The Corner

Politics & Policy

This Is Why Politicians Aren’t Supposed to Play with Fire

A man shouts as protesters gather in front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., January 6, 2021. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

People do dumb things, particularly when they’re driven by fear or rage.

Back in 2015, Malcolm Gladwell wrote in The New Yorker about school shooters and the concept of “thresholds of violence,” and summarized the research of Stanford sociologist Mark Granovetter into the psychology and decision-making of people who participated in a riot:

But Granovetter thought it was a mistake to focus on the decision-making processes of each rioter in isolation. In his view, a riot was not a collection of individuals, each of whom arrived independently at the decision to break windows. A riot was a social process, in which people did things in reaction to and in combination with those around them. Social processes are driven by our thresholds—which he defined as the number of people who need to be doing some activity before we agree to join them. In the elegant theoretical model Granovetter proposed, riots were started by people with a threshold of zero—instigators willing to throw a rock through a window at the slightest provocation. Then comes the person who will throw a rock if someone else goes first. He has a threshold of one. Next in is the person with the threshold of two. His qualms are overcome when he sees the instigator and the instigator’s accomplice. Next to him is someone with a threshold of three, who would never break windows and loot stores unless there were three people right in front of him who were already doing that—and so on up to the hundredth person, a righteous upstanding citizen who nonetheless could set his beliefs aside and grab a camera from the broken window of the electronics store if everyone around him was grabbing cameras from the electronics store.

This is why politicians playing with people’s fear and anger is like an angry child playing with matches and gasoline. People who are fearful or angry will do things that they would never do when they’re in another emotional state. No one walks around violently angry every minute of every day; pretty soon a rage-aholic runs into some sort of serious consequence. Most drivers who exhibit road rage are “normal” until someone veers in front of them without using a turn signal.

And it is extremely difficult for a political leader to raise the level of fear and anger in his supporters to the perfectly calibrated level where they donate money and chant and vote and participate in the political process legitimately, but don’t cross any moral or legal lines into something criminal or horrific. If you relentlessly demonize cops, sooner or later someone full of passion and short on judgment will take a shot at a police officer. If you relentlessly demonize illegal immigrants, sooner or later some guys will have too much to drink and beat up someone they think is an illegal immigrant. Any rhetoric that states or implies, “This kind of violence and criminality is okay, because the right perpetrators are hurting the right targets” is going to set off something terrible.

Most wise elected officials and candidates recognize the danger of trying to whip people up into a frenzy, and won’t touch this kind of rhetoric with a ten-foot pole. But we are not, generally, governed by wise elected officials.

The world has no shortage of troubled souls who are looking for some moral justification for their worst and most antisocial impulses. Political rhetoric that justifies a little bit of violence or criminality will soon be cited to justify all kinds of crimes. Jihadists are convinced their abominable crimes and massacres are necessary steps to create paradise on earth. As the Granovetter research indicates, these things snowball.

The lesson of this is not to never communicate anything that could stir fear or anger in other people. The world has problems and menaces that warrant fear and anger. Fear and anger can be rational. We’ve had arguments and discussions before about when fear is irrational and when it is rational. But leaders in our society have a responsibility to help people steer their fear and anger into productive directions.

Without that good judgment and wisdom and demonstration of good examples, we descend into anarchy.

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