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Politics & Policy

American Politics and the Appetite for Chaos

A U.S. flag is seen at Omaha Beach, near the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, as France prepares to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the D-Day, in Colleville sur Mer, France, June 4, 2019. (Christian Hartmann/Reuters)

Thomas Edsall’s column in the New York Times calls attention to a new paper by a trio of political scientists that contends that a significant chunk of the American electorate is increasingly driven by an appetite for “chaos incitement” — or, at least, that they feel that way when answering questions in a survey.

How do Petersen, Osmundsen and Arceneaux measure this “need for chaos”? They conducted six surveys, four in the United States, in which they interviewed 5157 participants, and two in Denmark, with 1336. They identified those who are “drawn to chaos” through their affirmative responses to the following statements:

  • I fantasize about a natural disaster wiping out most of humanity such that a small group of people can start all over.

  • 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.

  • Sometimes I just feel like destroying beautiful things.

In an email, Petersen wrote that preliminary examination of the data shows “that the ‘need for chaos’ correlates positively with sympathy for Trump but also — although less strongly — with sympathy for Sanders. It correlates negatively with sympathy for Hillary Clinton.”

(Entirely separate from Clinton’s qualities as a candidate or a person, the antipathy for Clinton isn’t that surprising; as a familiar face in American politics for a quarter-century, she represented the status quo in the 2016 election.)

If you wanted to encapsulate the antithesis of conservatism, you would probably say things like, “I think society should be burned to the ground” or “I just feel like destroying beautiful things.” This is nihilism and anarchism, conserving nothing, and it is maddening to see lazy, ill-informed, or mendacious observers conflate these attitudes with tenets of modern conservatism.

The study makes this important point: the people most prone to share a “hostile political rumor” don’t fit into our traditional partisan definitions. “We found that these political activists are promiscuous sharers and are motivated to share rumors that target any elite actors, independently of this actor’s political identity,” it says.

“I fantasize about a natural disaster wiping out most of humanity such that a small group of people can start all over”? Who the hell are these people? Aspiring James Bond foes? Samuel L. Jackson’s villain from Kingsman: The Secret Service who wanted a “culling” of humanity? Hydra?

The paper contends that “burn it down,” “burn it to the ground,” and “torn down” sentiments attract anywhere from 24 percent to 40 percent of the American public, a conclusion they admit is “staggering.”

“The extreme discontent expressed in the “Need for Chaos” scale is a minority view but it is a minority view with incredible amounts of support. Thus, if we want to know why hostile political rumors has gained prominence in public debate, the answer lies in Figure 3: A substantial minority of individuals are so discontent that they are willing to mobilize against the current political order to see if what emerges from the resulting chaos has something better in stock for them.”

In other words, a complete collapse of perspective on how good Americans have it today, and how bad things can get without the current strengths and benefits of a democratic republic and a mostly free-market economic system. The Great Recession was really painful for many Americans. To someone who survived the Holodomor, it would look pretty darn mild. Does chaos have something better in stock for you? Probably not. And if it does . . . man, have you wasted the opportunities that this free society has given you.

The political-science professors offer some important caveats:

On the basis of these surveys, we cannot – and we do not – claim that substantial numbers of Danish or American citizens are ready to go into actual fights with the police or commit other forms of political violence. But what is a methodological limitation might be seen as a substantive strength. Hence, this study provides insights into the kinds of thoughts and behaviors that people are motivated to entertain when they sit alone (and lonely) in front of the computer, answering surveys or surfing social media platforms. In an age of fake news and hostile political rumors, system-defeating behavior does not take much more than that. A few chaotic thoughts that leads to a few clicks to retweet or share is enough.

As unnerving as the study’s arguments are, they appear pretty clarifying. Our political battles of our era are not merely Left vs. Right but Nihilists vs. people who want to keep any part of the existing system. The Left encompasses big-government politicians in suits who embrace statism, but also Antifa, which definitely has a strong appetite for chaos.


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