. as Daniel Bell has put it, feels dispossessed: America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion. The old Amer ican virtues have already been eaten away by cosmopolitans and intellectuals; the old competitive capitalism has been gradually undermined by socialist and communist schemers; the old national security and independence have been de stroyed by treasonous plots, having as their most powerful agents not merely outsiders and foreigners but major states men seated at the very centers of American power. Their predecessors discovered foreign conspiracies; the modem radical right finds that conspiracy also embraces betrayal at home. (23-24)

Hofstadter believed that mass media had a lot to do with the deepening influence of paranoid politics in the 1960s; it isn’t difficult to argue that social media takes that influence to an even greater pitch in the current environment.

He closes the essay with yet another astute observation very relevant to contemporary right-wing rhetoric:

In American experience, ethnic and religious conflicts, with their threat of the submergence of whole systems of values, have plainly been the major focus for militant and suspicious minds of this sort, but elsewhere class conflicts have also mobilized such energies. The paranoid tendency is aroused by a confrontation of opposed interests which are (or are felt to be) totally irreconcilable, and thus by nature not susceptible to the normal political processes of bargain and compromise. The situation becomes worse when the representatives of a particular political interest–perhaps because of the very un realistic and unrealizable nature of their demands–cannot make themselves felt in the political process. Feeling that they have no access to political bargaining or the making of deci sions, they find their original conception of the world of power as omnipotent, sinister, and malicious fully confirmed. They see only the consequences of power–and this through distorting lenses–and have little chance to observe its actual machinery. L. B. Namier once said that “the crowning attain ment of historical study” is to achieve “an intuitive sense of how things do not happen.” It is precisely this kind of awareness that the paranoid fails to develop. He has a special resist ance of his own, of course, to such awareness, but circumstances often deprive him of exposure to events that might enlighten him. We are all sufferers from history, but the paranoid is a double sufferer, since he is afflicted not only by the real world, with the rest of us, but by his fantasies as well. (39-40)

This is brilliant diagnosis of the political psychology of reaction, very much in line with Fritz Stern’s analysis of the politics of cultural despair in the context of Weimar Germany (link). What Hofstadter does not clearly distinguish here is the political psychology of followers and leaders.  But much about mass political mobilization turns on this point. Much of what seems to have transpired in the current political season is the artful orchestration of messages of fear, resentment, and antagonism along the lines of paranoid politics that Hofstadter describes. Antagonism and suspicion appear to be powerful motivators in a mass movement, and scapegoating of minority groups is a familiar and repugnant strategy. These messages have succeeded in motivating followers and voters in support of candidates espousing these messages. What is unclear is what political values actually motivate the candidates; and it is fair enough to speculate that there is a substantial degree of cynical manipulation at work in the message mills of the right in creating a movement around these hateful and suspicious themes.

These are important historical observations by Hofstadter, and they seem to shed a great deal of light on the political rhetoric and successes of the right in the United States over the past fifty years. They capture important insights into the mentality and rhetoric of the political passions that have animated a lot of political activity, both electoral and social, throughout the past half century. They point to the underpinnings of suspicion, hatred, and alienation which seem to drive the bus on the extreme right. And what was on the “extreme” right a decade ago has become mainstream conservatism today. It seems crucial for the future of our democracy to reawaken the political values of trust, mutual acceptance, and equality which are so fundamental to stable and sustainable civic peace within a mass democracy. Significantly, this was the core political message of Barack Obama in 2008.

(There is a thread here that I haven’t mentioned but may also be illuminating — Hofstadter’s analysis of American political consciousness seems to shed some indirect light on the Bernie Sanders phenomenon as well. Hofstadter notes several times above that class conflict has not been a prominent theme in American politics. But perhaps part of the appeal of the Sanders candidacy is exactly his ability to speak about the one percent in ways that resonate with younger voters; and this is a class-based message. Wouldn’t it be interesting if large numbers of young and poor voters in the United States became active in support of their longterm economic interests.)

%d bloggers like this: