America is at War (with Itself)

Clouds of tear gas at a George Floyd protest in Washington DC. Photo courtesy of Tracy Lee.

America is at war—with itself. Not since the 1960s has the United States seen such widespread social upheaval, and political violence. Americans are scared, angry, vulnerable, tired, suspicious and divided. A dangerous confluence in the run-up to a presidential election.

Will violence escalate in the United States? What’s at the root of it, and what should be done?

On May 28, 2020, UC San Diego’s School of Global Policy and Strategy hosted the editors of Political Violence @ A Glance, for a conversation about domestic unrest in America. Here we share the edited transcript of the conversation between PV@G editors Erica Chenoweth, Christian Davenport, Barbara Walter, and Joe Young, and UC San Diego associate professor Jesse Driscoll.

Barbara Walter

Americans reacted very differently to COVID-19 based on whether politically they were on the left or the right. One clear example of this was the anger on the right about the federal government and varied state governments shutting down businesses. In Michigan, for example, the Michigan militia went to the statehouse in the capital, demanded entry, were given entry—despite the fact that many of them were openly carrying firearms, and demanded that the governor open up the state.

Is what we’re seeing a typical type of non-violent response, or are we beginning to see something new emerge?

Erica Chenoweth

Good question Barb, and thanks for convening us, and thanks to all of my dear friends and colleagues for being here. I’ve been reading a book by Frank Snowden called Epidemics and Society, and in that book, he makes clear that during every epidemic, there have been varying social responses. There have been people who resist restrictive measures, seeing them as either overbearing or essentially allowing too much accretion of state power. And there have been those who have protested over perceived inaction, lack of public safety measures, and lack of ability of their governments to intervene effectively.

What we are seeing here is in some ways representative of the processes that unfold in the context of epidemics, but it has its own American flavor, because it is combining with the polarization that has been dominate over the past number of years, as well as real and sincere grievances over the inequalities that have long existed and are now being brought even more into light, with the pandemic having such unequal effects across our society. So, the response has a sense of continuity, in terms of the pattern of protests and counter-protests, but it also intersects with some of our own social problems that are unique to our time.

Barbara Walter

You can’t talk about the response to COVID-19 without talking about race. It’s [COVID-19] disproportionally affected African Americans and Latinos; they’re the ones who are dying at much higher rates. And the irony is that the people who are generally protesting are people who come from rural areas, who are less affected; they are almost exclusively white, and most of them are male. To what degree does race play a role? Do you think President Trump would have reacted differently if the pandemic had disproportionately affected whites, rather than members of minority groups?

Christian Davenport

I don’t think we can talk about protests without talking about oppression. Those two are intimately connected. I can’t accept the premise of the question. And I don’t know if it’s nonviolent when people walk around with machine guns—loaded or not. So, I would question whether it’s nonviolent.

I don’t think we can talk about protests without talking about oppression.

Why aren’t you seeing black folk upset and out protesting in larger numbers, given the dynamics? I have two answers. One, we are used to dying disproportionately. It’s driving while black, running while black, going to the hospital while black. It’s suffering from racism and white supremacy. And those are not new and unfortunately, we are still dealing with that. A new generation has emerged to talk about police violence, but that goes back as well. I’ve seen NAACP reports from the early 1900s about black violence.

What I find interesting is your Trump question: would things be different if it were rural white folk who were dying? Help me out with the data, but I don’t know if he’s [Trump] got a great affinity with white, working-class people, or poorer white folks, than anybody has. I thought that it was disproportionately that white people were voting for him, but is he more sensitive to them? I don’t think he would necessarily be any more sensitive to that community dying either, given where he emerges on the capitalist sensitivity spectrum, for those who are suffering disproportionately from capitalism.

Barbara Walter

Anybody else want to jump in?

Jesse Driscoll

Yeah, I’ll take a stab at it. The rise of a white, working-class identity is one of the more discouraging trends of the last five years. A lot of people attribute it to Trump, but I don’t think that’s quite right. It’s closer to the truth to say that he has benefitted from it. There are a lot of people out there who are beginning to see themselves as a class or unified group with special interests that ought to be taken seriously.

A lot gets loaded into white supremacy. Because of the history of race relations in this country, there’s a large block of people who think they are at risk of losing their socially privileged, dominant position.

The rise of a white, working-class identity is one of the more discouraging trends of the last five years. A lot of people attribute it to Trump, but I don’t think that’s quite right. It’s closer to the truth to say that he has benefitted from it. There are a lot of people out there who are beginning to see themselves as a class or unified group with special interests that ought to be taken seriously.

If there were different demographics to the death, I think the incompetence of the government response in the opening stages would have been pretty much the same. But the messaging and the institutional response might well be different. It’s a tough counterfactual.

Erica Chenoweth

I wanted to riff off of something that Christian said. First of all, I totally agree that just because nobody got killed when Michigan militia members were occupying the statehouse doesn’t mean that it wasn’t a violent event. It was definitely an armed takeover of a public building. And those have been happening with increasing frequency over time in this country, not just during the pandemic.

Since Christian didn’t mention it, I want to call your attention to two of his research works that really help us understand what so many people are now acknowledging on social media and elsewhere, about the double standard between how we represent certain events as nonviolent or violent, depending on the race of the people protesting and the race of the people policing them. One of them is by Christian, Sara Soule, and David Armstrong, it’s called “Protesting While Black.” It’s a really important piece that talks about the effects of the race of the protestors on the way that the public defines and understands the events and the level of repression against the protestors.

just because nobody got killed when Michigan militia members were occupying the statehouse doesn’t mean that it wasn’t a violent event. It was definitely an armed takeover of a public building. And those have been happening with increasing frequency over time in this country, not just during the pandemic.

And the other one is with Dave Armstrong and Rose McDermott [Protest and Police Abuse: Racial Limits on Perceived Accountability] based on a survey experiment that helps us understand that when the protestors are black and the police are white, people are overwhelmingly supportive of repression against them—violent repression—even when the black protestors are using peaceful methods. But that can become more complicated if the protestors are white or if they are mixed in race, in which case the public is much more confused about who’s to blame and whether to label it as nonviolent or violent.

This gives us a little opening for understanding how important it is for white people to stand with black people when they are being assaulted. Because it changes the way that the public understands and narrates the nature of the conflict.

when the protestors are black and the police are white, people are overwhelmingly supportive of repression against them—violent repression—even when the black protestors are using peaceful methods. But that can become more complicated if the protestors are white or if they are mixed in race, in which case the public is much more confused about who’s to blame and whether to label it as nonviolent or violent.

This gives us a little opening for understanding how important it is for white people to stand with black people when they are being assaulted. Because it changes the way that the public understands and narrates the nature of the conflict.

Barbara Walter

That brings up a really good point: the protestors are almost exclusively white, they are being given access to the statehouse, they are basically being forgiven by our president. What does that mean in terms of where this movement—the alt-right movement—goes? Will that accelerate it? Are we more likely to see violence?

Christian Davenport

I don’t know that I would narrow down [what motivates] these white militias and these “open the economy back up” people and say that that’s the only contention going on. I think it’s a “people are sick and tired of being sick and tired” dynamic, times ten, because of all of these other daily problems that they’re having. I have a more encompassing view of the contention that is relevant for discussion.

And black folks clearly wish to open up, Latinos, anyone who’s living marginally and not generating any cash whatsoever—I’m sure that they want to open up as well. But I want to recast the discussion. Does anyone remember the industrialization of America? That’s the inflection point for me. The industrialization started, a whole bunch of people started losing jobs, and we just kind of let that fester. And that’s white, black, Latino, Asian, everybody. But how that got characterized within each community is interesting, and that has manifestations for the lack of interconnectedness that we’re seeing now, because not everyone’s seeing that as an inflection point for why we’re in the situation that we’re in—exacerbated by COVID-19. I see COVID-19 as the grand revealing, behind the curtain, kind of like a Wizard of Oz kind of a thing. Like: “If you weren’t paying attention, this is what’s going on in America.” And now we are looking around going, “Wow. Why is everyone so vulnerable? Why is everyone living paycheck to paycheck? What’s going on?”

I see COVID-19 as the grand revealing… Like: “If you weren’t paying attention, this is what’s going on in America.” … Why is everyone so vulnerable? Why is everyone living paycheck to paycheck?

That is a fascinating moment, but it speaks to which communities we are looking at and which ones we are seeing that are mobilizing, and which ones are not mobilizing. Because I put the mutual aid movement actually out there, as much—if not more so—than some of this isolated, contentious stuff. I would like Erica to speak to the size of these protests. To me, they look kind of small, and the majority of the population is still kind of compliant. I’m wondering if the news coverage exacerbated it as well.

Erica Chenoweth

About the escalation question, I can imagine a couple of different processes. The first is a process—where Joe has done research—where there’s state repression, and then, against what otherwise might be nonviolent protests by folks who are observing social-distancing but are coming out in key moments to express dissent, and who will be potentially repressed. That can sometimes create escalation effects and there can be some escalation of violence in those contexts. This is often how civil wars start—a precipitating event where nonviolent mobilization is brutally repressed by the state, and then there’s a small segment of people who think they must take up arms.

I don’t know that that’s the context we’re in, in this country right now, but the other process that is maybe closer to what we’re in now is where pro-government militias become more incorporated and organized by the state. You [Walter] said President Trump forgave the armed protestors, but I would say he actually encouraged them. He had Tweets calling for the liberation of these states from Democratic governors. This is a troubling trend that people who’ve studied white nationalism, white supremacy, and the alt-right in the United States have been noticing and expressing concern about since Trump was inaugurated. There is another related process where you have autonomous armed groups that engage in vigilante actions toward others in the country, which can also have escalation mechanisms.

The… process that is… closer to what we’re in now is where pro-government militias become more incorporated and organized by the state. You [Walter] said President Trump forgave the armed protestors, but I would say he actually encouraged them. He had Tweets calling for the liberation of these states from democratic governors. This is a troubling trend that people who’ve studied white nationalism, white supremacy, and the alt-right in the United States have been noticing and expressing concern about since Trump was inaugurated.

And the third kind of escalation would be outbidding, which could happen if there’s much more competitive dynamics, say, between right and left, where small fringe movements think they have to outdo one another by ramping up violence. That’s a process that Italy experienced during its democracy crisis in the 1970s and 1980s, that nearly brought down the Italian government.

The second dynamic is the one that more people are worried about. In part because I think it can have more devastating effects on communities if they aren’t equipped to protect themselves and have no meaningful institutional safeguards for their rights.

Joe Young

One thing I think we should highlight is that the protests we’re seeing around the quarantine are not all that novel. They’re quite similar to what we saw in the Tea Party. There’s nationalist rhetoric, anti-government rhetoric, pro-gun rhetoric, white nationalism, conspiracy theories—it’s not all that new.

the protests we’re seeing around the quarantine are not all that novel. They’re quite similar to what we saw in the Tea Party. There’s nationalist rhetoric, anti-government rhetoric, pro-gun rhetoric, white nationalism, conspiracy theories

What’s new is the anti-quarantine piece, but that’s like when you see a protest and there are a million different signs, and anti-quarantine is one of those signs.

What’s troubling is the fact that they’re threatening violence. You don’t bring a gun to a protest and occupy a state building and then think that’s nonviolent protest. By most definitions that’s terrorism

What’s troubling is the fact that they’re threatening violence. You don’t bring a gun to a protest and occupy a state building and then think that’s nonviolent protest. By most definitions that’s terrorism: you’re using violence to push your political cause.

Barbara Walter

Do you think COVID-19 or this particular crisis is acting as an accelerant for these groups? Once a vaccine is around and people can go back to their normal lives, will things just go back to how they were?

Joe Young

I think there is always this undercurrent in American society. We have this tension that Robert Putnam and other folks have talked about: communitarian feelings versus more individual feelings. And there are folks who think this is the violation of their individual liberties and that all ties in with guns and what have you. So, I don’t think that it will ever go away—I think we will always have this tension. It’s always a question of the proportion of people who are in this space and the proportion of those people who are willing to use violence. What worries me is what will happen post-2020 election.

Barbara Walter

Jesse, do you think Trump will lose the election?

Jesse Driscoll

I have no idea. I share Joe’s anxiety, though. Regardless of who loses, the losers are going to be spittin’ mad. That’s an existential concern for me, to be honest with you.

I want to add two points that I think are complementary with everything Joe said. The first is that if you want to think about the scholars who have been doing “big think” since Trump [was elected] about global populism, they draw attention to psychological variables about whether people perceive their physical security as threatened, and do people perceive their economic security as threatened?

We spend a lot of time on the COVID-19 conversation focused on physical security, because black bodies are dying. I don’t think many people have really gotten their heads around just what a global economic depression is going to look like.

Economic security is going to fall on the plate of whoever wins the election. Leaving aside the anger of the losers, the economic problem of how to handle a tax and transfer system afterward is going to be a very difficult redistributive politics problem. And all of the emotions that get poured on top of that are like gasoline on a fire, but the fire is also real—very real.

We spend a lot of time on the COVID-19 conversation focused on physical security, because black bodies are dying. I don’t think many people have really gotten their heads around just what a global economic depression is going to look like.

People have concerns about what is coming in the future and they’re projecting those concerns onto the present. All of this slow-moving resentment over status hierarchy stuff, that’s a glacial speed set of demographic transitions, which I think maybe cause some white people anxiety. But the economic problems are going to be much more short term, relative to that.

Barbara Walter

And what are the implications of those economic problems, Jessie?

Jesse Driscoll

I think a lot of people are going to get kicked out of their homes, don’t you?

Barbara Walter

Yeah, I think we’re going to have a lot of unemployment for a long period of time and we’re going to have much deeper poverty here in the United States, yeah. And it’s going to affect particular subsets of the population, in ways that aren’t easy to fix.

Jesse Driscoll

And are fairly easy to predict.

I think a lot of people are going to get kicked out of their homes, don’t you? (Driscoll)

I think we’re going to have a lot of unemployment for a long period of time and we’re going to have much deeper poverty here in the United States… And it’s going to affect particular subsets of the population, in ways that aren’t easy to fix. (Walter)

And are fairly easy to predict. (Driscoll)

What’s frustrating in many respects is that the condition of unemployment itself or worsening economic conditions for folks does not automatically lead to mobilization… Individuals are individualizing… “I can’t get a job because I suck…” We’re very bad with that collective sense of why we’re in the situations that we’re in. (Davenport)

Christian Davenport

What’s frustrating in many respects is that the condition of unemployment itself or worsening economic conditions for folks does not automatically lead to mobilization. Because first, individuals are individualizing, right? “I can’t get a job because I suck. I can’t do this because of my personal situation.” We’re very bad with that collective sense of why we’re in the situations that we’re in.

Angela Davis had this interesting comment once, “Why are we all upset about people coming to this country when the United States government and the company associated with it are responsible for devastating the economies in the places where the people are coming from?” We have no sense of this broader system and thus people can wallow in poverty for quite some time without taking any action— and political scientists seem to be surprised by it.

You can go a bunch of different ways to explain why we don’t have the mobilization, but there’s this piece on framing the opportunity structure that’s neglected. You can have the political opportunity structure moving in a particular direction but if it’s not framed in a way that people actually understand it and are ready to mobilize around it, it doesn’t make a difference. It’s just sitting there, latent. I think we’re very much in a context where we lack an ability and a language to discuss the economic conditions that people should be mobilizing around. That’s why the mobilizations of mutual aid societies are: “people are dying, let’s stop it.” And most people have not heard of a mutual aid organization.

we lack an ability and a language to discuss the economic conditions that people should be mobilizing around.

If we can provide a language for people to understand and aggregate, that would be very helpful because a lot of stuff is going to get worse. But we’re not very good at trends. For example, I love the Southern Poverty Law Center, but they’re so fixed on giving you what happens this year. Where’s the trend? Everybody’s talking about our thing is getting worse, but I don’t really want to download each year to piece it back together to then figure out the time series. Help us out!

Barbara Walter

There are all sorts of groups and subgroups in the United States that are suffering. And yet they’re not mobilizing equally. What we’ve seen starting in 2010, and accelerating since 2016, is the mobilization of the right. Moving forward, do you anticipate this being met by more mobilization on the left from other groups? Why is the right mobilizing more?

In fact, if you look at some of the trends, the extreme far-left groups, including what used to be terrorist groups, have been declining significantly. They were the dominant factor in the 1970s; now they’re almost gone. So, when we talk about inflection points and mobilization, why is it that the right is mobilizing and these other groups that are suffering are not?

why is it that the right is mobilizing and these other groups that are suffering are not?

Christian Davenport

Obama helped devastate a lot of that mobilization, because a lot of that mobilization was like, “We won, let’s go relax. We don’t need to do anything.” Completely forgetting the clue from the social movement literature, which is that movements are good for getting things on the agenda. They aren’t good about talking about what global policy looks like, they aren’t good at monitoring, they aren’t good at investigatory activities, or prosecution. Movements need to be connected to legal institutions and lobbying. All these things are interconnected.

We’re not seeing a movement because we’re coming off the heels of eight years of demobilization. Consider: whenever anything happens with black folk, what do you do? They’re looking for anyone who was connected to King. Who was there, who was on the balcony? Who was in the movement? And they have no clue what’s going on. That’s why when Black Lives Matter came out, they were like “who are these black people?” There are a bunch of other black people, too, who are mobilizing—let’s try to learn the new generation. Let’s go back to the NAACP. People are still trying to catch up. The mobilization needs to reemerge in many respects and be rebuilt.

Obama helped devastate a lot of that mobilization, because a lot of that mobilization was like, “We won, let’s go relax. We don’t need to do anything.” Completely forgetting the clue from the social movement literature, which is that movements are good for getting things on the agenda. They aren’t good about talking about what global policy looks like, they aren’t good at monitoring, they aren’t good at investigatory activities or prosecution. Movements need to be connected to legal institutions and lobbying. All these things are interconnected.

Black churches have been devastated over the past 20 years in terms of folks having to move out of communities and so there’s that element of that cement for getting people mobilized again is gone. I’m not sure that the electronic explosion of black people on black twitter is leading people in the streets. That’s the other interesting thing. Black people can protest about policing. Any other topic, I think there’s going to be some difficulties.

Black people can protest about policing. Any other topic, I think there’s going to be some difficulties.

Erica Chenoweth

Jeremy [Pressman] and I and our Crowd Counting initiative were able to reasonably argue that something like 7 or 8 of the largest single-day demonstrations in US history have happened since 2017. The left is not demobilized. It is incredibly fragmented and out of institutional power. That’s why it doesn’t look like they’re mobilized, but actually, there’s tons of mobilization happening.

something like 7 or 8 of the largest single-day demonstrations in US history have happened since 2017. The left is not demobilized. It is incredibly fragmented and out of institutional power. That’s why it doesn’t look like they’re mobilized, but actually, there’s tons of mobilization happening.

As Christian said, mutual aid pods are some of the most interesting things in terms of substitution and adaptation of techniques of mobilization that have taken place. Many people find it promising because developing mutual aid networks are building effective community organizational power that gives people much more resilience for longer-term because it provides better channels for planning, training, preparation, and support when people are put in jail or injured or taken out of the scene for some reason because they need to take a break.

There’s a lot that’s going on that could conceivably build some kind of capacity for meaningful transformation, but like Christian said, my impression of the leftover the past 10 years is that there’s been a real resistance to even try to be an inside game and an outside game.

There’s a lot that’s going on that could conceivably build some kind of capacity for meaningful transformation, but like Christian said, my impression of the left over the past 10 years is that there’s been a real resistance to even try to be an inside game and an outside game. It’s all outside game and there’s a lot of fragmentation. There are single-issue groups—many, many different organizations, local, state, national, international, with no movement of movements or grand coalition. The right is incredibly disciplined and organized and has had one goal since the 1980s which is: “let’s overtake every branch of government and make ourselves a permanent majority in the United States.” Once they’re there, they don’t need an outside game. They just stay the inside game and keep others out. That’s part of the strategy that’s been explicit. The question for the left is: how does this kind of movement of movements emerge and protect what institutional access remains so that they could try to play the inside-outside game?

The question for the left is: how does this kind of movement of movements emerge and protect what institutional access remains so that they could try to play the inside-outside game?

Barbara Walter

We are now in our period of questions from the audience. The first one: I would like to hear any of the panelists speak to the longer-term potential for unrest once the easy targets for demonstrator’s ire such as statewide stay-at-home orders disappear. If unemployment persists, the economy deteriorates further, and easy rallying points like stay-at-home orders aren’t there to focus this discontent, what do panelists think the trajectory of domestic unrest will look like?

Christian Davenport

I don’t want to separate the protests from the coercion. But in part, it’s a function of where people are and what types of activities specific states are engaging in. States were taking very strong stances against different forms of mobilizations, because they were either concerned with anti-drilling initiatives, or they were concerned with different types of people from the left coming out on some other type of activity issue. There’s amazing variation with regards to how coercive the protest policing principles have been, and there are different models of police stations. I think this is leading part of the fragmentation and the difficulty of coming up with an overarching thing. We are seeing some variation with regard to how state authorities are setting up that pitch for different activists to hit on and not seeing the broader picture. That’s why I’m like: we need to settle on what the overarching issue is, and the left has not been good about that since the devastation of these movements in the 1960s and 1970s and there has not been a coherent replacement for it since then.

Jesse Driscoll

This is speculative, but my suspicion is that it will continue to be personalized in terms of the party that’s out of power attacking the president regardless of the identity of the president. It’s easy to focus on this particular president as a focal point but that plays into a successful strategy and it seems that sometimes we’re walking into a trap, we on the left. There’s a narrative of contempt in the Republican Party that suggests that liberal elites are actually not capable of articulating policy responses that fix the problem of the questions that are asked. That we are very good at explaining what people ought to be doing, but in terms of behaviors when we are in power, we don’t actually do enough to help out the people who need help. That criticism is fairly potent if you watch or listen to right-wing media outlets— the idea that you’re being lied to by people who have contempt for your values.

On the flip side of it, I think we have a reflective narrative of contempt for some of the policies and personalities of the other side. This is pretty difficult to break out of, and I will be pleasantly surprised if it remains nonviolent. Something Erica said that I want to highlight is the possibility of outbidding. Extremes do like to play around with extremes.

Joe Young

We know that struggling economies tend to breed more right wing violence. Jesse and Erica were talking about potentially a dynamic where the right becomes progressively more violent and the left uses violence in response. Those escalation dynamics worry me. Probably no one on this panel thinks we’re headed towards a civil war. No country as strong as ours is likely to ever have a civil war. But we may see extreme violence a la Oklahoma City or events that are much more brutal than what we would have seen in normal times.

struggling economies tend to breed more right-wing violence. Jesse and Erica were talking about potentially a dynamic where the right becomes progressively more violent and the left uses violence in response. Those escalation dynamics worry me. Probably no one on this panel thinks we’re headed towards a civil war. No country as strong as ours is likely to ever have a civil war. But we may see extreme violence a la Oklahoma City or events that are much more brutal than what we would have seen in normal times.

Christian Davenport

Not to deviate from being a political scientist and the focus on government and institutions, but capitalism is the problem. It’s been the problem, and will continue to be the problem. These little militias—let’s say they get exactly what they want. Things open back up. We’re still going to have the ridiculous amount of inequality around the country, which is completely underestimated, and folks suffering. There’s a bunch of research that African American treatment in hospitals has been consistently negative before 2008, before this current crisis. They’re getting misdiagnosed, not getting diagnosed at all, they’re not receiving meds because of perceptions of super strength and all this other craziness. Even if the right did get everything that it wanted, which it’s not clear what that is, We’re still going to have the ridiculous amount of inequality around the country, which is completely underestimated, and folks suffering. There’s a bunch of research that African American treatment in hospitals has been consistently negative before 2008, before this current crisis. They’re getting misdiagnosed, not getting diagnosed at all, they’re not receiving meds because of perceptions of super strength and all this other craziness. Even if the right did get everything that it wanted, which it’s not clear what that is,

capitalism is the problem. It’s been the problem, and will continue to be the problem. These little militias—let’s say they get exactly what they want. Things open back up.

It’s fundamentally getting at what I think is the core of this thing, which is: capitalism has screwed over this tremendous amount of population, and those folks are not going to recover. They could be distracted, and we could talk about various things and different policies that might affect some things on the margin, but unless we’re going to talk about fundamentally how we’re going to redistribute some stuff, then these folks are going to suffer and continue to suffer and largely in silence.

we’re still going to have this fundamental problem of inequality and poverty to deal with.

Barbara Walter

This gets exactly at a question we received from one of our former students, which is: Why are these times not producing coordination and consolidation against the hyper-capitalist system that produces inequality in terms of power and wealth in the US that led to the disproportional impacts of COVID-19?

Jesse Driscoll

I would answer the question in the following way: I think that the left-wing and the right-wing of parties in this country, neither actually trust the government to do tax and transfer honestly, for different reasons. Those reasons are actually pretty well-rehearsed if you want to get into them. On one side you talk about regulatory capture, and on the other side, you talk about structural grievances that never go away no matter what we do. And when Christian said before that the left kind of had their shot, I think there’s a lot loaded into that sentence. My impression—I don’t watch a lot of Fox News—but my impression is that they don’t actually regularly make a racial-based grievance statement. What they say is: “our listeners out there are the working poor, and that just happens to be, coincidentally, the white poor. But that’s a coincidence. It’s the left that brings race into it.” And then the right gets to ridicule that and say, “I’m not a Nazi, I’m not a racist, I’m just trying to keep up with health insurance costs and whatever else.”

The median income in this country hasn’t budged since the 1970s, and it’s hard to determine what policy levers to pull to change that, and that’s leading to a lot of anger. That makes coordination difficult. The fact that the elites don’t actually have a clear answer to that question on the left is the source of exposure to nihilists on the right.

Erica Chenoweth

There have been attempts to reimagine what a global economy that would be fair and just might look like over the past 10 years. In some ways the Occupy Wall Street actions were a confluence of people who wanted to have that conversation. I would argue that global public awareness of inequality as something of a household conversation is almost everywhere now, and can be attributed to the fact that there was mobilization that was global and persistent, and called attention to these issues in a way that no established political parties or insurgent political parties could ignore.

But you also have to imagine what the alternative system is and be able to articulate it with clarity. It’s not a great day when you’re quoting Žižek, but he did say something once that I totally agree with which is: “We could imagine the end of the world before we could imagine the end of capitalism.” We haven’t quite put to paper a compelling alternative that solves the problem without creating more problems.

Divide and rule has been the way that working solidarity has been broken. Over the past 100 years, labor organizing unions have been busted. They are weaker now. There are half as many people in unions today than there were 30 years ago. It’s part of the way the system works.

What is crucial is to make it an imperative for those of us who study contention to make sure that people are aware that violence is not the only way that people engage in dissent. There are many other realistic alternatives for how people can push their issues forward effectively and collectively without initiating these security dilemmas—even under very difficult conditions. To the extent that those types of alternatives can become more common knowledge, we can break out of security dilemmas, but not if we only think of violence as the only way people mobilize.

One other thing I want to say quickly: it’s really dangerous for us to speculate on the rise of violence, because that can initiate security dilemmas. So if I start saying that I expect violence to increase and others begin to expect violence to increase, then people start acting like violence is going to increase, and people start engaging in behaviors that look like self-defense to them, but to other people look like offensive, dangerous, reckless, violent activities. And that could lead other people to try and go against that violence themselves and then others interpret that as directly threatening to them. What is crucial is to make it an imperative for those of us who study contention to make sure that people are aware that violence is not the only way that people engage in dissent. There are many other realistic alternatives for how people can push their issues forward effectively and collectively without initiating these security dilemmas—even under very difficult conditions. To the extent that those types of alternatives can become more common knowledge, we can break out of security dilemmas, but not if we only think of violence as the only way people mobilize.

Barbara Walter

I’ve saved the most important question for last. And the question is: could you suggest ways that people and communities can work to deescalate conflict in this country? And the related questions from one of our listeners: what should donors and philanthropists do?

Joe Young

I think one thing to do on a micro-level is—there’s so much misinformation that runs around and there are conspiracy theories on both the right and the left. I spend most of my time, on a micro-level, with my family, dispelling things they’re saying that are factually inaccurate and trying to offer alternatives like, “This is fine that you feel this way but this isn’t the facts and here’s what’s actually going on.” I know that doesn’t necessarily solve any problems but at a very micro level trying to get people to have the basis to start the conversation.

Barbara Walter

I actually want to get in on this. There’s a guy named Eric Liu, and he used to be a speechwriter for Bill Clinton back in the 1990s. He spent his career talking about power—who really holds power, how do you understand power—and he has created what is called Citizen University to rebuild civics and an understanding of power here in the country.

He just wrote a book called You Are More Powerful Than You Think, which makes a really important point that if you don’t understand how power is distributed in the United States and who has it and how it works, by definition you are giving your power away. One of the potential ways you can roll back polarization at the individual level is to simply understand how decisions are made and who makes them and then become involved. And that starts at the very local level and then you think about ways you can scale that up.

Christian Davenport

In terms of dealing with the polarization issue, I think individualism is the virus.

In terms of dealing with the polarization issue, I think individualism is the virus. We need to start to reformulate how we think about this stuff. When I hear about how places like Norway and Norwegians were coming together to address certain types of problems and thinking about the kind of individualistic we had towards, “You can’t tell me what to do, I’m not wearing this damn mask, you can’t tell me I can’t do this, you can’t tell me about this.” There’s no sense of collective. It’s weird, right, because nationalism is about a kind of collective, but it’s a certain group that’s being invoked. That was the thing there.

There’s no sense of collective. It’s weird, right, because nationalism is about a kind of collective, but it’s a certain group that’s being invoked.

In regard to funding, I think people need to start funding more of the stuff on thriving. I think that literature is, even if bad stuff happens, thriving is one of the best things you can try to do. Flourishing counteracts some of the negative activities, but we need to know more about how it functions and in what ways it functions in different locations. The civil strategies of engagement are something people need to fund. We don’t have enough resources dedicated to understanding all the different ways that one could engage in the political system. People don’t really know. They just think “I vote, and I’m done. I sign a petition, I go to a protest, I’m done.” I’m like okay those are three activities in the whole repertoire of things that you can do in terms of engaging and we don’t really know what leads to that robust sense of political engagement.

Erica Chenoweth

On the question about pathways out of polarization, I’m much more familiar with the literature on how we get polarized rather than how we get out of polarization. My sense of how we get out of it is that there are two pathways. One is that there are sudden and decisive moves to the center, and the other, the more common form, is that there’s a decisive victory by one or the other side that basically aligns the system.

If everyone in the United States thought of the most vulnerable person they know and voted in that person’s interests, we would probably live in a much different country. That’s one way to think about it, if you’re trying to be part of the solution.

If everyone in the United States thought of the most vulnerable person they know and voted in that person’s interests, we would probably live in a much different country.

In terms of the donors and philanthropists, I love this question, thank you for asking it. There are a couple of things that feel to me to be urgent matters of under-capacity in our country. One is training and rapid response and conflict resolution and conflict de-escalation. The other mutual aid networks, which was what Christian was talking about: people showing up for other people and building their capacities, especially in contexts where we have to protect ourselves and others against the spread of a virus. The third is convenings of peoples who have long been doing this work who haven’t had a chance to get together, take a break, and think through how they want to proceed collectively. What would a large-scale coalition to build a more fair and prosperous society look like, who can be part of that conversation, what can they bring to the table, and how are we going to proceed well beyond the 2020 elections?

What would a large-scale coalition to build a more fair and prosperous society look like, who can be part of that conversation, what can they bring to the table, and how are we going to proceed well beyond the 2020 elections?

Jesse Driscoll

I want to echo the call for nonviolent intervention first responders. That would be a resource for a donor to consider funding. On the question of de-escalation, if you want to think about a silver lining of COVID-19, it has had an obvious effect of changing the unit of analysis for a lot of people to the family unit. That’s a slightly different vibe than the solidarity push that Christian is articulating. I think it can be complimentary.

Joe Young

To get this de-escalation, what needs to happen at the microlevels is persuasion. It would be nice if there were more research on how to persuade people. A lot of this is occurring through social media. I know that one of the splits we’ve been talking about in America is rural versus urban—, and I think that is where a lot of the divide is on this particular issue. How we can persuade people that it’s useful to think about things from another perspective?

Barbara Walter

Well, we are out of time. Thank you again to all of our panelists. Thank you to the people who joined us and feel free again to email us if you have additional questions or just to say thank you.

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