Thursday, September 05, 2019

The Chaos Principle

The "best paper" in APSA's political psychology section this year was an exploration of the role of "chaos incitement" in contemporary politics, with particular reference to the rise of Trumpism (H/T).
The authors describe “chaos incitement” as a “strategy of last resort by marginalized status-seekers,” willing to adopt disruptive tactics. Trump, in turn, has consistently sought to strengthen the perception that America is in chaos, a perception that has enhanced his support while seeming to reinforce his claim that his predecessors, especially President Barack Obama, were failures.
Petersen, Osmundsen and Arceneaux find that those who meet their definition of having a “need for chaos” express that need by willingly spreading disinformation. Their goal is not to advance their own ideology but to undermine political elites, left and right, and to “mobilize others against politicians in general.” These disrupters do not “share rumors because they believe them to be true. For the core group, hostile political rumors are simply a tool to create havoc.”
This isn't purely a right-wing phenomena -- Bernie Sanders also carries some appeal to this cadre, and surely it describes much of what draws people to Corbynism in the UK -- but it does tend to benefit the right more. And that's actually a really important observation when considering how to appraise this sort of rhetoric when it does appear on the left. Generalized fulminations whereby "all politicians" -- left or right, Democrat or Republican -- are bought, corrupt, in the pocket of big businesses, indistinguishably in thrall to the interests of a narrow elite, help Sanders-types internally in intra-progressive debates, but help conservatives generally across a wider partisan system.

This generates a serious problem, because a quite viable and attractive strategy for left insurgents to win within the Democratic Party -- focusing on allegations that the DNC is corrupt, primaries are rigged, most Democratic pols are basically indistinguishable from Trump anyway -- is likely to prove cataclysmic for progressive chances in general elections. The reason isn't, as it's sometimes portrayed, that the party will have moved "too far to the left". Rather, it's because the political stylings and psychological orientation of this mode of argument, which more-or-less indiscriminately targets established institutions (including everything from party leadership to academic communities to scientific consensus), is one that structurally favors conservatives over progressives.

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