Polarization and Political Violence
Rachel Kleinfeld and Ben Klutsey discuss different types of polarization in the U.S. and whether our institutions are strong enough to overcome them
In this installment of a series on liberalism, Benjamin Klutsey, the director of the Program on Pluralism and Civil Exchange at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, talks with Rachel Kleinfeld, a senior fellow in the Democracy, Conflict and Governance Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, about whether the U.S. is a troubled democracy, the rise of anti-democratic attitudes, how to make politics more pleasant, the links between polarization and violence and much more.
BENJAMIN KLUTSEY: Today we are fortunate to have Rachel Kleinfeld with us, an expert on polarization and political conflict. Her bio is very long and will take a long time to get through, but I’ll summarize by noting that she is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in their Democracy, Conflict and Governance Program. Her work focuses on troubled democracies facing problems such as polarized populations, violence, corruption and poor governance. She briefs governments and organizations around the world on issues related to conflict, the rule of law and policing.
She is the author of a number of books, including “A Savage Order” and “Advancing the Rule of Law Abroad: Next Generation Reform.” Today we’ll be talking about her latest research, titled “Polarization, Democracy and Political Violence in the United States: What the Research Says,” which was released this past September.
Thank you for joining us, Rachel.
RACHEL KLEINFELD: Real pleasure to be here, Ben.
Researching Political Violence
KLUTSEY: I wanted to start with your background and interests. What drew you towards this line of research: polarization, political violence, conflict and governance?
KLEINFELD: When I came out of college and grad school, I really wanted to know what made people flourish: how countries could flourish and how individuals could flourish. I found that lots of folks were working in economics. But when I went to India and other places that I was traveling overseas, what I saw was that, really at the bottom of the heap, issues of rule of law, and particularly violence, were holding a lot of people back. The fact that the state wasn’t really on their side, the government wasn’t really protecting them, and that—it meant other powerful interests could exploit them in one way or another.
It fell between the cracks: The human rights people didn’t like to deal with militaries and police, and the international economics people were working on development. No one was really looking at this set of issues of how is your government organized, how does that affect violence in the state, and what does that mean for people’s ability to flourish?
I pushed myself into that space, and since basically no one else was there, it was real easy to move up. Then I just found it endlessly fascinating to be on the edges of all these different disciplines pulling things together.
KLUTSEY: Thank you for that background.
I was wondering, What is a “troubled democracy”? Is the U.S. considered a troubled democracy?
KLEINFELD: It’s funny. I was part of a pretty high-level group that Congress had pulled together on fragile states maybe 15 years ago. There were all these indices that said, What makes a state fragile? How much money does it have? What are the ethnic conflicts? It was all oriented toward the countries that were falling apart in parts of Africa and other places. I said, “What if Germany was looking at America and said, ‘Well, when we look at your prison rate and the lack of equality and how your security services work and X, Y and Z other factors, would we call this a fragile state?’”
Everyone laughed at me. In fact, I meant it quite seriously, and I think America is much more fragile than we give it credit for.
When you look at the resilience of a country, you look at its risk factors and its resilience factors. America has huge resilience factors. We’ve been a democracy the longest of any country in the world. We’re quite wealthy. We have established ways of solving problems peacefully. We’ve got a lot going for us.
But we also have one of the deepest histories of political violence of any established democracy in the world. We have a system that we don’t export to other countries anymore: a presidential system where the president is elected first past the post, and you have a Congress elected separately. We just don’t do that in other countries because they almost always fall apart. We’re with Cyprus and a handful of other countries that have a system like ours and haven’t fallen apart—it’s not good company.
We have a lot of resilience factors; we have a lot of risk factors. And I think we undercount the risks.
The U.S. as a Fragile State
KLUTSEY: That’s really fascinating.
One of our previous guests, Seth Kaplan, just recently wrote a book called “Fragile Neighborhoods.” He, as a political scientist, was getting a lot of these questions about whether the United States is a fragile state. He looks at it and says, “It seems as though, at the federal level especially, the U.S. has strong, resilient institutions. But when you go further down and you look at states and the local areas and look at neighborhoods, you find a lot of fragilities.” He’s referring to things like deaths of despair, the opioid crisis and a whole host of other issues that he thinks that over time will exacerbate the challenges that we’re facing related to polarization.
What are your thoughts on that?
KLEINFELD: I’ve read Seth’s book, and I think when you look at the strength of a country, you’re putting together different levels of analysis. You’re looking at, Is the individual level secure and safe? The familial level? (We still exist within families?) Then the local or state and the national. America has institutions that are extremely strong, but, as I said, they’re not institutions that when we go about spreading democracy in other countries—these are not the ones we build. That’s because they have inbuilt weaknesses.
We know that two-party systems are particularly given to polarization, for obvious reasons: You only have two to pick from, and so an us-them happens. We know that when you have electoral systems where one extra vote can win you the entire district, those are more subject to violence, for obvious reasons: If you can suppress a single vote and win the whole shebang, there’s a lot of incentive to suppress the single vote, especially when power is very closely held.
We have strong institutions, but they’re institutions that have inherent weaknesses that we’ve learned over the last 250 years only work when we have really strong norms. America has had strong norms of democracy for a long time. We had it really inbuilt. We also had some original sins, surrounding race particularly.
If you look at international indices of democracy, America wasn’t counted as a full democracy until after 1965 because African Americans couldn’t vote in 11 states, and those were strong pluralities of the population. How can you call yourself a full democracy? What we call that internationally is an authoritarian enclave. You have a democracy, and then you have an enclave that is run as a one-party state with violence backing that one party. We had that for 100 years in our country. These strong systems depend on a lot of norms and a lot of moral fiber of individuals and a lot of traditions.
What we’re seeing in the last 20 years, really, is a lot of those traditions are eroding. Part of why they might be eroding, I think, part of Seth’s argument is that at the individual level and the neighborhood level, we’re forgetting how to get along. We’re forgetting how to get along between wives and husbands. We’re forgetting how to get along between neighbors. Volunteerism has just plummeted. It’s plummeted after Putnam wrote “Bowling Alone,” which—he pointed out we’ve got a problem. Now it’s vastly lower.
I think Seth has a point: that these individual building blocks are weakening. We’re forgetting various social skills that you need for democracy. Because our institutions were good but not the best—I think is the way to think of them. It’s like we went for VHS rather than Beta or what have you. They were decent, but—nobody knows what I’m talking about. (I just realized that statement dates me.) I just mean we went for a system that was the best we could come up with, but we now know after 250 years that it has some weaknesses. So we have some weaknesses.
KLUTSEY: Really interesting stuff.
Now let’s delve into the polarization aspect of your paper. You talk about three generations of understanding of polarization. We want to try to unpack these for our audience.
The first is about elite polarization. As you note, political scientists have been following this for years, and it has to do with the ways in which Congress, leaders vie for power—the way that they vote without much overlap. Is this primarily about congressional polarization?
KLEINFELD: Yeah, so people get really confused when you talk about polarization because we’re really using one word to mean a bunch of different things. The way I try to break it apart is: You can be ideologically polarized. You can have very different views. You might believe that people should have a right to suicide but not a right to abortion; I might believe the opposite. That would make us polarized on an ideological standpoint.
Then there’s, Do we like each other? We could enjoy having those debates and actually feel like we actually have very different belief sets, but we liked each other. There was no problem. It was just how we related to one another. If you don’t, that’s “affective polarization.” Do you like or dislike each other?
Then there’s, Does your system encourage polarization as a way to win politically? That’s “pernicious polarization.” It has a different way of interacting with your society.
What I say in the paper is, American elites are very ideologically polarized. We’re electing people who have almost no overlap in their belief set anymore. They might like each other, actually. They might still get along (but they don’t seem to; a number of them don’t seem to). But they really don’t agree.
Most Americans, actually—there’s a huge amount of overlap. We really do have a lot of agreement. But because we’ve elected these people who don’t agree, it makes it very hard for us to translate the majority desire into actual policy. Maybe because of that, Americans hate each other. We have very strong affective polarization even though we actually don’t care about policy that much. Most Americans probably care more about what they order at Chick-fil-A than about a lot of policies being debated at Capitol Hill. But because of this tribalism and how we’ve sorted, we really dislike it.
So high levels of affective polarization in the general public, low levels of ideological—or medium levels of ideological polarization. (I shouldn’t say low; we’re somewhat polarized.) But very high ideological polarization at the elite level that’s stopping us from getting anything done.
KLUTSEY: On the second category, mass affective polarization, you note that it’s been rising since the 1990s. It’s driven by dislike for one another, as you say. It’s, in turn, largely driven by misperceptions. We overestimate the extent to which the other party might be extreme.
What do you think is driving these misperceptions?
KLEINFELD: I think this gets back to the fact that we’re not so good at having relationships anymore. We’re very bad at having relationships with people who are different than us.
Say my sister-in-law is in a union in Queens. (She really is in a union in Queens; I’m not pretending. She’s an electrician.) In that union, she interacts with lots of people who just happen to be in the union. Because of that, she has to deal with people who have very right-wing ideology, very left-wing ideology; people who are older, people who are younger. She’s just getting used to dealing with difference.
There are very few entities in America anymore where we’re forced to deal with difference. We’ve really sorted ourselves geographically. Your kids’ school: most people are probably similar to you socioeconomically, probably racially. If they’re diverse racially, then you’re probably in a very liberal school that holds that up. That’s gone. People don’t really go to libraries much anymore. They don’t use the civic—actually, there’s a great study that shows that Applebee’s and Chili’s and other chain restaurants are the places where we see the most socioeconomic diversity now. That’s the place where people mix, not civic institutions.
We’re not good at dealing with difference. As a result, we don’t know what a different person believes. The right tends to believe that the left is young minorities with really, really strong belief sets. They tend to believe that they’re all in unions. They have this image of what the left is. The left thinks the right are older white men who are probably overweight and have all these negative characteristics.
KLUTSEY: Making a lot of money.
KLEINFELD: Making a lot of money. You’re right. That’s one of the big characteristics.
We have these ideas of the other that are boogeymen. Actually, the two parties—the median is very close: White, Christian, middle-aged people who have a lot of ideological overlap. That’s not how we see them. Because the media doesn’t portray people with complexity and because we’re not used to dealing with complexity in our daily lives, we don’t have a way to correct that misperception.
KLUTSEY: The sorting isn’t just geographic sorting, right? I think that people in the online spaces—people are sorting themselves in these echo chambers, as people like to say sometimes these days.
I wonder to what extent that kind of thing is exacerbating affective polarization. You also note that it started way before social media: the internet, cable news, talk radio—all of these things contribute to the affective polarization that we’re seeing.
KLEINFELD: There’s all sorts of reasons to hate social media. Jonathan Haidt has written about this, and I am strongly supportive of a lot of what he writes in terms of adolescent kids and so on.
In this particular area, it’s better to be a little more nuanced with social media. Basically, a lot of our affective polarization is driven by what Eitan Hersh, another scholar, calls political hobbyists. These are people who just live and breathe politics. They really enjoy dealing in politics. The vast majority of Americans are not like that. Most Americans would rather trade cat memes and fantasy football league scores. They’re not into it, and they just want to skip it. They know more about Taylor Swift’s relationships than congressional relationships. That’s fine, but they’re very different.
What we see is that these political hobbyists who are highly polarized, really driving and kind of live and breathe it, they spread polarization across social media. The majority of Americans who are not particularly interested, they actually get less polarized by social media because social media is the one place where they encounter difference. Because they’re not so polarized themselves and not so political, it doesn’t trigger them. The political hobbyists get triggered when they encounter difference. They get mad and upset. Most people just say, “Oh, you have a different view. That’s interesting. I didn’t know that you had a different view.”
Social media is very bifurcated. There’s a third group that’s very small, but this is the violent group. This is people who are willing to use political violence. They’re saying incredibly nasty, racist, misogynistic, homophobic things. They use social media to organize and to spread messages. They’re small but virulent, and so they operate differently on social media.
From Affective Polarization to Violence?
KLUTSEY: This is actually a good segue into my next question, which is about the third-generation understanding of polarization, and it’s sort of related to anti-democratic attitudes and political violence. Is the idea that affective polarization is unlikely to be causing democratic backsliding or political violence on its own? One of the things that you highlight is this. I’m wondering if you could unpack this for us.
KLEINFELD: Sure. There’s a lot of people who are worried about how much we dislike each other, and they’ve started all sorts of organizations to try to bridge differences and get us talking across difference and so on. A lot of that is very well-meaning and some of it is useful, although some of it actually can create backfiring. They see the problem as the emotions. What we know from the research is that the emotions are only one part of the problem. The bigger part is how those emotions are being used by political structures that enable them to be weaponized. Let me just break all that down.
We have a primary system in America where most of our seats are safe right now at the congressional level and even more at the state level. If you’re in a Republican district, whoever the Republican wins the primary, that’s who’s going to win. If you’re in a Democratic district, the same thing. The primary really determines who wins your election. Very few people vote in primaries, usually 5% to 10% of the electorate. The people who vote in primaries tend to be those political hobbyists that I mentioned earlier. They’re the people who really live and breathe—
Some people say they’re more polarized than the general public; some people say they’re not more polarized. But they certainly are more virulent in their—they have more intensity about their beliefs. If you have a system in which the vast majority of congressional seats, over 80%, and even more at the state level in most states, are elected by this very small, very angry part of your population, then the fact that you’re affectively polarized, particularly in that part of your population, means that politicians need to play to that part of their base in order to win an election. They don’t need to reach out to the middle.
I know I’ve talked to my dad, who’s in his 80s, about this. He said, “They always cater to their base in the primary, and then they move to the middle for the general.” I said, “No, Dad, actually it hasn’t been like that for almost a quarter century. That’s when that stopped happening. Now you cater to your base and you keep catering to your base. You don’t pivot to the middle because there aren’t enough persuaded voters to move to the middle.”
That system means that affective polarization has enabled what Jennifer McCoy, another scholar, calls pernicious polarization. This is when you win elections by polarizing, by furthering that affective polarization to get out your base and anger them, create more intensity so they vote for you more, rather than by trying to move to the middle.
That’s where we are in America now. You win elections by polarizing. You also get donations by polarizing, which helps you win elections because small-dollar donors are driven more by emotion than by hoping to get a business tax break or something. That’s the tradeoff from moving from large corporate money that might be corrupting to small-dollar donors. You trade a certain kind of corruption for a certain kind of emotional polarization.
KLUTSEY: Right. Very, very interesting.
Now, the other part to this, and you alluded to it earlier, which I think might sadden those of us who are in the bridging world, is that interventions can reduce some of the strong emotions, but they don’t change anti-democratic attitudes. I was wondering if you might help outline what constitutes anti-democratic attitudes: things like claiming that the election was stolen, rigged and so on. What else might one consider anti-democratic attitudes?
KLEINFELD: Sure. Do you justify political violence on your side? Do you say, “Oh, it’s OK, I understand why they did that”? Do you justify an impeachment hearing on your side or the other side because you don’t like the guy, not because you think that they actually deserve to be impeached? How do you feel about outcomes of court cases? Do you support the judiciary and say the judiciary needs to decide and things will be decided by the rule of law, or do you impugn the judiciary and say now it’s become partisan as well?
These things are hard because, of course, the further polarization goes and the further our institutions erode, the facts on the ground change. You can have systems that are politicized and eroded, but as we believe more and more that that’s the reason that decisions are being come to and we delegitimize institution after institution, it becomes harder to have any reason to believe anything other than that you want it. That’s what we’re seeing in political outcomes.
We’re seeing that there’s a group of people who can be persuaded by fact. There’s a group of people who can be persuaded by identity. By this I mean if everyone in their church or their community or their kids’ school thinks something, they’ll think it and they’ll share that belief set. If that changes, they’ll change. If everyone thinks there was fraud in an election, they’re going to mutter along with that, but they don’t hold it very strongly, and they’re willing to change if everyone around them changes socially.
And then there’s a group that holds their beliefs based on outcome. They’re going to believe what they believe because they want a different outcome. That’s extremely anti-democratic because that’s just saying we believe there was fraud because the guy we wanted didn’t win, or we believe this judicial decision is wrong because the outcome we wanted didn’t win.
Democracy Fund is going to come out with a study that will show that there is a significant percentage of Americans, on both sides but stronger on the right, that are moving into that set of beliefs.
KLUTSEY: Really interesting.
One of the things I found fascinating was the idea that people that we might consider to be moderates might also hold anti-democratic views, I think probably for the very reasons that you have just outlined. I find that really interesting.
KLEINFELD: Yes, there’s this weird reality that most people want to just picture a straight line from left to right, and if you’re furthest left and you’re furthest right, you’re probably more polarized, more immoderate; you hold more angry views; you’re probably more given to violence.
None of that is true. What we find actually is that people who are on the edges of left and right might be more polarized, but they also might be more attached to the system. They hold deep beliefs, but their partisan nature means that they want the system to work so that they can win.
Where you see the real problems are in the middle, with infrequent voters and voters who vote for both the left and the right. Pollsters have often called these people moderate or think that they’re rationally deciding between, “I like this left-wing position and this right-wing position.” When you really drive down into the statistics, what you find is that this is a group of very disgruntled people who tend to vote left on economic issues. They want more redistribution, but they really want more redistribution for them and not for anybody else.
We see this group actually all over the world. You see them in Austria and Germany and so on, and they tend to vote for parties that are often called parties of the right, but they actually have left-wing economics: the Austrian Freedom Party and so on. What they really are are populist parties that have strong leaders, sometimes strong authoritarian leaders, that say, “I can solve your problems. The answers are simple. The answers are about helping the deserving groups and hurting the nondeserving groups.”
That’s very appealing to people who have this set of beliefs in the middle. So they look moderate on surveys, but in fact they tend to support authoritarianism. If you ask them, “Do you want a strong leader who doesn’t have to pay attention to Congress? Do you want someone who needn’t—” There’s a whole series of questions about, “Do you want a military leader?” Things that are pretty clearly authoritarian. I’m not trying to be cute here. These are the people who say, “Yes, that’s what I want. I want someone who doesn’t have to pay attention to Congress, someone from the military, someone who just calls the shots and does what I want them to do.”
They assume it’ll be what they want them to do.
KLUTSEY: Right. Now, how do you categorize the kinds of people who showed up on January 6? Because this then challenges all kinds of things. Are these people more moderate folks who are acting out, or are they the extremists?
KLEINFELD: Again, because of these different ways of categorizing polarization, it’s hard to just speak about moderate versus extreme. I think a lot of these people are not extreme in their policies. If you asked someone who came to January 6, “Do you believe abortion should be legal until 12 weeks?” or some sort of moderate policy, you might get a lot of yeses. You might get a lot of yeses on, “Do you think the government should be moderately redistributionary in its tax policy?” Wonky things like that. That’s not what they’re acting on.
When you look at people moved to violence, there’s two groups that show up at January 6. There’s the people who are so angry at the system, so distrustful, that they want a leader who they trust. This group of people, it’s not about the policies necessarily. It’s really about the character of the individual. While some of us looked at that individual and said, “This is a man without character who has now been convicted of rape and left his pregnant wife to have sex with someone else and did a lot of things that I consider of poor character,” other people saw that person and said, “This is someone who does what he promises to do and doesn’t get hung up on all the rules, all the—” what they see as red tape. They wanted that person to win.
That’s not a very democratic stance. Those rules and red tape are what our democracy is. That’s the structure by which decisions are made. But if you don’t like it, then you’re going to be moved.
Now, the people who actually commit violence, those people tend to not have consistent ideological views at all. People who commit violence tend to be people who have aggressive personalities and poor impulse control. They might be drinking. They might be on drugs. They might just have poor impulse control because that’s what their personality is. It’s not about their policy beliefs.
KLUTSEY: Then how do we solve the problem? If bridge-building efforts aren’t as productive as one might think, how do we move beyond contact theory to more meaningful approaches that can diffuse polarization in a more long-term, sustainable way and address the anti-democratic attitudes?
KLEINFELD: I think, first of all, it’s not that bridge-building isn’t as useful as one might think. It’s that it has to be done right. Talking across difference by showing up in your character of Democrat or Republican, that is probably not a great way to do bridge-building because you’ve set up conflict from the beginning. You force people into their singular identity as that kind of individual.
What is likely to work much better is to come together around a problem that you jointly want to solve. Regardless of whether you’re a Democrat or Republican, what you believe about climate change, you might notice that severe weather is affecting your community more. Can you come together around what to do regarding that severe weather, whatever its cost—whatever you believe about its cost? You might disagree about what people teach in schools, but you might all agree that actually, the school days should be longer and your kids should be in school more. (As a working mother, I certainly feel that.) Can you come together around that?
What we find is that by bringing people together across difference—but not about the difference—and by getting them to do something together, that you start to build trust. As you start to build trust and humanize the other side, that can help bridge the difference. Ultimately, you need to move it from the individual emotional level to something more structural. Then you have to look at, “Gosh, what about the system of primaries that’s really incentivizing extremism? Can we alter that?” Well, Alaska has altered that. They now have a top-four system. And other states—Maine has altered that and so on. Can we look at something that disincentivizes extremism a little bit more so that we can all get to something?
Then you start moving from bridging to action and action at a local level and trust-building. Then you start looking at the structures that are incentivizing this pernicious polarization and look at what you can do. We’ve had a lot of wins, actually. It’s not hopeless. The Electoral Count Act got reformed. We got gay marriage enshrined in federal law. Criminal justice reform, the biggest criminal justice reform. There’s a lot of things that have happened when we focus on what we agree on and stop just treating each other as people we hate. There’s a lot more that could be done if the bridging went beyond just emotion and started to look for activities, political activities.
Making Politics More Pleasant
What is the role of apathy in all of this, in polarization more broadly? And I ask this because some of the research shows that the most involved and the most active also tend to be the most polarized, and the exhausted majority is sort of stuck in the middle.
What options do they have? Because oftentimes, the choices are binary in terms of voting. What else could they do? I guess you’ve outlined some of this: Getting involved to change the incentive structure and institutions around these types of things could help.
KLEINFELD: I think that’s absolutely it. I don’t even like the word “apathy.” Most people just find it incredibly distasteful. Who wants to go to meetings where people yell at each other all the time, about things that you know are more complex? Again, as a working mother, I have very little spare time. I think most Americans tend to think they have very little spare time. How do you want to spend it? Do you want to spend it with pleasant people doing things you enjoy, or do you want to spend it in this way?
I think we need to make the political sphere more pleasant. I have this plan to write an article called “Can We Put the Party Back in Party Politics?” It used to be that—and “used to be” like 150 years ago in Britain—people got involved in their party because there would be big to-dos, big fairs at country manor houses and so on. If you just wanted to see the fancy house and get some nice free food and have your kid go on a carousel, that’s how you would get involved in party politics. It was really pleasant and enjoyable and family-oriented.
We don’t have that anymore. Politics is this very thin area, denuded of all the things that really cause enjoyment in life for the vast majority of people. But it doesn’t have to be that way. You could have political parties that did service projects. You could have political parties that had cat adoption shelters and tool-sharing groups—all sorts of parts of civic life that we actually enjoy and engage in.
I think part of bringing civics back and making this more pleasant is for people to find the areas of common ground that are somewhat depoliticized and then work from there to make the political sphere more incentivized to be pleasant. That is things like, I think, primary reform, but it’s also things like “there shouldn’t be violence in the public sphere.” Just period. No violence: This shouldn’t be hard. There are a lot of areas I think we could probably agree on.
KLUTSEY: What you just said reminded me of Robert Talisse’s work “Overdoing Democracy,” where he says that politics is overtaking every aspect of our lives. It’s saturated everything. That we have to try hard to put politics in its proper place—not that we avoid it completely, but put it in perspective. He talks about other things like developing civic friendships and things like that, solving problems together where your politics is irrelevant and so on and so forth. I like the idea of putting “party” back into politics. [chuckles]
Rebuilding the Right
KLUTSEY: One line in the paper that I thought was very, very interesting was this: You said the Strengthening Democracy Challenge also found Democrats to be almost as supportive of political violence as Republicans and only slightly less tolerant of anti-democratic attitudes. Actual political violence is vastly higher on the right. You note that if emotions were driving violence, there would be more correlation between the depth of emotion and the intensity of violence.
I was wondering, given this insight, where should we put most of our efforts? Nonprofits, universities, researchers, and I guess it depends on which group—where do you think we’ll get the most bang for our buck?
KLEINFELD: First of all, a lot of people don’t like that finding. It’s a finding that’s very robust, I should say. It’s across a whole bunch of things. They don’t like to admit it because people want to believe that there are simple answers. It’s a complex society. We’ve got a complex politics. It’s not super simple.
I think in my mind there’s not one silver bullet. I think we need to rebuild—because the problem is worse on the right, right now. (I don’t think it will always be worse on the right.) Right now, definitely, if you look at polarization, if you look at anti-democratic attitudes, if you look at actual political violence as opposed to support for political—it’s all much worse on the right. We need to rebuild a right that just disagrees on policy but doesn’t have these anti-democratic beliefs, so that you can vote for a conservative, right-wing leader who supports various policies without bringing all this anti-democratic violent baggage along with them.
That’s a party-rebuilding exercise. It’s actually happening. There’s groups on the right that are trying to do it, but it’s hard. They need money, they need support. I would say if you’re on the right, that’s where to go. That’s the most important thing.
There’s a fabulous book about how conservative parties are the hinge of democracy because they traditionally have been the ones to hold back the growth of inclusive democracy. If you stand for the status quo, then you’re the one that’s going to stand against change. Where conservative parties feel like they can win democratically, democracies flourish, and where they feel like they can’t win democratically, democracies don’t do as well. I’m looking at that book right now by Daniel Ziblatt. It’s just terrific.
Anyway, if you’re on the right, I think the money to be put is in rebuilding a real pro-democratic conservative party.
Next Steps for the Left
KLEINFELD: If you’re not on the right, you probably don’t have a lot of appetite for that. Then I think there’s a need for, first of all, deepening anti-violent norms within the left, because we’re starting to see left-wing violence. We know from the attitude set that that’s likely to grow if it’s allowed to grow. I think it’s not growing because there’s been a very strong distaste for it at the political level. It hasn’t been supported politically the way right-wing violence has been.
We need to keep that because what we know internationally is that violent movements, or movements with violent fringes, lose much more frequently in creating social change. Just looking from a purely “can you win or lose” standpoint, the violence is going to hurt the left. If you look morally at is violence a good thing or not—I tend to think it’s not. For both those reasons, the left needs to double down on how do we win without violence and without allowing this to taint the movement.
Part of that is really building a deeper and more robust understanding of what grassroots people who are currently pretty apathetic want. I think the left is moving away from that. Deepening those ties and figuring out how to elevate those issues. Then a lot of it I think has to do with structural change. We need to disincentivize extremism.
That gets to primary reform and different forms of electoral reform where—lots of Europe has affective polarization at about the same level as America, actually. And they’re electing some extreme parties. But they elect extreme parties, and then those parties are part of a coalition government in which they have—maybe they get one ministry or something. They don’t get to take the whole shebang because of the way their systems work. Because of the way our system works, a plurality can win and then win the whole shebang if you’ve got some spoiler parties, which we do. That’s just not a real robust place to stand when you’re this polarized.
Global Political Violence
KLUTSEY: Now, given your extensive research not just in the United States but beyond, what’s your sense of the current state of affairs on political violence across the world? Are we seeing an increase in political violence or a decrease, or hasn’t changed much over time? What’s your sense?
KLEINFELD: If you look from the ’90s on, we’re definitely seeing an increase. If you look at a broader standpoint, the biggest perpetrators of political violence are governments. Democide governments killing their own people are by far larger than all civil wars, all other forms of violence put together. In the 20th century, we had a lot of governments that killed their own people.
The Chinese Communist Party, the communist Soviet Union, Cambodia—those kinds of mass murders are the worst forms of political violence. We haven’t seen anything like that. We’re now moving into a more authoritarian era. We’ve had this holiday from history since the ’90s where democracy won. There weren’t a lot of geopolitical challenges. Nobody else had the power of the United States.
Wars were very small, actually. People made a lot out of the breakup of the former Yugoslavia and other wars of that era. In fact, they were much, much smaller than most 20th-century wars. The battle deaths were much smaller. We tended to follow them because you would see 20 people, a platoon against a platoon: It would get reported. It wasn’t like D-Day, where 16,000 people or 20,000 people would die in a single battle day. We just didn’t fight wars like that anymore. Now wars like that are coming back.
If you look at political violence on the whole, it’s coming back from this ’90s to early 2000s period of geopolitical unipolarity. It’s not back to the point it was in the mid-20th century where you had governments that were so strong and authoritarian that they could really do what they wanted within their borders.
I think we, unfortunately, might be moving more toward that, however. Authoritarianism is getting really strong. We’re seeing it in places like Hungary, not just Belarus. We’re seeing in a lot of Africa that coups have returned with a real vengeance. As these dominoes fall, it becomes easier for the next one to fall because you get a whole group of military powers that are willing to support each other, rather than one state with a military power surrounded by democracies that don’t like it. There’s a regional effect.
America tends to stand a little outside that because of the way that we’re bordered by Canada and Mexico. We don’t have all these other countries. But where we go, the rest of the world is likely to follow. The more authoritarian we become and the harder it is for us to support democracy, the harder it is for the rest of the world to hold up against this force. It’s really important for Americans to believe in our system.
I talk to a lot of young people and I say—their experience with the world is America failing, mostly. We lost a couple wars. Our economy fell apart. We didn’t handle a pandemic well. If you’re 20, this is what you’ve seen. It’s not a great picture. To say “stand up for our system” seems really completely out of touch, but they also haven’t seen how bad systems can get. They haven’t been alive during totalitarian systems generally.
Helping them see that our system can be improved. It has a self-correcting quality. It’s had good times and bad times, and we’re maybe in a bad time, but we can get better. Other systems are much more brittle and can be much worse. And trying to build that understanding so that we work on ours and get it better rather than give up on it, I think is really important.
A Call to Action
Do you have a call to action for folks who are listening to this?
KLEINFELD: [chuckles] If you’re listening to this, I think Unite America, which works on a lot of those structural reforms I talked about—great organization. Johns Hopkins has an SNF Agora Institute that’s working on some really terrific stuff with a pro-democratic right. That’s really important. The idea factory that is George Mason is also doing important work on a pro-democratic right.
On the left, I think these bridging efforts that also lead to action are really important. Common Ground USA is doing fabulous work in that area and is one to pay attention to and support.
KLUTSEY: Finally, are you optimistic? Are you optimistic that we will turn the tide on affective polarization and, beyond that, the anti-democratic attitudes that are emerging?
KLEINFELD: I try to take a long view. America’s had a lot of pretty bad periods in its history, and we’ve come out of them. Am I optimistic that our democracy will continue? Yes, I think we’ll continue, but we continued through Jim Crow. We’ve had some real—that was a 100-year setback.
My optimism is highly tempered, let me put it that way. I think it takes agency. It takes people saying, “Actually, I really believe in the Democratic Party or the Republican Party, but I’m not going to go with the flow if they stand against something that is a part of a democratic structure. If somebody else won, I’m going to admit that they won.” It takes agency, and we have to be grown-ups here and realize that the stakes are pretty high if we lose that and just go with what we want to believe rather than what we know to be true.
KLUTSEY: Rachel, it’s been a real pleasure. It’s been absolutely enlightening talking to you. Thank you very much for taking the time.
KLEINFELD: Thank you, Ben. Really wonderful.