Know Your Place in Our Republic

Understanding American Domestic Terrorism: Mobilization Potential and Risk Factors of a New Threat Trajectory
Robert A. Pape and the Chicago Project on Security and Threats

We live in binary times.

We also like to think that’s unique.

I’m not so certain. Roundheads and Cavaliers. Sans-culottes and aristocrats. Montagnards and Girondins. The Wobblies and the AFL. Pick a period, pick a place and I’ll show you two teams.

That, and a good stern talking-to by an anthropologist friend who cares, has enabled me to maintain use of the word tribal in its proper context. Because what we see in our current politics is not, I submit, rooted in the dynamics of small closely-related homogenous groups. What it more closely resembles, at least to me, is the rabid passions exhibited by the fans of sports teams.

Organized athletic competitions started in antiquity. It’s not a stretch to picture the earliest hominids foot-racing. Organizing teams, traveling between cities and campuses, selling tickets, paying players and generating fan loyalty that can extend to painting one’s face or torso in the team colors? You need modern society to create and sustain that sort of commitment.

The fans of each team-nation may have a unique language.  But they share a common approach to pronouns I associate with rabid fandom: the use of the first person plural. “We need better pitching.” “We better pull it together in the second half.” “We’re having a rough season.” The boundary between the entertainer-athletes and the fans is blurred, at least in the minds of the fans. I’d be surprised if anyone on the pitch, field, gridiron, floorboards or ice thinks the fans are part of the athletic, as opposed to the commercial, enterprise.

Some folks (click the image to see an example) think Chuck Jones was aiming for comedy or commerce. I think it was a send-up.

For some people–and in an earlier time, I’d have counted myself among them–politics serves as a spectator sport. Except that the barrier between the fans and the players has always been more porous. The more fervent one’s political beliefs, the more the idea that opponents could oppose each other and yet be friends was as improbable as, well, the post-workday friendship of Chuck Jones‘  Sam Sheepdog and Ralph Wolf.

In politics, though, the fans vote. That means they pick the players. Consequently, the line between the two has faded to virtual nonexistence.

One result is January 6.

That day, a significant number of people who had come to believe the officials had been bought off decided they needed to remind everyone who really controls the game. That these folks were a subgroup of a larger polity hardly mattered. They knew the rules. They knew only their team was capable of winning. They knew something had to be done about the obvious tampering. So they acted.

The question thus arises: was the reaction to the 2020 election a unique set of circumstances? Or has something happened in our society that we need to worry about in the next election cycle?

You don’t have to look very far to find countless numbers of people answering the second question in the affirmative. The Bulwark, started after the demise of The Weekly Standard, was early to the game from the conservative side. In the January 2022 issue, The Atlantic weighs in from the center-left. Neither picture is pretty.

I’d recommend Barton Gellman‘s cover story in The Atlantic as a place to start thinking about the question of our near political future. Or if you have a commute and podcasts figure in it, listen to his conversation with The Bulwark’s Charlie Sykes. He covers the same ground. It was in his article that I first learned of Robert Pape’s work.

It’s really worth your time to read this. Just click the image above.

It’s not that I didn’t find the journalism compelling; I found it disturbing. In general, I think it’s a good idea to check sources. When those sources are social science and involve the methods and subjects I’ve studied, I feel obligated to dust off the old toolset. Besides, the dry language of social science might soothe my concerns.

Fat chance. The document (linked to here) is actually a PowerPoint presentation that summarizes three specific studies. It contains more than one sentence like this one, presented as Specific Finding #3 from the first study:

Storming the US Capitol was an act of collective political violence, inspired by a leader, President Trump, and not merely vandalism or trespassing for other purposes. ”
                                                                                                     Slide 41

While I’d welcome the opportunity to dive deeply into the collected data, the summaries, examples and methodological statements presented here provide more than enough to chew on. The work is solid and inarguable. Would I have liked to see a journal-style results table or the ANOVA? Sure. Do I need to? No.

This presentation gathers data collected in the first months of 2021. The researchers have regularly updated their initial study, which focuses on individuals arrested for their activities in January. Those data have been regularly updated though July. That most recent update ought to be read in conjunction with the April release. For skeptics, it’s a demonstration of how to define all the information incorporated in the study, and of how to address factual changes as data are updated.

The survey data presented in Studies 2 and 3 are intended to help understand the prevalence of beliefs such as those held by the people arrested on January 6. Those are of forward-looking interest. But I found myself dwelling on Study 1, which focuses on the arrested folks. Like many others, I’ve wondered who these people are, sometimes if we even inhabit the same country.

Outside the US Capitol, 1/6/2021
Photo by Tyler Merbler from the USA
CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Fact is, the group these people least resemble is the typical person arrested for political violence in the first 19 years of the century. These were not young unemployed men playing dress-up with their militia friends. They were unaffiliated, educated, established professionals and corporate managers from small and mid-sized cities and the fringes of bigger cities.

I didn’t find it strange that states and counties that voted for Donald Trump were less likely to have been home to a protester who turned violent. Such places are secure. In fact,  the most impactful variable is how much change was seen in the non-Hispanic white population of the detainees’ counties.

I won’t say it’s race so much as fear of change. Rural origin turns out to be unimportant. Living in a second or third-tier city worrying about when it becomes the next Chicago may well be the best marker of who’s likely to be susceptible to the Lorelei of political mayhem.

I wish I could say the conclusions the researchers draw are a stretch. The best I can do is muster a half-hearted protest at the possible size of the population willing to take up arms on behalf of their political beliefs. The low-end figure, 3.6 million, is troublingly high, but almost any significant fraction of it is equally so.

“What Doctor, what do we have, a republic or a monarchy?”
“A republic, if you can keep it.”

The higher-end estimate is unimaginable. Were a force of such size to mobilize, the United States as I’ve known it in my lifetime and through my reading of history, would cease to exist.

That’s not a pleasant thought and not just because I have kids who will inherit this mess. The United States is a flawed country that has made mistakes both within and outside its borders. At its best, though, the promise, the ideals and the actual quality of life here have been a beacon to millions.

That I’ve accepted such hackneyed thinking is not just a result of my age. It’s to accept that there’s some truth in even the hoariest of cliches.

Benjamin Franklin said we have a republic if we can keep it. The choice is ours.






Beat the Retreat

The Retreat of Western Liberalism
Edward Luce

Reading shouldn’t be a performative act. Peruse the list of titles on my Books page and you’ll find scant evidence of a grind, totally focused on the great ‘work’ of reading.

Truth is, I read plenty of high carb, low protein junk. But just like someone on the cookie diet, in the deepest recesses of my mind, where the truth lives, I know I’m cutting corners and taking the easier path. So you might not be surprised that the serious-looking title pictured nearby is a well-disguised byway of that ramble.

Don’t take my word for it. Our author tells us as much:


‘The West’s crisis is real, structural and likely to persist. Nothing is inevitable. Some of what ails the West is within our power to fix. Doing so means understanding exactly how we got here. It would also require a conscious effort to look at the world from unfamiliar viewpoints and admit the West has no monopoly on truth or virtue. … My guess is it will take you roughly three hours.” (p. 16)

That’s quite a promise. Hemispheric/structural/political crisis. Globally-informed solution. Three hours. It’s practically guaranteed to make a person who considers themselves a thoughtful citizen of planet earth find a quiet place and dig in. The rewards beckon.

I am here to remind you, in cliché-drenched terms, that there are no free lunches and that hard work is its own reward.

Mr. Luce is a former speechwriter in the Clinton Administration‘s Treasury Department who went on to write for The Financial Times. He has an easy, comprehensible style backed by an Oxford education. He avails himself of the trappings of scholarship such as a ‘Notes’ section that’s also the bibliography.

Nowadays, authoritarians come dressed in a well-tailored suit. Hungary’s Viktor Orbán.

I know, I’m carping on small details. But they aren’t. What I’m holding, bound between hard covers, is not a weighty tome. It’s a highly competent–if scantily documented–senior project delivered in the Honors section of an esteemed university. Maybe the alums of such schools are the intended audience.

Again, lest you think I am making too much of  a small point, contrast the above quote with this one from a source Luce credits, Francis Fukuyama‘s The End of History and the Last Man:

“This Hegelian understanding of the meaning of contemporary liberal democracy differs in a significant way from the Anglo-Saxon understanding that was the theoretical basis of liberalism in countries like Britain and the United States. In that tradition, the prideful quest for recognition was to be subordinated to enlightened self-interest….” (p. xviii)

See, professor and student. Sure, Luce did the reading. He even appears to have understood the reading. But why, I flail myself, did I waste the three-plus hours on Luce when I could have invested them in Fukuyama?

(Full disclosure, I avoided the Fukuyama book upon publication though I’ve read articles and papers since. I grabbed the quote off Amazon because I knew I could find an appropriate one quickly. I suspect that’s how many students not wearing hairshirts approach their work these days.)

The right isn’t always male and isn’t always authoritarian. But it is usually nationalist. Marie Le Pen (& Marianne).

Okay, I’m done complaining. What has Mr. Luce come to tell us? First, we are witnessing an assault on tradition. Here he makes an important distinction that is often lost in the current continuum of moderate → liberal → progressive. Liberal democracy is rooted in the concept of liberty, more specifically in how individual freedom is retained and maximized in spite of the necessary formation of a state.

Poli Sci students should recognize that idea, which goes back to John Locke, though it seems sadly missing today. It is also distinctly Western in the sense of “Western Civilization” being a real thing and not just a construct that serves as a whipping boy for more enlightened perspectives.

Both political extremes forget this. America’s most conservative Conservatives have reverted to a Hobbesian worldview of all-against-all requiring an absolute sovereign to overcome threats while the most liberal liberals are quite happy to employ the power of the state to control individual behaviors.

That internal tension–maybe division is a more appropriate word–is exacerbated by the economic rise of new players. I use ‘new’ merely in terms of the modern global economy. Both China and India, as Luce demonstrates, are ancient civilizations, far older than our Western liberal tradition and not built on the same ancient intellectual foundation. The great mistake Prof. Fukuyama made in the early 1990s was extrapolating too far into the future.

The Left can be no less absolute. Do we really need to mandate how we use pronouns?

As far as this analysis goes, I don’t disagree with Luce at all. I’m not even sure I disagree with how he ties this into the current state of the West. The Right, embracing the metaphor of battle, has identified the external threats and is ready to render democracy a quaint curiosity that can’t be preserved if the people are to be saved.

There ‘s plenty of evidence for that. Viktor Orbán in Hungary. Recep Erdoğan in Turkey. Marie Le Pen‘s National Front in France. Even, arguably, some supporters of the Trump Administration.  Luce quotes Didier Eribon on LePen’s supporters, “ I’m convinced that voting for the National Front must be interpreted, at least in part, as the final recourse of people of the working classes attempting to defend their collective identity, or to defend, in any case, a dignity that was being trampled on.”
(P. 110)

The problem is not local. Nor is it only of the right. Luce is nothing if not even-handed. My Progressive friends will recoil at this statement: “But by giving a higher priority to the politics of ethnic identity than people’s common interests, the American left helped to create what it feared.”  (P. 97) As I read this book I thought about Mark Illa’s, and I couldn’t be sure that a return to New Deal or even JFK pre-Great Society politics was possible.

This isn’t a picture of what Locke had in mind. It is political assembly. And the nationalist trappings are, of course, present.

The solution, though, is not necessarily clear. The fear that drives the growth of more authoritarian government is economic insecurity. In this telling, corporations face an existential threat because they must be subordinated to the maintenance of the civilization if not the country. How do you unwind a quarter century’s worth of integrated, intricate supply lines?

You have a headache, right? It is a maddening situation. The authoritarians appall me, the kumbaya crowd strikes me as hopelessly naive, and we’re all at each other’s throats anyway.

I have no crystal ball, though I do like to think I take our civic and civilizational life seriously. If you feel similarly, but are intimidated by shelves full of books by professors, this might be the book for you.

If you’re looking for a blazingly new insight that had eluded you until now, I’m afraid you’ll have to keep looking.



Doctor, Doctor Give Me the News

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century
Timothy Snyder

Had I not misread an email notice you’d be reading something else right now.

Leave aside the preconceptions buried in that sentence, though, and turn your attention to this latest instance of what I’m thinking of calling instant publishing.

If that brings to mind the freeze-dried crystals that a college friend ate by the tablespoonful to ward off the Continue reading

Help Me Find My Mind

How the Right Lost It’s Mind
Charles J. Sykes

Stories are powerful. So indulge me in a story.

Once upon a time, I didn’t have a smart phone. I carried a BlackBerry for work, and my trusty flip phone, but I left the iPhones and Androids to others. When asked why, I Continue reading

Sharif Don’t Like It

The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror
Bernard Lewis

It isn’t always easy, amid all this demonizing, to remember there was a time when the world east of the Bosporus beckoned.

Even though the charges of imperialism, cultural appropriation, and intolerance stand up to some scrutiny, you can’t deny the existence or effectiveness Continue reading

Article I. Section 8.

Emphasis added:

“The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States; Continue reading

Those Who Lead

“Presidential Leadership & The Separation of Powers”
Eric A. Posner
Daedalus, Summer 2016

Binary thinking irks me.

Just consider the state of political discourse in the US. One side advocates for restricting unwelcome speech and, at times, seems to think that only wholesale rebuilding of the American system into a parliamentary one will result in the desired, I’m tempted to say proper, Continue reading

They’ll be Calling You a Radical

The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics
Mark Lilla

My empathic capacity, evidently, is bigger than I thought because in addition to philosophers and historians I’m beginning to feel sorry for liberals.

I’d be less than honest, though, if I didn’t admit thoroughly enjoying this brief, well-reasoned skewering of current leftish pieties. Although it never quite reaches the level of Stalinist/Trotskyite rancor, Lilla’s book is Continue reading

Watch the Parking Meters

Leadership–It’s a System Not a Person
Barbara Kellerman
Daedalus, Summer 2016

By now it should be apparent I rarely seek information where everyone else does. I don’t even really look for it. I just tend to stumble across things and find a use for them later.

That’s certainly the case with the Summer 2016 issue of Daedalus, the journal of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. In what has to be one of the more fortuitous Continue reading