Right-wing extremism and the covid-19 crisis

No one needs to be brought up to date on the devastation already wrought by Covid-19, in the United States, in Europe, and in other parts of the world, and more is almost certain to come in the next two years. The virus is highly contagious in social settings — not as contagious as measles, but more so than other viral diseases. It has a high mortality rate for older individuals, but it kills patients of every age. It can be spread by persons who do not yet show symptoms — perhaps even by people who will never develop symptoms. The disease has the great potential of overwhelming health systems in regions where it strikes hardest — northern Italy, New York City, Britain, Detroit. There is no effective treatment for severe cases of the disease, and there is no vaccine currently available. This is the pandemic that sane governments have feared and prepared for, for many years. Ali Khan, an experienced and long-serving leader on infectious disease at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, provides vivid descriptions of the background scientific and public health infrastructure needed to contain viral outbreaks like ebola, monkeypox, MERS, and SARS (The Next Pandemic: On the Front Lines Against Humankind’s Gravest Dangers). (Here is a list of possible global virus threats by the World Health Organization (link).

It is therefore plain to any sensible person that government-enforced public health measures are required in order to slow the spread of this disease. Countries that were slow to take the pandemic seriously and establish strong measures designed to slow the infection rate — like the United States and Great Britain — have reaped the whirlwind; the United States now has the highest number of Covid-19 cases in the world (link). And the stakes are incredibly high. The 1918 Spanish flu, for example, hit the city of Philadelphia with savage effect because the mayor decided not to cancel the Liberty Loan parade on September 28, 1918 (link); whereas cities like St. Louis made different decisions about public gatherings and had much lower levels of influenza.

The governors of most states in the United States have enacted physical distancing orders mandating “stay-at-home” requirements, business closures, closures of public places, and restrictions on public gatherings. And these measures have worked, on the whole. The governor of Michigan, my home state, for example, has assembled a world-class team of scientific and health advisers concerning the details of the shut-down orders, and a highly respected committee of business and health system leaders to work on developing a strategy for reopening the state in a way that does the best job possible of protecting the health of our ten million citizens. And the curve has flattened.

But now we come to the right-wing protests that have occurred in Lansing and other state capitals around the country (linklink). Guns, extremist placards, threatening behavior, and an armed invasion of the floor of the Michigan state house — what in the world is going on here? Protest of government policy is one of the fundamental rights of citizenship — of course. But why heavily armed protesters? Why racist, white-supremacist groups in the crowd? Why the hateful, vitriolic language towards elected officials? What are the underlying political motivations — and organizational resources — of these protests?

Cas Mudde has a perceptive analysis in the Guardian (link). His recent book The Far Right Today provides the broader context. Mudde sees the anti-lockdown demonstrations as being largely about Donald Trump’s increasingly desperate efforts to win reelection. Mudde calls out the financial ties that exist between these demonstrations and well-funded not-for-profit Republican organizations linked to Betsy DeVos (link).

And indeed, these protests look a lot like Trump campaign rallies, calling the faithful in “battleground” states. The hats, slogans, and behavior make it clear that these protesters are making a political statement in favor of their president. And the president has returned the compliment, describing these protests as reasonable, and encouraging more. The president’s behavior is, as usual, horrible. The idea that the president of the United States is actively seeking to interfere with the performance of the governors of many states in their duties of preserving the health and safety of their citizens, after himself failing abysmally to prepare or respond to the pandemic, is something out of a dystopian novel. Here is how Mudde describes the political strategy underlying this approach:

For Trump, the anti-lockdown protests provide him with visible popular support for his Covid-19 strategy. For the sake of his re-election, he is keen to move discussion from public health to the economy. Given that a clear majority of Americans support the stay-at-home policies, Trump needs the momentum to shift. The protests can help him, by taking his struggle from the White House to the streets, and thereby to the media. (link)

Where does the gun-toting extremism come into this political activism? One obvious strand of this “movement” is the extremist anti-government ideology that brought world attention to the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge takeover in 2016. These are radical militia adherents, rejecting the authority of the Federal government in all of its actions, and willing to overtly threaten the lives of others in their activism. Brandishing semi-automatic weapons is not political theatre; it is not “simply an assertion of second amendment rights”; it is a deliberate effort to intimidate and frighten the rest of society. And it is hard to avoid the question — what if these were anarchist protesters in black masks carrying semi-automatic weapons? Or Black Panthers? And what if the venue were the entrance to the White House, or the entrance to the Capitol Building in Washington? How would conservative Republicans react to these scenarios?

Another stream, not entirely distinct from the first, is the persistent and growing white supremacist movement in the right wing of conservative politics. Their involvement in these protests is opportunistic, but their potentially violent opposition to democratically elected government is in common. Here is a report by the Southern Poverty Law Center about involvement by extremist nationalist group the Proud Boys in the anti-lockdown demonstrations; link. Here is a snippet from the SPLC report:

Even though the Proud Boys weren’t behind efforts to get the protests off the ground, they quickly realized their value. They are the perfect platform for the proto-fascist group to make the case that the will of a small minority of Americans – the hyper-individualistic “patriots” who attend these rallies – should supersede democratic processes, and that individual desires should trump the collective public good. The protests also provide other benefits: the chance to launch their ideas into wider right-wing circles, further cement their status as core members of the Trump coalition, build relationships with local politicians and gain attention from outlets like Fox News.

(Neil MacFarquhar and Adam Goldman’s coverage in the New York Times of the white-supremacist terrorist organization, the Base, is sobering reading; link.)

It is certainly true that the pandemic is creating huge economic suffering for millions of Americans (and Europeans, Indians, Brazilians, …). People are suffering, and some much more than others. Poor people, hourly workers, small farmers, gig workers, and people of color are disproportionately victims to the economic recession, and people of color are vastly over-represented among the infected population and the death rolls of the disease. Closures of businesses have led to vast numbers of unemployed men and women. But notably, these demonstrations in Lansing and elsewhere don’t seem to be supported by the constituencies most at risk in the economic shutdown; the participants who show up to flaunt their guns and their reckless disregard for social distancing seem to be mostly angry activists pursuing their own agendas.

So an answer to the fundamental question here — why are we seeing this surge of right-wing extremist protests to pandemic policies? — seems to involve three related factors: political supporters of Donald Trump (President Trump’s efforts to normalize the pandemic and attack Democratic governors who are doing something about it); anti-government extremists who object to any exercise of the appropriate powers of the state; and opportunistic efforts by white supremacist organizations to capture the moment. Add to that the understandable concerns that citizens have about their immediate economic futures, and you have a combustible mixture. And the issue of trust in the institutions of government, raised in a recent post, is plainly relevant here as well; these extremist organizations are working very hard to undermine the trust that ordinary citizens have in the intentions, competence, and legitimacy of their elected officials.

Yes, the economic consequences of the pandemic are enormous. But the alternative is undoubtedly worse. Do nothing about physical distancing and the virus will sweep every state, every county, and every town. Experts believe that the unchecked virus would infect 20-60% of the globe’s population. And a conservative estimate of the mortality rate associated with the disease is on the order of 1%. Thomas Tsai, Benjamin Jacobson, and Ashish Jha do the math in Health Affairs (link), assuming a 40% infection rate. For the United States that implies an infected population within about eighteen months of about 98.9 million victims, 20.6 million hospitalizations, and 4.4 million patients needing treatment in ICUs. Both hospitalization rates and ICU demand greatly exceed the total stock available in the United States. Tsai et al do not provide a mortality estimate, but at a 1% mortality rate, this would amount to about a million deaths. It goes without saying that the health system, the food supply system, and virtually every aspect of our “normal” economy would collapse. So the only choice we have is rigorous physical distancing, a sound public health plan for cautiously restarting economic activity, massive increase in testing capacity, aggressive search for treatments and vaccine, and generous programs of Federal assistance to help our whole population make it through the hard times that are coming. And generosity needs to come from all of us — contributions to local funds for food and social assistance can make a big difference.

The democratic dilemma of trust

In 2007 Chuck Tilly published an intriguing historical and theoretical study of the politics of equality and voice, Democracy. The book is a study of the historical movements towards greater democracy — and likewise, the forces that lead to de-democratization. The threat currently posed to western democracies by the rise of radical populism makes it worthwhile thinking once more about some of these theories.

Here is the definition that Tilly offers for democracy throughout the book: “In this simplified perspective, a regime is democratic to the degree that political relations between the state and its citizens feature broad, equal, protected and mutually binding consultation” (13-14).

And here is how he defines these four crucial features of democratic institutions:

The terms broad, equal, protected, and mutually binding identify four partly independent dimensions of variation among regimes. Here are rough descriptions of the four dimensions:

  1. Breadth: From only a small segment of the population enjoying extensive rights, the rest being largely excluded from public politics, to very wide political inclusion of people under the state’s jurisdiction (at one extreme, every household has its own distinctive relation to the state, but only a few households have full rights of citizenship; at the other, all adult citizens belong to the same homogeneous category of citizenship)
  2. Equality: From great inequality among and within categories of citizens to extensive equality in both regards (at one extreme, ethnic categories fall into a well-defined rank order with very unequal rights and obligations; at the other, ethnicity has no significant connection with political rights or obligations and largely equal rights prevail between native-born and naturalized citizens)
  3. Protection: From little to much protection against the state’s arbitrary action (at one extreme, state agents constantly use their power to punish personal enemies and reward their friends; at the other, all citizens enjoy publicly visible due process)
  4. Mutually binding consultation: From non-binding and/or extremely asymmetrical to mutually binding (at one extreme, seekers of state benefits must bribe, cajole, threaten, or use third-party influence to get anything at all; at the other, state agents have clear, enforceable obligations to deliver benefits by category of recipient) (14-15)

It is interesting to observe that this definition of democracy gives all of its attention to the behavior of government and the relationship of government to its citizenry. But twentieth-century history, and the early decades of the twenty-first century, make it clear that anti-democracy dwells in citizens as well as authoritarian wielders of state power. The use of coercion and violence is not the monopoly of the state. In Fascists Michael Mann emphasizes the role of fascist paramilitary organizations in the rise of fascism in Germany, Italy, and other organizations, and their brutal use of violence against their “enemies”. And his treatment of ethnic cleansing in The Dark Side of Democracy: Explaining Ethnic Cleansing likewise makes it clear that the impulses of right-wing organizations in civil society can lead to murderous violence in contemporary settings as well. This appears to be relevant in India today, with the blending of BJP party organizations and extremist nationalist organizations in civil society in the fomenting of anti-Muslim violence. So anti-democratic impulses are by no means the terrain of authoritarian states only. Contemporary white supremacist organizations in the United States seem to represent exactly this kind of danger.

The definition and explications that Tilly offers here can be understood in a normative way. Higher scores in these four dimensions mean a better society — a more democratic society. But they can also be understood as contributing to a political psychology of democracy: “This is what it will take for a democracy to be stable and enduring.” Citizens need to have rights of participation; these rights need to be genuinely equal; citizens need to be protected from arbitrary state action; and important decisions of public policy need to be decided through institutions and rules that bind state actors. And they need to be confident in each of these conditions in their existing political institutions.

One of the factors that Tilly emphasizes in his account of political democracy is the role of trust — trust between rulers and citizens, and of course, between citizens and rulers. There is an intimate connection between trust and that crucial idea of democratic theory, “consent of the governed”. Paying taxes, obeying local laws, accepting conscription — these are all democratic duties; but they are also largely voluntary, in the sense that enforcement is sporadic and only partially effective. Participants need to trust that these duties apply to all citizens, and that everyone is, roughly speaking, accepting his or her share of the burdens. If the governed have lost trust in the political institutions that govern them, then their continuing consent is in question.

Here and elsewhere (Trust and Rule) Tilly puts a lot of his chips on his idea of “trust networks” as a primary vehicle of social trust. But here Tilly seems to miss the boat a bit. He does not address the broad question of institutional trust; rather, his trust concepts all fall at the more local and individual-to-individual end of the spectrum. He characterizes trust as a relationship (81), which is fair enough; but the terms of the relationship are other individuals, not institutions or practices.

Trust networks, to put it more formally, contain ramified interpersonal connections, consisting mainly of strong ties, within which people set valued, consequential, long-term resources and enterprises at risk to the malfeasance, mistakes, or failures of others. (81)

Trust networks gain political importance when they intersect with patron-client relationships with governing elites; groups are able to secure benefits when their network is able to negotiate a favorable settlement of a policy issue, and then deliver the behavior (voting, demonstrations, public support) of the individuals within the trust network in question. This might be an ethnic or racial group, a regional association (farmers, small business owners), or a political advocacy movement (environmentalists, anti-tax activists). So trust is involved in making government work in these circumstances; but it is not trust between citizen and government, but rather among citizens within their own trust networks, and between the powerful and the spokespersons of these networks (link).

In fact, current mistrust in government seems to rest heavily on trust networks within the right: trust in Fox News, trust in Breitbart, trust in the organizations and leaders of the right, trust in the extended network represented by the Tea Party, trust in fellow members of various right-wing organizations who may be neighbors or Twitter sources.

But the challenge to our current democratic institutions seems to have to do with a loss of institutional trust — trust, confidence, and reliance in our basic institutions.

So the question here is this: why have large segments of the populations of western democracies lost a substantial amount of trust in the institutions of governance in their democracies? Why does the idea of a social contract in which everyone benefits from cooperation and public policy no longer have the grip that it needs to have if democracy is to thrive?

One answer seems evident, but perhaps too superficial: there has been a concerted campaign for at least fifty years of cultivating mistrust of government in the United States and other countries that has led to cynicism in many, rejection of government policy and the legitimacy of taxation in others, and loony resistance in others. (Think of the 2016 Malheur National Wildlife Refuge occupation, for example, and the extremist anti-government ideologies expressed by its activists.) This is propaganda, a deliberate effort to shape political attitudes and beliefs through the techniques of Madison Avenue. Grover Norquist’s explicit political goal was expressed in vivid terms: “My goal is to cut government in half in twenty-five years, to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.” This suggests that mistrust of government is due, in part anyway, to the results of a highly effective marketing campaign by conservatives aimed at producing exactly that mistrust in a significant portion of the population. The slogans and political language of extremist populism are chosen with exactly this effect in mind — to lead followers to despise and mistrust the “elites” who govern them in Washington (or Lansing, Albany, and Sacramento). It is genuinely shocking to see conservative activists challenging the legitimacy of state action in support of maintaining public health in the Covid-19 pandemic; if this is not a legitimate role for government, one wonders, what ever would be?

What gave conservatives and now right-wing populists and white nationalists the ability to mobilize significant numbers of citizens in support of their anti-government rhetoric? In Deeply Divided: Racial Politics and Social Movements in Postwar America McAdam and Kloos offer the basis for explaining the decline of trust in US politics to two fundamental issues — white resentment over the new politics of race from roughly 1960 forward (positioning some voters to believe they are no longer getting their fair share), and the rising levels of inequality of wealth, income, and quality of life in the United States (leading some voters to believe they have been left out of the prosperity of the late twentieth century). These general factors made political mobilization around a conservative, anti-government, and racialized politics feasible; and conservative GOP leaders eagerly stepped forward to make use of this political wedge. (McAdam and Kloos provide an astounding collection of quotes by Republican candidates for president against Barack Obama in vile, racist terms.) (Here are earlier discussions of McAdam and Kloos; linklinklink.)

So what features of political and social life are likely to enhance trust in basic social institutions? Tilly refers first to Robert Putnam’s discussions of civic engagement and social capital, in Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy and Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. But he is not satisfied with Putnam’s basic hypothesis — that greater civic engagement leads to greater trust in political institutions, and eventually to a broader level of consent among citizens. Instead, he turns to theorizing about the challenges of democratic governance by Mark Warren, which he summarizes as “the democratic dilemma of trust” (93), and the potential that deliberative democracy has for rekindling democratic trust.

The deliberative solution, which Warren himself prefers, bridges the gap by making democratic deliberation and trust mutually complementary: the very process of deliberation generates trust, but the existence of trust facilitates deliberation. (93)

But significantly, Tilly does not take this line of thought very far; and he doesn’t explicitly recognize that the trust to which Warren refers is categorically different from that involved in Tilly’s own concept of a trust network.

I am surprised to discover that I find Tilly’s treatment of democracy to be deficient precisely because it is too much in the realist tradition of political science (link). Tilly’s theories of politics and the state, and the relationship between state and citizen, are too much committed to the cost-benefit calculations of rulers and the governed. This places him in the middle of fairly standard “positive” theories of democracy that have dominated American political science for decades. Tilly pays no heed here — and I cannot think of broader treatments elsewhere in his writings — to the political importance of the “mystic chords of memory” and the “better angels of our nature“. Those were the words of Abraham Lincoln in his first inaugural address, and they refer to the political emotions and commitments that secure us to a set of political institutions that we support, not because of the narrow shopping list of benefits and burdens that they offer, but because of their fundamental justice and their compatibility with our ideals of equality and personhood. But surely a democracy depends ultimately and its ability to cultivate that kind of trust and commitment among many of its citizens. Chuck, you’ve let us down!

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Here are Abraham Lincoln’s closing words in his First Inaugural Address (March 4, 1861), expressing to his commitment to preserve the Union:

While the people retain their virtue, and vigilance, no administration, by any extreme of wickedness or folly, can very seriously injure the government, in the short space of four years.

My countrymen, one and all, think calmly and well, upon this whole subject. Nothing valuable can be lost by taking time. If there be an object to hurry any of you, in hot haste, to a step which you would never take deliberately, that object will be frustrated by taking time; but no good object can be frustrated by it. Such of you as are now dissatisfied, still have the old Constitution unimpaired, and, on the sensitive point, the laws of your own framing under it; while the new administration will have no immediate power, if it would, to change either. If it were admitted that you who are dissatisfied, hold the right side in the dispute, there still is no single good reason for precipitate action. Intelligence, patriotism, Christianity, and a firm reliance on Him, who has never yet forsaken this favored land, are still competent to adjust, in the best way, all our present difficulty.

In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The government will not assail you. You can have no conflict, without being yourselves the aggressors. You have no oath registered in Heaven to destroy the government, while I shall have the most solemn one to “preserve, protect and defend” it.

I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

Fascist attacks on democracy

The hate-based murders of at least nine young people in Hanau, Germany this week brought the world’s attention once again to right-wing extremism in Germany and elsewhere. The prevalence of right-wing extremist violence in Germany today is shocking, and it presents a deadly challenge to democratic institutions in modern Germany. Here is the German justice minister, quoted in the New York Times (link):

“Far-right terror is the biggest threat to our democracy right now,” Christine Lambrecht, the justice minister, told reporters on Friday, a day after joining the country’s president at a vigil for the victims. “This is visible in the number and intensity of attacks.”

Extremist political parties like the Alternative for Germany and the National Democratic Party (linklink) have moved from fringe extremism to powerful political organizations in Germany, and it is not clear that the German government has strategies that will work in reducing their power and influence. Most important, these parties, and many other lesser organizations, spread a message of populist hate, division, and distrust that motivates some Germans to turn to violence against immigrants and other targeted minorities. These political messages can rightly be blamed for cultivating an atmosphere of hate and resentment that provokes violence. Right-wing populist extremism is a fertile ground for political and social violence; hate-based activism leads to violence. (Here is an excellent report from the BBC on the political messages and growing political influence of AfD in Germany (link).)

Especially disturbing for the fate of democracy in Germany is the fact that there is a rising level of violence and threat against local elected officials in Germany over their support for refugee integration. (Here is a story in the New York Times (2/21/20) that documents this aspect of the crisis; link.) The story opens with an account of the near-fatal attack in 2015 on Henriette Reker, candidate for mayor of Cologne. She survived the attack and won the election, but has been subject to horrendous death threats ever since. And she is not alone; local officials in many towns and municipalities have been subjected to similar persistent threats. According to the story, there were 1,240 politically motivated attacks against politicians and elected officials (link). Of these attacks, about 33% are attributed to right-wing extremists, about double the number attributed to left-wing extremists. Here is a summary from the Times story:

The acrimony is felt in town halls and village streets, where mayors now find themselves the targets of threats and intimidation. The effect has been chilling. 

Some have stopped speaking out. Many have quit, tried to arm themselves or taken on police protection. The risks have mounted to such an extent that some German towns are unable to field candidates for leadership at all. 

“Our democracy is under attack at the grass-roots level,” Ms. Reker said in a recent interview in Cologne’s City Hall. “This is the foundation of our democracy, and it is vulnerable.” 

This is particularly toxic for the institutions of democratic governance, because the direct and obvious goal is to intimidate government officials from carrying out their duties. This is fascism.

What strategies exist that will help to reduce the appeal of right-wing extremism and the currents of hatred and resentment that these forms of populism thrive on? In practical terms, how can liberal democracies (e.g. Germany, Britain, or the United States) reduce the appeal of white supremacy, nationalism, racism, and xenophobia while enhancing citizens’ commitment to the civic values of equality and rule of law?

One strategy involves strengthening the institutions of democracy and the trust and confidence that citizens have in those institutions. This is the approach developed in an important 2013 issue of Daedalus (link) devoted to civility and the common good. This approach includes efforts at improving civic education for young people. It also includes reforming political and electoral institutions in such a way as to address the obvious sources of inequality of voice that they currently involve. In the United States, for example, the prevalence of extreme and politicized practices of gerrymandering has the obvious effect of reducing citizens’ confidence in their electoral institutions. Their elected officials have deliberately taken policy steps to reduce citizens’ ability to affect electoral outcomes. Likewise, the erosion of voting rights in the United States through racially aimed changes to voter registration procedures, polling hours and locations, and other aspects of the institutions of voting provokes cynicism and detachment from the institutions of government. (McAdam and Kloos make these arguments in Deeply Divided: Racial Politics and Social Movements in Postwar America.)

Second, much of the appeal of right-wing extremism turns on lies about minorities (including immigrants). Mainstream and progressive parties should do a much better job of communicating the advantages to the whole of society that flow from diversity, talented immigrants, and an inclusive community. Mainstream parties need to expose and de-legitimize the lies that right-wing politicians use to stir up anger, resentment, and hatred against various other groups in society, and they need to convey a powerful and positive narrative of their own.

Another strategy to enhance civility and commitment to core democratic values is to reduce the economic inequalities that all too often provoke resentment and distrust across groups within society. Justin Gest illustrates this dynamic in The New Minority; the dis-employed workers in East London and Youngstown, Ohio have good reason to think their lives and concerns have been discarded by the economies in which they live. As John Rawls believed, a stable democracy depends upon the shared conviction that the basic institutions of society are working to the advantage of all citizens, not just the few (Justice as Fairness: A Restatement).

Finally, there is the police response. Every government has a responsibility to protect its citizens from violence. When groups actively conspire to commit violence against others — whether it is Baader-Meinhof, radical spinoffs of AfD, or the KKK — the state has a responsibility to uncover, punish, and disband those groups. Germany’s anti-terrorist police forces are now placing higher priority on right-wing terrorism than they apparently have done in the past, and this is a clear responsibility for a government with duty for ensuring the safety of the public (link). (It is worrisome to find that members of the police and military are themselves sometimes implicated in right-wing extremist groups in Germany.) Here are a few paragraphs from a recent Times article on arrests of right-wing terrorists:

BERLIN — Twelve men — one a police employee — were arrested Friday on charges of forming and supporting a far-right terrorism network planning wide-ranging attacks on politicians, asylum seekers and Muslims, the authorities said.

The arrests come as Germany confronts both an increase in violence and an infiltration of its security services by far-right extremists. After focusing for years on the risks from Islamic extremists and foreign groups, officials are recalibrating their counterterrorism strategy to address threats from within.

The arrests are the latest in a series of episodes that Christine Lambrecht, the justice minister, called a “very worrying right-wing extremist and right-wing terrorist threat in our country.”

“We need to be particularly vigilant and act decisively against this threat,” she said on Twitter. (link)

The German political system is not well prepared for the onslaught of radical right-wing populism and violence. But much the same can be said in the United States, with a president who espouses many of the same hate-based doctrines that fuel the rise of radical populism in other countries, and in a national climate where hate-based crimes have accelerated in the past several years. (Here is a recent review of hate-based groups and crimes in the United States provided by the Southern Poverty Law Center; link.) And, like Germany, the FBI has been slow to place appropriate priority on the threat of right-wing terrorism in the United States.

(This opinion piece in the New York Times by Anna Sauerbrey (link) describes one tool available to the German government that is not available in the United States — strong legal prohibitions of neo-Nazi propaganda and incitement to hatred:

“There is the legal concept of Volksverhetzung,” the incitement to hatred: Anybody who denigrates an individual or a group based on their ethnicity or religion, or anybody who tries to rouse hatred or promotes violence against such a group or an individual, could face a sentence of up to five years in prison.

Because of virtually unlimited protection of freedom of speech and association guaranteed in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights, these prohibitions do not exist in the United States. Here is an earlier discussion of this topic (link).)

Democracy and the politics of intolerance

A democracy allows government to reflect the will of the people. Or does it? Here I would like to understand a bit better the dynamics through which radical right populism has come to have influence, even dominance, in a number of western democracies — even when the percentage of citizens with radical right populist attitudes generally falls below the range of 35% of the electorate.

There are well known bugs in the ways that real democracies work, leading to discrepancies between policy outcomes and public preferences. In the United States, for example, we find:

  • Gerrymandered Congressional districts that favor Republican incumbents
  • Over-representation of rural voters in the composition of the Senate (Utah has as many senators as California)
  • Organized efforts to suppress voting by poor and minority voters
  • The vast influence of corporate and private money in shaping elections and public attitudes
  • An electoral-college system that easily permits the candidate winning fewer votes to nonetheless win the Presidency

So it is evident that the system of electoral democracy institutionalized in the United States is far from a neutral, formal system conveying citizen preferences onto outcomes in a fair and equal way. The rules as well as the choices are objects of contention.

But to understand the ascendancy of the far right in US politics we need to go beyond these defects. We need to understand the processes through which citizens acquire their political attitudes — thereby explaining their likelihood of mobilization for one party or candidate or another. And we need to understand the mechanisms through which elected representatives are pushed to the extreme positions that are favored by only a minority of their own supporters.

First, what are the mechanisms that lead to the formation of political attitudes and beliefs in individual citizens? That is, of course, a huge question. People have religious values, civic values, family values, personal aspirations, bits of historical knowledge, and so on, all of which come into play in a wide range of settings through personal development. And all of these value tags may serve as a basis for mobilization by candidates and parties. That is the rationale for “dog-whistle” politics — to craft messages that resonate with small groups of voters without being noticed by larger groups with different values. So let’s narrow it a bit: what mechanisms exist through which activist organizations and leaders can promote specific hateful beliefs and attitudes within a population with a range of existing attitudes, beliefs, and values? In particular, how can radical-right populist organizations and parties increase the appeal of their programs of intolerance to voters who are not otherwise pre-disposed to the extremes of populism?

Here the potency of appeals to division, intolerance, and hate is of particular relevance. Populism has almost always depended on a simplistic division between “us” and “them”. The rhetoric and themes of nationalism and racism represent powerful tools in the arsenal of populist mobilization, preying upon suspicion, resentment, and mistrust of “others” in order to gain adherents to a party that promises to take advantages away from those others. The right-wing media play an enormous role in promulgating these messages of division and intolerance in many countries. The conspiracy theories and false narratives conveyed by right-wing media and commentators are powerfully persuasive in setting the terms of political consciousness for millions of people. Fox News set the agenda for a large piece of the American electorate. And the experience of having been left out of a fair share of economic advantages leaves some segments of the population particularly vulnerable to these kinds of appeals. Finally, the under-currents of racism and prejudice are of continuing importance in the political and social identities of many citizens — again leaving them vulnerable to appeals that cater to these prejudices. This is how Breitbart News works. (An earlier post treated this factor; link.)

Let’s next consider the institutional mechanisms through which activist advocacy can be turned into disproportionate effects in legislation. Suppose Representative Smith has been elected on the Republican ticket in a close contest over his Democrat opponent with 51% of the vote. And suppose his constituency includes 15% extreme right voters, 20% moderate right voters, and 16% conservative-leaning independents. Why does Smith go on to support the agenda of the far right, who are after all only less than a third of his own supporters in his district? This results from a mechanism that political scientists seem to understand; it involves the dynamics of the primary system. The extreme right is highly activated, while the center is significantly less so. A candidate who moves to the center is in danger of losing his seat in the next primary to a far-right candidate who can depend upon the support of his or her activist base to defeat Smith. So the 15% of extreme-right voters determine the behavior of the representative. (McAdam and Kloos consider these dynamics in Deeply Divided: Racial Politics and Social Movements in Postwar America; link.)

Gerrymandering plays an important role in these dynamics as well. Smith doesn’t have to moderate his policy choices out of concern that he will lose the general election to a more moderate Democrat, because the Republican legislature in his state has ensured that this is a safe seat for the candidate chosen by the party.

So here we are — in a nation governed by an extreme-right party in control of both House and Senate, with a President espousing xenophobic and anti-immigrant intentions and a budget that severely cuts back on the social safety net, and dozens of state governments dominated by the same forces. And yet the President is profoundly unpopular, confidence in Congress is at an abysmal low point, and the majority of Americans favor a more progressive set of policies on women’s health, health policy, immigration, and international security than the governing party is proposing. How did democratic processes bring us to this paradoxical point?

In 1991 political scientist Sam Popkin published a short book called The Reasoning Voter: Communication and Persuasion in Presidential Campaigns. The title captures Popkin’s central hypothesis: that voters make choices on the basis of rational assessment of available evidence. What he adds to this old theory of democratic behavior is the proviso that often the principle of reasoning in question is what he calls “low-information rationality”. Unlike traditional rational-choice theories of political behavior, Popkin proposes to make use of empirical results from cognitive psychology — insights into how real people make practical decisions of importance. It is striking how much the environment of political behavior has changed since Popkin’s reflections in the 1980s and 1990s. “Most Americans watch some network television news and scan newspapers several times every week” (25). In a 2015 New Yorker piece on the populism of Donald Trump Evan Osnos quotes Popkin again — but this time in a way that emphasizes emotions rather than evidence-based rationality (link). The passage is worth quoting:

“The more complicated the problem, the simpler the demands become,” Samuel Popkin, a political scientist at the University of California in San Diego, told me. “When people get frustrated and irritated, they want to cut the Gordian knot.”

Trump has succeeded in unleashing an old gene in American politics—the crude tribalism that Richard Hofstadter named “the paranoid style”—and, over the summer, it replicated like a runaway mutation. Whenever Americans have confronted the reshuffling of status and influence—the Great Migration, the end of Jim Crow, the end of a white majority—we succumb to the anti-democratic politics of absolutism, of a “conflict between absolute good and absolute evil,” in which, Hofstadter wrote, “the quality needed is not a willingness to compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish. Nothing but complete victory will do.” Trump was born to the part. “I’ll do nearly anything within legal bounds to win,” he wrote, in “The Art of the Deal.” “Sometimes, part of making a deal is denigrating your competition.” Trump, who long ago mastered the behavioral nudges that could herd the public into his casinos and onto his golf courses, looked so playful when he gave out Lindsey Graham’s cell-phone number that it was easy to miss just how malicious a gesture it truly was. It expressed the knowledge that, with a single utterance, he could subject an enemy to that most savage weapon of all: us. (link)

The gist is pretty clear: populism is not primarily about rational consideration of costs and benefits, but rather the political emotions of mistrust, intolerance, and fear.

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