A specter is haunting democracy ― the specter of chaos.
It is spreading from a decidedly ordered source. Over the summer, the American Political Science Association granted one of its most prestigious awards to a trio of researchers purporting to show the emergence of a new “psychological syndrome” common among disaffected young men. This phenomenon, which the authors ominously dubbed a “Need for Chaos,” is disrupting politics not only in the United States but also in other “advanced Democracies.”
This new Chaos Voter Theory is quickly hardening into conventional wisdom in the American political discourse, its findings deemed essential to understanding the motivations of Trump voters. The paper has been written up on The New York Times op-ed page, covered in detail by Esquire and New York Magazine, referenced by The Washington Post and Slate, cited as both vindication for the Democratic Party establishment and evidence of its intellectual bankruptcy.
The sudden attention to the Chaos Voter is not an obtuse academic exercise; it has the potential to reshuffle the way Democrats understand “electability” heading into 2020 ― the fuzzy concept that party faithful overwhelmingly cite as their overriding priority in the primary. But the underlying study is both deeply flawed and easy to misinterpret ― offering as many lessons about Democratic voters as it does about Trump’s supporters.
That’s in part because the study isn’t explicitly about President Trump or Trump voters at all. Three political scientists ― two from Denmark’s Aarhus University and one from Temple University in Philadelphia ― collaborated to examine the spread of “hostile political rumors” over social media in both countries. These included anything from cuckoo-bananas conspiracy theories to a feverish emphasis on real political scandals. All told, they surveyed more than 5,000 Americans and over 1,300 Danes.
They discovered that people who share these things don’t really care if they’re true. Posting them is instead an act of political defiance directed broadly at “elites,” and the chief motivation is not to illuminate the masses but to damage those overlords. Critically, this defiance is generally not partisan in any conventional sense. People who share a lot of hostile rumors target Republicans and Democrats alike, and they don’t really care which parties or candidates end up reaping political benefits. The researchers also found a strong correlation between those who share hostile political rumors and those who support what they call “violent activism” (more on this deeply misleading label later) and a “Need for Chaos.”
How did researchers figure this out? By asking people whether they agreed with eight apocalyptic statements:
“I get a kick when natural disasters strike in foreign countries”
“I fantasize about a natural disaster wiping out most of humanity such that a small group of people can start all over”
“I need chaos around me ― it is too boring if nothing is going on”
“Sometimes I just feel like destroying beautiful things”
“There is no right and wrong in the world”
“I think society should be burned to the ground”
“When I think about our political and social institutions, I cannot help thinking “just let them all burn”
“We cannot fix the problems in our social institutions, we need to tear them down and start over.”
The more out-there the statement, the fewer respondents agreed. But endorsing these ideas was closely associated with sharing hostile political rumors on social media.
All of this makes intuitive sense. People who spread conspiracy theories on Facebook are probably going to be more likely to say wacky things to academic researchers. But the study’s most startling conclusions aren’t about the lunatic fringe. According to the study, 40% of Americans are sympathetic to the expressions about letting political institutions “all burn” and to “tear them down and start over.”
The authors thus conclude democracy is in peril: “We suggest that these chaotic motivations go beyond traditional forms of democratic discontent such as political cynicism and populism,” they write. “Instead, they are potentially more akin to precursors of the sentiments associated with radicalism” ― and by “radicalism” they mean violent riots. Social media looniness, they conclude, is not unlike the word-of-mouth rumors that swirled ahead of ethnic cleansing in Rwanda and the Balkans.
OK, time to take a deep breath. The threat of fascism in this country is very real. Fascist street gangs are regularly running amok, and they killed a woman in Charlottesville, Virginia, two years ago. But there’s a serious problem with the way the study talks about “violence” ― and a parallel problem with the way the researchers have grappled with the language of destruction.
There is something fundamentally flawed with a study that claims Europe and America are packed with violent activists when its researchers haven’t actually studied violent activism or political violence at all. Instead, this trio of political scientists asked survey participants to respond to hypothetical, morally complex situations that involve the use of violence. One example: “I would attack police or security forces if I saw them beating members of my group.”
There may well be important insights to be gleaned from the responses. But we can’t conclude that people who agree with those statements are part of some latent “violent activist” movement or even that they might be prone to such acts. If you want to know what goes on in the minds of people who engage in political violence, you need to study people who have actually committed political violence and examine the ways in which they differ from people who haven’t. The authors acknowledge this flaw deep in the paper ― but it’s a caveat that undermines their most inflammatory conclusion. Throughout the study, they refer to enthusiasts of “violent activism” ― something they simply have not studied.
There’s a similar problem with the “burn it all down” stuff. This is just the way people talk when they really don’t like something. Our language is littered with violent idioms that don’t actually express violent intent. When I say, “I hope the Washington Nationals beat the hell out of the Houston Astros,” I do not want members of the D.C. baseball team to pound their fists into the guys from Texas. I really want them to score more runs across nine innings.
What exactly do people mean when they say they want “all” political and social institutions torn down? Which institutions are “political” or “social”? Marriage? Health insurance companies? Congress? The military? The researchers don’t untangle any of this before concluding that “discontent radicals” have surprisingly high levels of support for efforts to “mobilize” against “democracy” under the banner of “chaos.”
The fact that a study with such egregious shortcomings still won a major political science award reflects poorly on the state of the field. But it doesn’t make the research meaningless. In fact, if you scratch the passing references to genocide, there’s a lot to learn from what the researchers have put together.
It’s important that the most prolific sharers of hostile political rumor are young men with relatively poor educational credentials who report high levels of “loneliness” and believe themselves to be stuck on the lower rungs of the social ladder. There are a lot of reasons why so many young men feel this way ― some of them deserve sympathy, others not so much. Traditional gender expectations do in fact generate shames and frustrations for men ― a point often overlooked in mainstream progressive discourse ― and navigating American adulthood without a college degree is a grind no matter what set of privileges you are born with. It is easy to feel simultaneously humiliated and overlooked, and the far-right offers a ready set of easy targets on which to train the resulting fury.
There are things Democrats could do to grapple with the problem of the lonely, angry young man, but none of them are easy or quick. The party is not going to convert far-right internet trolls into 2020 Democrats by pitching “Medicare for All” or helping Trump pass a new trade bill.
Fortunately, the overwhelming majority of that 40% of Americans who say they’re OK with burning down all social and political institutions are not prolific Facebook trolls. This is a huge swath of the electorate expressing a nonpartisan sense of outrage at the state of the country.
The key here is non-partisan, not bi-partisan. These people are not saying they want Democrats and Republicans to come together to pass common-sense legislation. They are not pining for a return to the days when Bill Clinton signed Republican bank deregulation and Democrats voted for George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq. They are not outraged about the unwillingness of the two parties to reach a grand bargain to lower the long-term federal budget deficit. People who want those things say they are fed up with partisanship. They do not say they want to burn down every social and political institution in the country.
There is a lot that this Chaos Voter study does not tell us. It doesn’t have anything to say about why people hate the current political system or what they hate about it. It doesn’t tell us how many of these people are white neo-Confederates or Hispanic steelworkers. It doesn’t tell us if they voted for Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton in 2016. It doesn’t tell us how many of them might be inclined to support Tulsi Gabbard or Pete Buttigieg in 2020.
But for most of the primary, Democratic Party voters and their leaders in Washington have acted under the assumption that the way to win over people who voted for Trump in 2016 is to mimic him. On Capitol Hill, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is trying to wrangle votes for Trump’s latest trade bill over the objections of labor unions and other liberal institutions. Every single candidate currently eligible for the next Democratic presid debate is white. There is pervasive concern that a candidate who is “too liberal” on just about any issue won’t appeal to voters in the Rust Belt. Democrats who propose big changes, the thinking goes, risk alienating people who like what Trump is doing.
In that way, the Chaos Voter study does provide a welcome dose of reality. When 40% of the country says it wants to burn down the system, the safe bet is on change, not caution.