Special Meetup: The Tactics & Patterns of Political Violence

This is a past event

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Good Karma Cafe

928 Pine St · Philadelphia

How to find us

Just ask the hostess if you have trouble finding our group...

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I've decided to host our discussion at the Good Karma Café again. It's near the corner of 10th & Pine in Washington Square West neighborhood, and it's fairly easy to get to if you're using public transit. With SEPTA, take the Broad Street Line & get off at the Lombard South Station, and walk 2 blocks east on Lombard and then turn left on 10th street and it's up a half block. With PATCO, just get off at 10th & Locust stop and walk 2 blocks south. For those who are driving, parking in the neighborhood can be tough to find. I'd suggest parking in the parking deck connected to the ACME at 10th & South.

Since we're using the cafe's space, they ask that each person attending the meetup at least purchase a drink or snack. Please don't bring any food or drinks from outside. If you're hungry enough to eat a meal, they have more substantial fare such as salads, soups & sandwiches which are pretty good and their prices are reasonable - check out the menu here: http://www.thegoodkarmacafe.com/our-menu/



Following up on our last meetup where we discussed the psychology & moral philosophy of political violence, we'll shift to looking at the practical implications of political violence in terms of either pushing a society towards reform or precipitating a political collapse.

In the first part of the discussion, we'll address the sociological & political science research into the effects of political violence on public opinion and public policy, as well as how political violence compares with non-violent forms of protests. In the second part, we'll look at some theories that try to explain the cyclical nature of political violence and we'll address the chances of a serious breakdown in law & order in the U.S. which scholars like Neil Howe & Peter Turchin see as a serious possibility. In the third section, we'll look at reasons why a scholars like Steven Pinker think that an extreme political calamity like a "Second Civil War" or collapse of the U.S. government is unlikely, at least in the near future.

NOTE: This discussion will be run directly after a Skeptics meetup on the historical study of violence. If you've got the time to spare, the Skeptics' group discussion is an excellent preparation for this discussion on political violence. Here's the link to the event's discussion outline:


For those who want to really dive into this topic, I've gathering a lot of articles & videos into a bibliography entitled "Understanding Political Violence" in our meetup's Discussion tab: https://www.meetup.com/Philadelphia-Political-Agnostics/messages/boards/thread/50654736

I know I've linked a LOT of material below, and I certainly don't expect you to read every article and watch every video that I've linked below in order to participate. Instead, I just want everyone to try to look at one or two links in each section. Total, this shouldn't take more than 30-45 minutes of your time. Hopefully, participants will look at different materials and we'll be able to compare notes during the discussion and you'll find out what you missed. We'll go over the basics in everything linked below, and I'll make sure you leave with a better understanding of these issues. Over the next couple days, I'll jot some notes under each link that summarize the major points so you can get a general overview of what each author says without having to examine everything.

In terms of the discussion format, my general idea is that we'll address the 3 topics in the order presented here and we'll spend about 40 minutes on each section.


1) Chris Mooney, "How Science Can Predict Where You Stand on Keystone XL" (medium-length article)


Mooney discusses psychological research that helps explain the feud between radical activists trying to block the Keystone pipeline and liberal moderates who thought opposing it was futile or pointless. The moderates tended to paint the radical left activists as nuts who make the environmental movement look bad - a type of ingroup criticism known as "hippie-punching" or "reverse tribalism". Research by Yale political scientist Alan Gerber suggest that center-left moderates score high in the personality trait of Openness. This trait appears to make them more likely to remain politically unaffiliated, hewing to a sort-of "knee-jerk centrism" which leads them to criticize those they see as too radical. Conversely, research by Ravi Iyer of USC shows that radical environmentalists tend to score higher than moderate liberals on 3 of Jonathan Haidt's moral foundations: "care/harm," "fairness/cheating," and "sanctity/degradation". This may leave them more susceptible to moralizing narratives and more viscerally offended by perceived abuses of the sanctity of nature. The moderates, who are less driven by pure "care/harm" concerns, may tend to be less emotional about preserving the environment in a pristine state, and are thus more willing to endorse trade-offs.

In the 2nd half of the article, Mooney introduces the question of whether the moderates are right that radicals create a public backlash that interferes with the movement's wider goals, or whether the radicals are right that their protests create space for, at minimum, the achievement of more moderate goals. He suggests turning to the study of the "radical flank effect", a term coined by Herbert Haines, a SUNY-Courtland sociologist in his 1988 book Black Radicals and the Civil Rights Mainstream,[masked]. Haines argued that radical groups like the Black Panthers and individuals like Malcolm X generated enough fear in the public & government officials that it made the more reasonable demands of the moderates like Martin Luther King Jr. look like an attractive way to head off civil unrest. Haines pointed to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, 1965 Voting Rights Act, and 1968 Fair Housing Act as examples of what he calls this a "positive radical flank effect". But he also raised the possibility of "negative radical flank effects"—indeed, he pointed to the backlash to black radicalism that kicked in by the early 1970s. However, Haines argued the "positive radical flank effects" were more decisive in the long run, since the backlash didn't erase the earlier victories encoded in the civil rights legislation.

2) Erica Chenowith, "The success of nonviolent civil resistance" (12:33 min.)


Erica Chenoweth is a political scientist at the University of Denver and one of the first researchers to do broad, quantitative analysis of the relative success of violent & nonviolent political movements around the world. She looked at 323 campaigns from[masked], categoried them as violent or non-violent, and looked at whether they achieved their states aims (i.e. regime
She found that violent campaigns appeared to work more in the 1940s-1950s, but that the nonviolent campaigns have had a much higher success rate since the 1960s.

When she looked at why nonviolent
insurgency, she found 2 major reasons: (1) nonviolent
can mobilize more people than violent
campaigns (i.e. nonviolent protests are less physically demanding and usually less risky because they are often met with less force by the regime), and (2) mass
regime (i.e. nonviolent protests tend to generate more public sympathy, inspire less backlash, and encourage security force defections). Chenoweth mentions that every movement in her study that achieved sustained participation from 3.5% of the population succeeded - this has come to be known as the "3.5% Rule".

Chenoweth also looked at the consequences of violent & nonviolent campaigns after they achieved success, and she found that violent
tend to create
that lingers
after the
ends, whereas nonviolent

* For infographics summarizing Erica Chenoweth's research, go here: https://www.nonviolent-conflict.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/Why-Civil-Resistance-Works-Slides.pdf

3) Ray Valentine, "You Call This an Uprising?" (medium-length article, critique of Chenoweth)


Valentine takes issues with Chenoweth's research findings, arguing that she classified several successful campaigns such as India's independence movement, South African anti-apartheid movement, and the 2011 Egyptian revolution as "nonviolent" despite violent flanks & incidents of defensive violence. He argues that new research is revealing that despite the rhetoric of its leaders, many rank-and-file participants in the US civil rights movement were armed to defend themselves from white mobs. Striking workers in the Great Depression defended themselves when police and scabs tried to break their pickets. The contemporary movement against militarized policing and mass incarceration included riots in Ferguson, Baltimore, Anaheim, and Brooklyn. All of these actions would violate the Engler’s guidelines for strict, disciplined nonviolence, and none of them got in the way of mass participation. Valentine concedes that "most civilians movements are surely *primarily* nonviolent most of the time, but they frequently contain moments of intensified militancy" He says he doesn't want to romanticize or advocate for violence, but also argues that "policing the limits of acceptable tactics is usually counterproductive, and denouncing anything that might be construed as violent — especially in the name of appealing to a hypothetical, implicitly middle-class 'public opinion' — largely serves to split movements and legitimize repression."

Valentine also notes that Chenoweth is is affiliated with a center at the University of Denver (http://www.du.edu/korbel/sie/about/partners.html)that is funded by the Departments of Defense & Homeland Security and the CIA. He notes that these connections have not gone unnoticed on the left, leading some of the global left to instinctively view outbreaks of mass protest against governments hostile to the US as imperialist plots. Valentine resists viewing everything through a conspiracy theory lens, but he notes that the failure of nonviolent activists to bring about socialist revolutions is presumably "a feature rather than a bug" from the perspectives of the neoliberal interests that Chenoweth represents.

4) Jonathan Chait, "New Study Shows Riots Make America Conservative" (short article)

Chait cites some recent research by Princeton political scientist Omar Wasow that shows that Herbert Haines may have been mistaken about the net effect of the "radical flank effects" generated by the black radicals of the 1960s-70s. Wasow compared poll data showing the public’s concern for civil rights as well as concern for “social control” with incidents of violent & nonviolent protests, and found they match up pretty closely:

Wasow also looked at county-by-county voting and compared it with violent & nonviolent protest activity, and he found that black-led protests in which some violence occurred are associated with a significant decline in Democratic vote-share in the 1964, 1968 and 1972 presidential elections. Black-led nonviolent protests, by contrast, exhibit a statistically significant positive relationship with county-level Democratic vote-share in the same period. Examining counterfactual scenarios in the 1968 election, Wasow estimated that fewer violent protests were associated with a substantially increased likelihood that the Democratic presidential nominee, Hubert Humphrey, would have beaten the Republican nominee, Richard Nixon.

Thus, Chait argues, "the physical damage inflicted upon poor urban neighborhoods by rioting does not have the compensating virtue of easing the way for more progressive policies; instead, it compounds the damage by promoting a regressive backlash. The Nixonian law and order backlash drove a wave of repressive criminal-justice policies that carried through for decades with such force that even Democrats like Bill Clinton felt the need to endorse them in order to win elections "

5) Ryan Cooper, "Moderate Liberals' Weak Case Against Riots" (short article, critique of Wasow)


Cooper is critical of Chait's article and the idea that Wasow's research on the civil rights movements & black radicalism in the 1960s-'70s shows why the Black Lives Matter movement shouldn't use riots. He brings up 4 objections: (1) The crime rate was much higher in the '60-'70s which made a public backlash to rioting and the election of a "law & order" candidate like Nixon more likely than today when crime rates are much lower; (2) The relative scale of recent riots is much smaller compared to those of the '60s-'70s; (3) Wasow's analysis shows that black-led riots were associated with a[masked]% decline in Democratic vote share. That conceivably could have tipped the 1968 election, which was extremely close, but it wouldn't have mattered in 1972, when Nixon won by 23 points; (4) Riots might lead to better policy from the existing government, at the cost of a hit to public opinion. For instance, when Martin Luther King was assassinated, sparking days of chaos in many American cities, only a week later Congress passed the Fair Housing Act.

6) Mencius Moldbug, "Right-Wing Terror As Folk Activism" (long blog post)

The "Neoreactionary" thinker Mencius Moldbug wrote this essay shortly after the Norwegian ethno-nationalist Anders Behring Breivik massacred 77 civilians at a socialist youth camp. He argues that right-wing terrorism cannot be effective in most modern nations because it's essentially a "violent flank" without a moderate center-right. There are conservative political parties, but they tend to disdain the use of terrorism because it goes against their instinctive deference to law & order. Without any covert allies in the establishment, there's no one who can use the looming threat of right-wing violence to push for concessions to conservative political goals. Moldbug argues that Breivik thought right-wing terrorism could work because he grew up in a leftist world and his heroes like Max Manus (the WWII Norwegian resistance fighter) are leftists for whom terrorism really does work. Moldbug says that the only possible change a right-wing activist has to shift his country rightward is to join the political left and subvert it from within, gradually turning international socialism into nationalist fascism.

* Note: Contra Moldbug, some commentators on this article have noted that police brutality fulfills a similar function for the political right that left-wing terrorism does for the political left. Essentially, it's rogue cops, not right-wing terrorists, that typically function as the violent flank that garners conservative support.


7a) Neil Howe, "The Fourth Turning: Why American 'Crisis' May Last Until 2030" (video - 14:42 min.)


Howe starts the video by comparing our current point in history to the left-wing & right-wing populism & social turmoil of the 1930s. He argues that all of this points to the approach of a crisis comparable to what the U.S. last faced in the era of the Great Depression & WWII.

Next, he gives a brief sketch of the generational theory he and William Strauss formulated in their 1991 book Generations and elaborated in their 1997 book The Fourth Turning. Essentially, he sees a recurring pattern in Anglo-American history of four generational types, each with a distinct collective persona (Heroes, Artists, Prophets, Nomads), and a corresponding 80-year cycle of four different types of era (High, Awakening, Unraveling, Crisis), each lasting about 20 years and each with a distinct mood. In their 1997 book, they predicted a Millennial Crisis - the "Fourth Turning" - unfolding roughly over the years[masked].

7b) Jonathan Roth w/ Neil Howe, "Steve Bannon, Trump and the Possibility of Civil War in America" (podcast - 35:03 min.)


The podcast starts with Howe noting that most professional historians dismiss his generational theory as comparable to astrology, but he tries to justify it based on demographic patterns & the predictable changes in people's worldview as they age. Roth & Howe move onto a discussion of the MIT physicist David Kaiser's recent Time article that cited Strauss & Howe's generational theory with approval, Al Gore's fascination with their theories in the early 1990s, as well as the fact that Steven Bannon used their theory in his 2010 film Generation Zero. Bannon's film argued that America is nearing a catastrophic reckoning that was merely delayed by the TARP bailouts used to quell the 2008 economic crisis. Howe compares Trump & Bannon to FDR, who felt the rumblings of WWII and knew it was inevitable that America would get drawn in, but he had to use "trial balloons" to gauge the American public's readiness to go to war.

Roth asks Howe whether America could be headed for a Second Civil War, and Howe says he doubts it but notes that the approach of the Civil War wasn't obvious to people at the time even when the Southern states seceded. War broke out suddenly when West Point grads wouldn't surrender Fort Sumter, and Howe notes that something similar could happen today if California tried to secede and officers at Coronado Naval Base resisted. Howe says he thinks Trump's election may have decreased the likelihood of civil war by easing the anger on the political right, and notes that stocks for guns & survival gear dropped after Trump was elected. However, at the end, Howe says he thinks that leaders' options become constrained as a crisis unfolds and it's difficult or impossible to change course.

8) Paul Rosenberg, "Breaking point: America approaching a period of disintegration, argues anthropologist Peter Turchin" (short article)

Unlike Neil Howe who has a MA in history but has never worked in academia, Peter Turchin is a lifelong academic who's shifted from zoology (his PhD) to studying ecology, anthropology & history, and his theories are taken much more seriously in academia. His 2016 book, Ages of Discord, posits a 50-year conflict cycle in American history, starting around 1820 ("The Era of Good Feelings" when economic & social factors were very benign), peaking initially around 1870 (Civil War), then in 1920 (First Red Scare), then in 1970 (Civil Rights & Student Protests), and if this pattern continues it will peak again around 2020. Some of this 50-year cycle is due to generational amnesia about the consequences of political violence & social turmoil - every other generation (25 years each) has to re-live it.

Turchin also sees social conflict as being tied to deeper economic & demographic factors which can make the magnitude of each peak milder or more severe. His "structural-demographic theory" represent complex human societies as systems with 3 main compartments (general population, elites, and the state) interacting with each other and with sociopolitical instability via a web of nonlinear feedbacks. (In other articles, Turchin emphasizes the difference between cliodynamics' use of oscillations & feedback loops and the more rigid "clock-like" cycles that many amateur theorists tend to use. There are a lot of economic & demographic factors that can advance or delay the action of the feedback loop, so one must be cautious about thinking a given society's cycles will always last the same amount of time or that the cycles in different societies will always be the same length.)

Turchin's model has 3 sources of conflict: (1) There's a Malthusian cycle that ties in with the "iron laws" of wages & rent — prosperity leads to population growth that outstrips gains in agricultural productivity, which leads to increased rent, falling wages & declining living standards, urban migration, and eventually civil unrest. (2) During the latter phase of the Malthusian cycle, there's "elite overproduction," i.e. cheap labor & high rent enriches the elites, whose numbers grow, producing their own set of problems in the form of intra-elite competition. (3) There's a "dynastic cycle" where prosperity & population growth leads to growth of the army & state bureaucracy, as well as higher taxes to fund them, and as this process runs into diminishing returns it pushes the state toward fiscal crisis & loss of military control, opening the way for an elite coup or popular rebellion.

The article notes that "because Turchin’s focus is on the model and how well it accounts for measurable historical changes, the book is not a set of prescriptions for how to get out of our current mess. But the example of how we escaped the last time [i.e. in the period following the 1920 peak in conflict) is surely useful in a general sense... And what we find is a surprisingly mixed bag of what we might today call liberal and conservative measures, intended to restrain out-of-control competition and conflicts." Turchin argues that the progressive economic policies of FDR's New Deal helped boost wages & employment, and tighter immigration restrictions — although often motivated by racism — did help as well by decreasing the labor supply. The Ivy League universities & medical schools enacted tighter admission policies which discriminated against non-WASPs, but this did help decrease elite overproduction. As the article states, "One obviously doesn’t have to approve of every social reform of that period to appreciate the fact that they did help rebuild social trust, eventually reaching levels [by the 1950s] not seen since the 1820s. This is what science at its best does for a democracy — not tell us what we must do, but clarify the costs, benefits and trade-offs involved, including the tragic costs of doing nothing."

9) Jack M. Balkin, "Constitutional Rot and Constitutional Crisis" (short article)


Balkin, a law professor at Yale, says that the media is wrong to call every unprecedented & highly partisan move that Trump makes (like firing James Comey) a "constitutional crisis" but they are right to be concerned. He explains that a constitutional crisis occurs when there is a serious danger that the Constitution is about to fail at its central task of keeping disagreement within the boundaries of ordinary politics instead of breaking down into lawlessness & violence, and there are 3 types: (1) political leaders announce that they will no longer abide by the Constitution or flout judicial orders, (2) a severe crisis of governance leaves the state unable to perform basic functions, (3) disagreement about the Constitution becomes so intense that the struggle devolves into riots, martial law, a coup, revolt or secession.

However, Balkin argues Trump's flouting of political norms is a sign of "constitutional rot" - i.e. a long-term decline in the institutions of civil society (e.g. the press) and in the public's trust in government. Constitutional rot creates two serious risks to democratic politics — increasing gridlock & descent into autocracy — and these increase the risk of a constitutional crisis.

10a) Justin King, "How The US Military Is Preparing To Put Down An American Insurgency" (short article)


King, an activist & independent journalist, criticizes an article by retired Army colonel Kevin Benson in the November 2012 edition of the respected Small Wars Journal. The article is entitled "Full Spectrum Operations in the Homeland: A 'Vision' of the Future," and it strategizes about how the US military could suppress a right-wing "militia" insurgency that popped up during an economic crisis. In the scenario, the DoD responds to this threat by establishing a “show of force” to demoralize the insurgents, and then they mount offensive operations by surprise to take down the checkpoints. Towards the end of the campaign, the military seizes power and radio stations and begins mopping up operations once the civilians in the area have fled.

However, King argues there can be no “show of force” to insurgents who don’t take & hold territory but use sabotage and hit & run tactics instead. He argues that US counterinsurgency doctrine is visibly flawed since it failed to pacify Iraq & Afghanistan.

10b) Justin King, "Cycle of Insurgency: What an insurgency in the US would look like" (short article)

In a follow-up essay, King argues that insurgencies follow a predictable cycle: (1) pamphleteering, (2) reactive protests, (3) preemptive rioting, (4) military & police crackdown, (5) widespread rebellion. After the shooting of police in Dallas in 2016, King says this places us in the 3rd stage and he anticipates a brutal crackdown that will provoke activists to form terrorist cells that will grow into insurgencies and eventually set off a civil war.

King paints a dire picture: Bombings and ambushes are daily occurrences. Police forces and other government representatives are targets, as are their families. Attacks on infrastructure become commonplace, and when the roads become unsafe to travel due to ambushes and IEDs or the infrastructure is destroyed, the trucks that deliver all of our food, fuel & medical supplies stop. He predicts food shortages within 3 days and loss off clean drinking water within a month. Anyone dependent on medicine like insulin (~3 million Americans) would probably die, and tens of millions would probably starve, die of disease, or be killed in the fighting & looting.

King argues the US military would be unable to suppress a full-scale insurgency because they simply don't have enough manpower. It took 170K US troops to (fail to) pacify Iraq's insurrection and the US has a population about 10 times the population & 20 times the land area of Iraq. Even if the DoD deployed ever single member of the Army & Marines, they could only field 750K troops and that’s about one million troops shy of the needed number to match the (in)effectiveness of Iraq’s counter-insurgency operation. UN peacekeeping forces would be unlikely to help much, since without US contributions they don't have enough operating funds, and other countries would be hard pressed to offer help since a civil war in the US would cause the world economy to tank.


11) David Greenberg, "The Crackpot Theories of Stephen Bannon’s Favorite Authors" (medium-length article, critique of Strauss & Howe)

Greenberg, a history professor at Rutgers, criticizes Strauss & Howe's generational theory on several grounds: (1) It's 4 "turnings" are deterministic, and yet it includes room for human agency which seems contradictory — it holds out many U.S. presidents as consequential figures of their eras, but according to its own logic it shouldn’t really matter whether the nation elected one leader or another; (2) Like an astrologer or fortune teller, it takes advantage of the "Forer effect" and confirmation bias — it plays fast and loose in shuttling between its big claims and specific evidence, and its contentions are vague enough that it’s easy to justify them with a handful of illustrative examples, with contrary cases simply omitted; (3) It mistakes symptoms for causes — pop culture references serve as a barometer of cultural change without further explanation — and uses circular logic when it posits the “mood change” between eras as the result of a move from one stage to another; (4) There's a tendency to oversell the idea of an impending crisis — the Fourth Turning was written in 1997 when the economy was good & the crime rate had dropped, but the authors claimed there was soaring public debts and deepening welfare dependency as signs of the coming crisis, and insisted they’re “not reassured” by the official claims about a national drop in crime.

Greenberg says that Steven Bannon's obsession with Strauss & Howe's theories may not motivate him to spark a nuclear war to bring about the "Fourth Turning", but it does reveal a type of "dangerous amateurism," "inflexibility of thought", and a "resistance to contrary evidence" in Trump's inner circle.

12) Dale Archer, "Declinism: Why You Think America is in Crisis" (short article)


Archer, a psychiatrist, notes that many people are comparing our current era to the turmoil of the 1960s or even the 1930s, but he throws out some statistics on the economy, race relations, gender equality, gay rights, and healthcare to remind readers of the progress we've made since then. He suggests that the reason for the current level of pessimism has to do with cognitive biases like the "reminiscence bump" and "positivity effect" that make the past seem nicer and the "negativity bias" and "confirmation bias" that make today's problems loom larger, mostly do to echo chambers on social media and media coverage.

13) Phil Torres, "The United States Is Not an Apocalyptic Wasteland, Explains Steven Pinker" (short article)


Steven Pinker doubles down on the arguments he made in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature and argues that most long-term economic & social trends in today's world are good. However, he argues that the media and intelligentsia were partly complicit in Trump's depiction of the world as a dystopia headed for even greater disaster because they don't put events into statistical and historical context and focus to much on acute crises. He's worried about Trump's "low integrative complexity" and black-and-white thinking, but he says that Trump's isolationist streak may decrease the risk of a major war. He's still bullish on globalization and doesn't think the rise of populist movements will be able to stop it, but he is concerned about Trump's lack of action on climate change. He's concerned about the damage Trump is doing to political norms, but he doesn't think this will lead to authoritarianism in the U.S. because Erica Chenoweth's "3.5% Rule" shows how a modest amount of sustained engagement from citizens can force reforms. Overall, he describes himself as a "pragmatic optimist".

14) Stuart Wexler, "No, the United States is not headed toward a race war" (short article)


Wexler is one of the top investigative researchers in domestic terrorism & radicalism, and he pushes back on the idea that the current tensions between police & black communities are about to erupt into mass violence. He points out that the riots we've seen recently are nothing on the scale of those in the 1960s, and he attributes this to improvements in policing and community relations since the 1960s, including more black officers and black administrators, He also notes that both right-wing hate groups like the KKK and black nationalist groups are much more fragmented today due to the efforts of law enforcement & they're heavily monitored by hate group tracking orgs like the SPLC & ADL.

15) Sam Harris, "Former Air Force data scientist explains why the US won’t see a violent political revolution anytime soon" (short article)


Harris, a data scientist (not the New Atheist author), argues that there's simply not enough young people in the U.S. to fuel a revolution. When he worked for the military, he did analysis on hundreds of factors across centuries worth of data for many countries to determine what drove the levels of violence in a society, and he found that the most significant factor was the number of individuals aged 13–19 relative to the number of individuals aged over 35. If the 35+ year-olds outnumbered the teenagers, there was no chance of civil war. Unlike the U.S. in 1860, teenagers are drastically outnumbered by the 35+ year-olds in 2016.