Dr. Rachel Kleinfeld: What Causes Political Violence?
Dr. Rachel Kleinfeld discusses political violence, the possibility of a Civil War, and extremism.
Rachel is an expert on democracy, security, and international relations. She’s currently a senior fellow in Carnegie’s Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program, where she regularly briefs the governments of the United States and allied democracies on issues of conflict, the rule of law, and policing and security sector reform. Her most recent book, A Savage Order, examines ‘why democracies are crippled by extreme violence and how they can regain security.’
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Dr. Rachel Kleinfeld:
Looking at the neighbors and seeing ‘Is there a shared identity?’ You both live on the same road. And I'm not saying kumbaya, we all love each other. I'm just saying complicate your identity. Think about whether your side has blind spots and whether the other side doesn't, because that's the first part of outreach.
My guest today is Dr. Rachel Kleinfeld, an expert on democracy, security, and international relations. Her most recent book, A Savage Order, examines why democracies are crippled by extreme violence and how they can regain in security. Rachel, welcome to the show.
Dr. Rachel Kleinfeld:
So glad to be here.
I want to read back to you something you recently tweeted because it captures what I want to talk about today.
“It's easy to think that the U.S. is back to normal post mid-terms. Instead, we are normalizing an unacceptably high rate of political violence. We have always been a violent country, especially when compared to other liberal western democracies.”
What makes the political violence we are now experiencing different? Why is it so dangerous?
Dr. Rachel Kleinfeld:
So, America's always had a lot of political violence, back to our founding — but then it grew under the Know-Nothing Party in the 1820s and 30s. It grew under Jim Crow and lynching and voter suppression. And it grew in the sixties and seventies, of course, but what's different now is that it's mainstreaming.
So, in the sixties and seventies, you had violent fringes mostly on the left, that were committing a lot of violence. The Symbionese Liberation Army and the Weather Underground and so on. But they were disavowed by major political parties.
And then in the eighties and nineties, you started to get militia movements and anti-abortion and more right-wing violence, but still, disavowed by major political parties. What we started seeing over the last five or six years now is that violence is not only being disavowed by major political parties, but by the right, I should say, it is still being largely disavowed by the left, although not entirely. It's also mainstreaming so that you're seeing these greater numbers of people justifying violence instead of it just being young, unemployed men without kids, without being married. That's who usually commits violence all around the world, are these kinds of rootless young men.
You're starting to see older men married with kids who are members of their churches, members of their communities, justifying and committing politically violent acts and that's a real problem.
Are there analogs in American history that we can learn from? And it's a leading question because we had Dr. Kathleen Belew on, who talked about the last time such political violence was mainstreamed with the rise of the KKK and the cover that a major American political party gave it.
What can we learn from our history about what happens when political violence makes its way into a major political party?
Dr. Rachel Kleinfeld:
So, it's a great point. The KKK has risen a couple of times and it's a nice way of tracking this, sadly enough. It first rose during reconstruction, and what you saw was the Democratic Party under reconstruction really embracing the KKK. In fact, they had an organizing meeting at the same hotel over the same days where the Democratic Party formed a southern strategy post reconstruction. And the KKK had a meeting of its own. And it really looks — although the evidence is circumstantial, as if the KKK and other violent groups were forming as a vigilante action to suppress the vote prior to elections in the South. And you saw these incredibly violent elections in the 1876 election particularly, that allowed the Democrats to regain power, kick the Northern Army out, and start reconsolidating.
The KKK came back in the 1920s, and there again, you saw it infiltrate both political parties. And so, you actually had a lot of KKK members who were right and left members of the Democrats and Republicans. And what you saw then was a lot of violence directed against minorities and immigrants. So, Germans since World War I, Italians, that sort of thing. And gradually, that went back down and then it came back in the sixties and seventies. And I would say the last time we saw this kind of organized, structured political violence was actually in the fifties right before that, after Brown versus Board of Education, when you had a strategy in the south of massive resistance to that social change.
And political leaders quite openly would speak about their need for that kind of resistance. And you had white citizen councils in a lot of southern states form among business people and kind of respectable people.
But then, you had these KKK and vigilante groups forming among more violent individuals who were willing to kind of work in parallel.
You have cited alarming statistics about the number of Americans who think we are on the brink of Civil War, over half of Republicans and shockingly to me, nearly a third of Democrats. Why do you think we are at this point where so many Americans think this is an inevitability?
Dr. Rachel Kleinfeld:
A lot of signs of Civil War are there, is why I think. Now, a strong democracy with strong institutions like America has never fallen into Civil War. When we had our Civil War before, we had I think 11 or 12 times just a tiny military, huge amount of corruption. We were just an entirely different country. And so, on the one hand, we have strong resilience factors but we also have a lot of the risk factors in terms of the violent rhetoric that conflict entrepreneurs are really amping up. A lot of people look to the number of weapons in private hands as a reason to be worried. That's actually not a good tale, as it were. We don't see a lot of correlation between that and violence, but we do see correlation between weakening institutions and the ability to have violence, and we are seeing that.
Abraham Lincoln predicted the Civil War decades before it happened. He famously gave a speech saying that America would never die at the hands of foreign enemies but we might die by suicide. And it's because he saw targeted hate. It was a speech right after a series of lynchings and mob actions against African-Americans, and he could see the rule of law decline and how that could lead eventually, to Civil War. And that's what we're seeing now. We're seeing political violence up five times, threats against members of Congress up 10 times, that kind of thing.
You referenced these indicators of impending Civil War and there's this checklist that's been making the rounds that has become quite popular. What are some of the other items on that checklist that (last time I looked at it, every box was ticked) when you think about countries that have the precondition set for massive civil strife?
Dr. Rachel Kleinfeld:
I held a conference with a group called the Bridging Divides Initiative in the fall of 2019, where Nealin Parker, who now works with Search for Common Ground created a checklist based on international factors that led to Civil War. And even then, a lot of those things were checked. A lot of those books were checked, and it's worse now. One thing you look at is polarization not just of political parties, but a real factionalization or a factionalization of their constituencies by identity. The more those identities are stacked, the more problematic.
So, if you are voting for a political party but you could look like anything, that's not so dangerous. But if you know by looking at someone what political party they're likely to vote for, that's more dangerous. And if, you know by knowing someone's religion, what political party they'll vote for, where someone lives, that's even more dangerous. And we’re starting to see that.
So, these stacked identities where your race, your religion, your gender even and so on, are all forming a kind of composite identity, that makes you much more risky. When you start seeing political leaders who are willing to then play on that composite identity to build an us-them kind of polarization, that becomes pretty risky conflict.
Entrepreneurs play a really big role in Civil War. They tend to start coming from both sides. Right now, we're mostly seeing them from the right. If we start seeing more from the left of these conflict entrepreneurs, that'll be even more dangerous. The structure of violence, I should say, is very different on the right and the left, which is why I think the right expects it more. The right is getting these conflict entrepreneurs, they're getting these signals that their identity is so much under threat. On the left, partisan Democrats are actually much less willing to justify violence than people of the left who don't see themselves as democratic. People on the left who see themselves as kind of too progressive for the Democratic party are more likely to justify violence.
And I think that discrepancy means that we're not quite equal. We're not at a kind of equal Civil War standing. One side is much more belligerent than the other, as it were.
Is there some constitutional difference? And I don't mean in the legal sense, I mean in the deep definitional sense between the mindset on the left and the mindset on the right that these days leads the right to violent solutions for societal problems.
I'm just thinking about past conversation with Miles Taylor we had on here. And my reaction was, the right seems motivated today out of fear and revanchism and a desire to turn back the clock, and violence is suitable for that. The left, at least constitutionally, is motivated by this idea of progress for which a violent solution is anathema.
Is that too naive? Is that just the Democrat in me speaking? Or are there deep personality differences that drive people on the right to violence?
Dr. Rachel Kleinfeld:
So, personality is what's most correlated with violence. After you get past the fact that most violence is committed by young men, then it comes down to personality. And you find that aggressive personalities, and there's a scorecard for it that social scientists use much more likely to commit violence.
We also see really strong correlations with domestic violence and with misogyny, particularly kind of a dominance, this idea that men should be dominant in society. You see people justifying violence because they're racist and they score high on various indices of racist belief, but they don't actually commit it. The ones that are committing it more seem to have more issues with women. And of course, those things were highly correlated. So, yes, it's a personality that says “Men should be dominant. I'm a man generally, most violence is committed by men. And to reassert my dominance in the face of a sense that I'm kind of losing status or that things are getting out of control, I'm going to resort to violent measures.”
But you take that personality set among a broad group of people and then you put in ideology on top of it because most people who are normally socialized just don't commit violence, whether they want to or not. First of all, they know they'll be punished for it in most countries. But also, it takes a lot to get someone to commit violence. So, atop that, you have to lay a foundation of dehumanization, you make the other side seem less than human. Talk about them as groomers rather than as people or pedophiles or use other kind of coded language. You can pose them as a threat, a threat to your way of life. People are much more likely to commit violence if they feel they're being defensive rather than offensive. So, if they're defending their kids against an elite pedophilic ring as the QAnon story tells them or if they're defending Christianity against an onslaught of foreign religions, that'll make them more likely.
And so, as you dehumanize, as you pose other people as a threat, and as you let people have a sense of a role and a heroic story that they're patriots, they're citizens, they're actually doing the right thing to defend democracy, then you greatly increase the chances that these aggressive individuals will act. And what we're seeing on the right is exactly that. And I think you're right that it's because they don't have a great future story to paint. And it's just incumbent upon all of us to find that future story before dangerous things happen.
I like that framing, “finding a future story.” The dominant response on the left right now seems to inform better, to tell the truth as best the left can about the nature of the Democratic Party and to just pump more information into the information ecosystem that democratic politicians aren't, for example, groomers.
And I just think that might be hopelessly naive in a current context where that information isn't getting through the Fox News filter, much less the Newsmax filter or the other right-wing outlets where these people who tend towards violence get their information.
Is there another way besides hoping that disinformation can be countered with the truth?
Dr. Rachel Kleinfeld:
So, you're absolutely right that there is no quality research that suggests that the truth will win out or that it can beat disinformation, just none, everything points in the other direction. And people remember stories much more than they remember facts. And so, telling a story is really important.
Right now, the right is telling a really potent story. It's basically the great replacement theory, which used to be a white nationalist, white supremacist story. It wasn't in polite company, but now, it gets told by Tucker Carlson and so on. It's this idea that white Christian people, in particularly men, are being replaced by elites who want to push up women and minorities and push down these white men, and particularly, rural men and so on. And those elites might be Jews who are bringing in foreigners, they might be business elites and corporations, they might be democratic elites who are linked to pedophiles.
But in any case, what they're trying to do is push down this majority group of Americans who used to run the country and push up themselves in these other groups. Now, that is a strong story. It's really easy to remember, lots of information seems to point out that it might be a little true. There's lots of kernels of truth, which is how conspiracy theories work. And it's deeply emotional. No one wants to be replaced or made redundant.
And so, if Democrats try to counter that story with facts, there will always be facts that can be found on the other side that bolster that story, particularly since there are immigrants in our country and there are women, and there are other groups that are trying to get ahead themselves.
And so, I think what needs to happen is that Democrats and the left, and Republicans who believe in our democracy and who are also being targeted quite a bit by political violence, all need to get together and find a better story. And it needs to be future-oriented. I think the folks who are believing these horrible things are not necessarily horrible people. And it's really important to separate those two things out. I've worked in the past a lot in post-conflict societies where you welcome back rebels, young people, all sorts of groups that have done just unspeakable things, and they have to come back into society.
We're not at that point yet, and we have to find a way to bring people back from the brink who are currently in this really dark path but who do have better angels.
Can you think of a national story that is future-oriented, that doesn't require an adversary? I'm trying to imagine that future story you're invoking and want to imagine one that is oriented towards progress and not just aligning around a new enemy.
Dr. Rachel Kleinfeld:
America specializes in these stories really. In the 1800s for maybe 50 years, we had a national story of progress that said, "We are a country chosen by God to lead the world in a means of progress in all sorts of different ways." It deeply connected with America's religious roots. It allowed people to think of progress in various different ways. And they did interpret it in various different ways but it also led to a lot of self-improvements and a lot of good things.
So, you had right and left interpreting that basic story differently, but it drew on this deep sense that we were chosen again, a historic heroic mission. We all have a role in that heroic mission, and that heroic mission requires us to be our best selves and to work as a community or as independent. And you saw it back then too, the right and the left moving in different directions on that particular issue in order to build the country so that we could literally bring about the second coming. It was a very religious, evangelical kind of a story.
I happen to be Jewish, it's not my story, but you can pull parts of that story for America to have a mission in the world. Again, we do have a moment in which democracy is under a threat. So, you can pull in foreign enemies if you want. But you can also just say we've never had a multi-ethnic nation on this scale that has achieved a real inclusive democracy. How do we do that so that no one's left behind, not just a new hierarchy.
Given how unique America's circumstances are, especially the scale of our multi-ethnic democracy, are there contemporary examples we can look to?
You've done a ton of research in post-conflict societies and I'm drawn to your study of Columbia, for example, but how relevant are these case studies of countries that have managed to emerge from these incredibly destructive bouts of violence?
Dr. Rachel Kleinfeld:
So, I think there's two different questions in there. The first is whether we have any parallels we can draw from?
Justin Gest has written about … The White Working Class, he's written about immigrants, and he also wrote a book called Majority Minority (I'm not fond of the name), but it's about countries that have gone through this transition.
I'm not fond of the name because I don't know that we're actually going to go through this transition. Hispanics could well become white the way that immigrants (in the past Italians and Irish) were reinterpreted from being ethnic and racial minorities to being white. And so, our belief that we're going through this transition might be erroneous actually.
However, he looks at a number of states, cities, places like New York that have gone through this transition and comes up with a set of lessons that we can draw about how best to do it, among other things, keeping control over borders and so on. Not doing it in an illegal or out of control manner really matters to people. It's not that they necessarily hate the other but they want to feel in control.
I have a kid who has this kind of tendency, just really wants to have control. And you can see it in a seven-year-old very easily, but we can see it in our fellow citizens too when they feel that they've lost control over one part of life, they're going to push it down in another. So, I think that's one major lesson we can draw.
The other part of your question was really, how can we look forward as a country and draw lessons from other countries about violent conflict?
Luckily, we have not had a lot of violent conflict. I write about the violence we have had because it's too much for a consolidated democracy like our own, but it's not anywhere at the scale of Columbia and even Sicily that I write about and so on.
And so, we should take a lot of heart that we're not that far, and we can draw a lot of lessons from their depolarization that you can't just try to win in a polarized country. One side wins and the other side loses, and the other side wins and your side loses — it just goes back and forth because you're so polarized.
You have to go around the polarization by finding a new story that can unite people in some level of agreement the way Columbia said, “Okay, we're never going to agree on whether the guerillas or the paramilitaries or the bad guys here, but can we agree that we need a new constitution because nothing in our government is working and people could agree on that.”
And that was a first step forward. So, we need to get around this polarization rather than just trying to beat the other side because eventually, the other side will beat us.
How much hope do you have that we can achieve that? We're at the point now where we're talking about accountability, not reconciliation, and you have talked about the dangers that come with holding popular leaders accountable.
Dr. Rachel Kleinfeld:
I'm really on the fence about accountability. I think I rethink this question 10 times a day. One idea is that we cannot have — the Republican Party right now is at war with itself. Really, we worry a lot about the violent spillover that's happening to minorities and women and Democrats, but the real war for power is within the Republican Party and the MAGA faction much, much more violent.
If you look at Garen Wintemute’s survey findings really a lot of the violence almost all is being driven by the MAGA faction within Republicans, and they're targeting other Republicans. They're targeting the Rusty Bowers and the Liz Cheneys and the Adam Kinzinger and so on.
So, one idea of accountability is that if you start holding the most violent leaders and these individuals who are allowing the proliferation of rule of law failures to account, you can actually allow the re-emergence of a just a normal conservative party.
Our country needs a normal conservative party. We have a lot of conservatives in the country, and so somebody's got to represent them and hopefully, it is a pro-democratic group of conservatives who just told policy beliefs that I may or may not agree with.
But to allow that group to re-emerge, we might need to have some accountability to tamp down the other side. Because right now, you have someone like Liz Cheney running in Wyoming and she can't even hold public campaign events because she's getting so many threats. Did she lose because of her beliefs or did she lose because she couldn't campaign? It's hard to know.
I think the implication there is that there is a silent majority in the Republican party that if its will could be expressed, would relegate the extremists to the fringes. My fear is that's no longer the case when you have the extremists literally, holding the gavel in the House of Representatives.
Marjorie Taylor Greene presided just last week. You have people like Doug Mastriano as the Republican nominee for governor in Pennsylvania. The extremists are winning, if not with the general public, at least with the Republican voting base.
What hope do you hold that cooler heads will prevail, that the pro-democracy wing of the Republican party will re-emerge and reassert itself, when you have all of these data points that suggest the extremists not only have the loudest megaphones, but are taking positions of power?
Dr. Rachel Kleinfeld:
So, what the survey data shows is that there's about a quarter to a third of Republicans really around 28 to 30% that are just hardcore MAGA, really personally involved, really deeply committed to that. It's not a majority, but it's a large plurality. And the way our institutions are structured, the way our primary system works and so on, that large vocal plurality gets to pick the nominee. And then what you have are just a lot of identity Republicans, they're never going to vote for a Democrat, they're deeply committed to their team.
I saw some pictures of Marjorie Taylor Greene from the State of Union yesterday and it looks like she's at a football match. She's cheering and she's yelling and she's acting in a completely non-congressional manner. But I think that football match energy is how a lot of people think about their side partisan-wise and they're not going to vote for the other side. And so, the problem is, if you've got this hardcore base that's a plurality, but a system of primaries and safe seats whereby over 90% of our congressional seats are safe right now. At the state level, it's often even more.
Everything gets decided in the primary and you have this rapid base that's going to come out in the primary, then yes, you're going to lose a whole party to these extremists.
In Europe and other places that have different electoral systems where they still have 25 or 30% populist or given to extremes, they don't win. They win some portion of parliament but they can't win the whole game because they have a different system. We need a different system and it's one of the reasons I've argued a lot for a whole bunch of flavors of different system from what we have in my native Alaska, which is now kind of final four to final five. And Nevada just voted in favor of thinking about that. Massachusetts and Maine or have been experimenting with ranked choice voting. But basically, any system that takes power away from the primary and lets general election voters have a stronger say is going to reduce the extremism and let the Republican Party come back to the majority of Republicans.
The problem with achieving that kind of reform is that it depends in most cases, on the people in power for whom those reforms are fatal. I would love to learn more about how Alaska pulled it off and stopped an extremist from going back to Washington, Sarah Palin. Was that a grassroots effort that the powers that be could not resist?
Dr. Rachel Kleinfeld:
So, the effort to build these more open systems that issue primaries is both grassroots, it's extremely supported by a lot of rank and file people. And there's some national organizations and the basic strategy is to look at states where you can win by referendum.
So, you can go to the people and ask because you're absolutely right, power holders of both parties do not like the way that they achieve power to be disrupted because if they're holding power, they're good at the game and they want to keep the game rules the way that that they are.
And so, you generally need the voters themselves to push for it. And in case after case, when it's put to the voters, they're willing to experiment. People are tired of our current politics, they want a way out.
You've talked about the threat to American institutions, which raises for me, the specter of losing our democracy not through some violent crescendo, but through piecemeal attacks on our institutions.
Can you share with us some of your thinking and writing about how those key institutions in American society are being weakened primarily from the right?
Dr. Rachel Kleinfeld:
So, this is actually what most concerns me because as I said, you don't get a civil war in strong democracies. The institutions stop it, particularly the military stops it before you get to that point. But when institutions weaken, it becomes more likely. And what we're seeing is attacks on our institutions.
What does that mean? It means things like Trump not filling all these ombudsman positions or demoting ombudsman, getting rid of the investigative areas within different government agencies that are supposed to root out politicization and use of those agencies. Really boring stuff, but really important to the functioning of democracy.
You're also seeing the attempt to alter our election institutions. Things like the body that oversees whether election financing is done right or not, not appointing people to that body. Efforts to demonize the media, every populist around the world does this.
Sometimes they try to control the media, sometimes they try to delegitimate it, and that's what's happening in America in order to keep just the idea of facts out of the public mind. They often play with statistical agencies, we saw that here. So, again, facts get reduced.
But the most dangerous of all of these kinds of institutional attacks are attacks that involve security institutions. And for obvious reasons, because that's kind of your last line of defense. What we saw under Trump was a real effort to reach out to police and sheriffs in particular, and to politicize those institutions.
They were helped a little bit by the fact of the BLM protests and so on that made a lot of police quite uncomfortable at the same time that they were getting this outreach from Trump. But the sheriffs are particularly problematic because sheriffs are directly elected, and there's a movement within the sheriff's called the Constitutional Sheriff's Movement.
It comes from a white supremacist movement in the seventies that says that they're allowed to directly interpret the constitution. And while it's erroneous history, it's shared by a lot of sheriffs in the rural west and parts of the south and so on.
And so, you have a lot of these law enforcement bodies that think that they have the right to get political. And there's organizations of the right, like the Claremont Institute that are pulling these sheriffs together, starting fellowship programs for them, trying to kind of politically indoctrinate them and make them political actors. That's really dangerous.
Also, within the military, we know that we have an extremely professional military, probably the most professional in the entire world, but Germany just saw that some of its special forces were literally planning to launch a coup.
We have some issues of extremism within our own military. We know that foreign actors have been particularly targeting our military because they're high-value targets. If you can get a military person, you get a lot of skills that come with that person. It's why the military gets so trained by our government and it's why other folks want them.
And so, they're being really targeted by misinformation and disinformation and radicalizing groups like the Oath Keepers. And if that creates dissension in the ranks where some of your rank can file, move toward that belief set while the leaders don't, and you've had a couple of lost wars, that's the kind of situation that can create dissension in the ranks, and that's kind of where we are.
How about the threat that radicalized and disillusioned and highly trained veterans may pose?
Dr. Rachel Kleinfeld:
So, there's some great groups like we, the veterans that are working on exactly this problem because it's a real thing. We see the Oath Keepers targeting veterans and saying, “You took an oath once. Take an oath, oath again, continue to be a citizen, continue to defend your country.”
It's a really emotionally potent call for someone who feels that they might have lost some sense of meaning when they stepped out of uniform and are looking for some meaning again. And if you look at the survey work on particularly veterans of the Afghanistan war, by more in common, it's pretty devastating.
I've been to Afghanistan, I had an awful lot of friends of the generation that fought in Afghanistan, and the way we pulled out was dishonorable. And a lot of people feel that way who served in uniform or who lost friends over there. And the desire to reassert some form of dignity and honor through force of arms could lead people to a pretty dark place again.
Yeah, I don't think we overlapped at Yale, but I had a professor there who studied this issue and would talk about the crescendo of violence that was a prerequisite to reconciliation. And it always bothered the heck out of me, this idea that you had to have a Northern Ireland style conflict in order to emerge as a peaceful society.
And his comparable was South Africa, which didn't have enough of a crescendo and remained a violent society. I mean, I think I've just offered my objections to that, but what do you think? Is there anything convincing in that argument, that you have to go through a crucible to emerge a more peaceful society?
Dr. Rachel Kleinfeld:
So, he wasn't one of my professors, but I certainly know who you're talking about. And the work, just the data suggests that before the 1990s, that was actually true. That that was the way you achieved more lasting peace.
After the 1990s, that became less true and then not true at all. What you saw was that the United Nations negotiated settlements, all this sort of thing, just got much better. It became a much more professional field. People learned how to do it. They learned how to do it in Northern Ireland as well.
They learned how to stop spoilers. They learned how to placate different elite groups. They learned that war was really about the elite groups, that the rebels were fighting but they were fighting because various elites wanted pieces of the pie, and you had to figure out how to dole out that pie in a way. And they figured out how to bring other groups in so that the stability of that piece lasted. And so, the findings themselves got discredited over time, and I don't think they're true now.
I do think though, that we're in a really difficult period. I write about this and other violence experts like Robert Muggah and so on, right about this. What we have now with most conflicts and what we would have in America if America falls into conflict, is lots and lots of groups fighting.
So, this isn't the gray and the blue in our Civil War with organized generals and a clear cause and one person can surrender the way Robert E. Lee surrendered. What you have is 20, 30, 40, a hundred groups who generally share a cause, but lots of splinters, lots of little leaders, lots of splinters as you try to make peace, and it becomes much, much harder.
Some of those groups are ideologically focused. Some of them are more pecuniary. So, what they're trying to do is get some money or make some profit or sort of move themselves up in the social ladder because of the violence. I am sure we would see that in the United States.
We're already seeing that with the misinformation and disinformation that some people seem ideologically motivated and some are just grifters who are trying to make a buck on MAGA hats and their websites ads.
And so, you can't placate those people because they actually benefit from the conflict. The longer it goes, the more money they make. And there might be a lot of those people. You can just imagine the sales of security equipment and all sorts of things going through the roof. So, that kind of a conflict, which is what we see-
Can I interrupt for a second? I mean, you don't have to imagine the sales of security equipment. You look at what the firearms industry is doing, creating these fears, telling women that the only thing that's going to keep them safe is a handgun in their purse. And sales have shot through the roof.
In some communities, during the height of COVID — I mean, I'm lucky to live in a community that came together, but my parents lived in a community where gun stores were one of the few essential businesses that were allowed to stay open. I mean, it is with us now.
Dr. Rachel Kleinfeld:
You're absolutely right. Gun sales went through the roof in 2020. They kept growing in 2021, and not only did they start growing this period, but most gun sales in the past had been to people who already owned guns. They were just acquiring more and more.
But what we started to see was lots more first-time buyers, and lots more first-time buyers who are women, people of color, people who previously might have issued firearms. So, you're absolutely right, and the trust metric is really important here. And it gets to those two communities that you were just talking about.
When people distrust each other, they seek to protect themselves. And you don't just have the NRA whispering in people's ear, although you certainly have that. We saw gun sales go up in Hungary during COVID and lots of other countries where guns were actually pretty restricted.
So, what's important is to rebuild the social trust, and populists like Donald Trump thrive on destroying social trust. Their voters tend to be the least trusting. People who believe in conspiracy theories are twice as likely to vote for populace, which is one reason they spread them.
And so, this distrust that just erodes the ability of society to come together is actually probably the most pernicious thing that we need to start dealing with.
I'm taking notes here because I'm going to act on them. What are some ground level practical things that we can do to begin to rebuild that trust beyond listening to the right podcasts or joining the right party. What can people do to rebuild trust with neighbors who think they're subhuman, that they're the groomers, that kind of thing?
Dr. Rachel Kleinfeld:
So, I think different groups can do different things. It sort of depends where you stand is where you sit. The person who writes about this best is Amanda Ripley, who's a just brilliant journalist who writes about complicating the narrative, and has done a whole book on how you get out of what she calls high conflict that I strongly recommend.
So, a lot of different things can be done. If you're a journalist or work in the media or have blogs, you need to complicate the narrative. There are people on the right who feel differently about immigration. A lot of business owners are actually quite pro-immigration anti-violence.
There are people on the left who feel differently about all sorts of issues. Some of your most conservative Democrats are actually African-American Democrats who are having a real hard time on abortion issues right now, especially some of the religious ones.
And so, complicating the story by mixing the identities that we've grown to think of is so simplistic. I mean, we've become such a fairytale children's story kind of a country. We can't handle any kind of shades of gray. We need a lot more shades of gray.
And so, that's one thing the media can do, but it's also something we can do. Looking at the neighbors and seeing is there a shared identity. You both live on the same road, do you both shovel your drives and make it safe on the sidewalks after a snowstorm? Or is one person just a pure out and out jerk?
Coming from Alaska, shoveling from snow is important part of community service, but there's a lot of others that you can look at. If they're not a total and complete antisocial jerk, is there something you can build on?
And I'm not saying kumbaya, we all love each other. I'm just saying complicate your identity. Think about whether your side has blind spots and whether the other side doesn't, because that's the first part of outreach. We need to be really careful about the jokes we tell.
I've gotten hit on this by social media. People don't like some woman telling … especially if it's a misogynistic thing, don't make jokes. But the research shows that jokes get beyond our rational filters.
So, you might be a kind of peace-loving Democrat who would never pick up a weapon, but you're happy to share a meme of someone chopping off Donald Trump's head.
The fact is because it gets beyond filters, it normalizes a kind of discourse and a kind of crudeness in our discourse that leads to the kind of MTG outbursts that we saw yesterday, and then leads aggressive people to be willing to commit violence. And so, it's really important to kind of be aware of that.
And then I think all of us need to be aware of where we're creating a sense of threat, because when people feel threatened, they're operating from fear. And people who operate from fear get defensive, their IQs go down. There's all sorts of psychological things that happen when people are scared, and their desire to buttress their identity grows.
And so, just like if you're married and you push the button of your spouse that you know is going to make them feel defensive, your fight is not gonna go in a good place after that.
Both sides in America keep doing that. We keep pushing the others button and then stepping back and saying, “But I'm rational and I'm just arguing.” That's not how you get past this. And I think that the base idea is that we have to want to get past this.
I don't think a lot of people do. I think it's actually much more pleasant to feel that your side is right and that you can just crush the other side. And that's really where most people are.
The problem is we're really pretty 50/50 as a nation. We're not going to crush the other side. There are about 30 states that have Republican trifectas and triplexes. That means the governor, the attorney general, both houses of the legislature, basically up and down everybody's Republican. You're not going to turn those states Democratic.
And so, we just have to get out of the idea that we're going to win this and crush the other side. And we have to look at, okay, if we're not going to win it, how do we bring another side back to normalcy?
And to do that, you need to stop pushing the button that makes them defensive and fearful all the time, and start pulling them toward your side, and that's where we need to be.
Well, Rachel, I think that's a great note to end on. Thank you so much for joining us.
Dr. Rachel Kleinfeld:
Thanks again to Rachel joining me. Make sure to check her book A Savage Order. The link is in the show description.
To hear more from Rachel, visit her website, rachelkleinfeld.com.
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Burn the Boats is a production of Evergreen Podcasts. Our producer is Declan Rohrs, and Sean Rule-Hoffman is our audio engineer. Special thanks to evergreen executive producers, Joan Andrews, Michael DeAloia, and David Moss. I'm Ken Harbaugh, and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions.