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.