The sociological eye means looking at things for what they are, as best we can given the blinders of interest and ideology, of cliché and ritualized belief. It is not an individual enterprise. Chaining our efforts together as a long-term network of theorists and researchers improves one’s own sociological vision, provided we make the effort. The sociological eye holds up a periscope above the tides of political and intellectual partisanship, spying out the patterns of social life in every direction.

Monday, October 17, 2016


The phrase “war on cops” is partly correct. There also has been a war of police against black people. Both have been going on for a long time, and each reacts to the other.

The recent argument is that violence is encouraged by black protests, mainstream supporters and officials who have caused police to withdraw from active policing, putting them in a defensive position with black criminals on the offensive. This is a part of the causal pattern, but it is embedded in a much larger process: counter-escalation of each side against the other. Both political mobilization and violence play a part in the escalation process, and this happens on both sides. A key mechanism is the emotions that pervade both camps: sometimes  righteous anger, sometimes jittery tension that blows up little incidents and feeds the fire with atrocities.

Only a small fraction of each side engage in violence; but for their opponents they become emblematic of the entire enemy camp. The emotions of the most volatile fringes drive the back-and-forth process.

The micro-sociology of emotions shows there is something practical we can all do to de-escalate the conflict. I will discuss this at the end.

Counter-Escalation Theory

Conflict escalates when whatever one side does gives rise to a counter-attack. This doesn’t always happen. Some conflicts come to an end.  The ones that go on longest are where conflict with an outside group increases solidarity; we feel a stronger identity, resolve to fight back harder. The other side does the same. The most dangerous feedback loop is when the two groups become morally polarized. The other side is seen as more and more evil; therefore whatever we do against them is morally right; it is righteous vengeance, it is street justice, it is doing whatever it takes to beat back the menace.

Individuals disappear from view; the cop you are ambushing may be one of the good guys who sincerely believes in community outreach; the black man whose car you are stopping may be a middle-class citizen. But at the moment of confrontation they all fade into the category of the stereotyped enemy.

Since whatever the other side does is seen in the worst possible light, we are quick to see atrocities in whatever they do to us. Whether their attacks come from racism, bureaucratic policy, emotions, or sheer accidents of mistaken identity and poor shooting aim, they are lumped together as atrocities. In our own eyes we are the good guys, so whatever we do is good; our own mistakes are minimized and our violence is viewed as proper, righteous and heroic. Since the psychology of both sides is the same, conflict at a high level of polarization becomes a war of competing atrocities.

Communities which are already isolated are particularly prone to escalation. Police tend to be a closed community, who socialize mainly with each other, and avoid contacts with ordinary citizens when they are off duty. They have strong solidarity, and put up a front to outsiders. The result is that police generally refuse to criticize each other in public, and regard the rest of the society as not understanding them. Somewhat similar processes occur in the black lower-class ghetto, except that there is much more internal conflict.

Escalation does not go on forever, although it may take a long time to run its course. The level of conflict goes up and down depending on other factors, including each side’s logistics and its degree of organization. I will weave in these factors as we survey the sequence of racial violence in the United States.

Gangs and Cops from 1940s to 2010s

The modern history of gangs began in the late 1940s when the first youth gangs were formed, initially by Puerto Rican teens in New York City. Criminal gangs existed before, but those were adults; often they were connected to political factions in the machine politics of big cities, and their members were usually white immigrants. The new youth gangs are best described as fighting gangs, since their main purpose was to project a tough image and to fight against nearby rival gangs. While 1950s news sensationalism publicized them as “juvenile delinquents”,  youth gangs were generally not involved in crime for making a living. They were drug consumers but not yet drug dealers, heroin then being monopolized by adult syndicates. Gangs were more like neighborhood social clubs for working-class teens, now pushed out of the labor force by high school attendance requirements. They evolved an alienated ideology and spearheaded the newly created teen culture of rock-’n-roll music, blue jeans, T-shirts and attitude. These styles were regarded as outrageous by white middle-class traditionalists, but the alienated youth culture soon spread into the mainstream as well. Despite its racial anchoring, a rebellious counter-culture acquired a large sympathy population among white youth and urban adults after they grew up, underpinning a on-going conflict between law-and-order and hipness.

In the 1950s, youth gangs spread in urban black and Hispanic ghettoes, and mushroomed in the 1960s and 70s. In cities like Chicago, large corporate-style gangs formed; in Los Angeles and elsewhere, horizontal loyalties to “color” gangs. Some cities, like Philadelphia and much of the East Coast, continued to have little street gangs-- which produce high rates of violence because their rivals are so close by, and they lack bigger organization to restrain them.

Although youth gangs are almost always ethnic and very racially conscious, on the whole their violence is aimed not at dominant white society, but at each other. This has always seemed paradoxical, but is explainable by how violence is organized. In the 1950s, gang ideology was anti- “squares”-- i.e. middle-class white people with their respectability and support of the police. In the 60s, gang ideology aligned themselves with the civil rights movement against white dominance, but scorned the tactics of non-violence and political reform. On the other side, Irish youth gangs made a point of representing whites and acted as a violent militia to resist school integration. Nevertheless, the vast proportion of gang violence was against other gangs of their same race. Andrew Papachristos shows that virtually all gang killings in Chicago have been black-on-black, Hispanic-on-Hispanic, or white-on-white.

Why so much black-on-black violence?

Similarly among the most militant groups on the violent fringe of the 1960s civil rights movement. The Black Muslims, or Nation of Islam, held an ideology that the devil is a white man and that the world is heading for a final war of black against white. Nevertheless, Black Muslims did virtually all their fighting between rival factions, invading each other’s mosques and assassinating leaders like Malcolm X. Their angry anti-white rhetoric upset the mainstream but there were virtually no attacks on whites. Why not? In the segregated society of the time, blacks rarely appeared in white spaces except in the role of service workers; it was a lot easier to carry out attacks on one’s on turf. Black Muslim temples were heavily guarded by a elite members called the Fruit of Islam, on the lookout for attacks; in this atmosphere of suspicion, confrontations escalated and mosques found themselves in local wars with each other. Similarly, the first “color” gang, the Crips, was formed in L.A. in the early 1970s during the height of the civil rights period as a movement to stop violence among black gangs, and channel it into war against whites; in practice, this meant Hispanic gangs.  Within two years, the Crips alliance split, with the Bloods breaking off into a rival color gang (red emblems vs. blue or black); henceforward, the main concern of gangs in these two alliances has been to fight against the other. (There have been more sub-splits and alliances, but the pattern remains the same.) The parallel between youth gangs and religious militants shows something deeper going on: ideological hatred of a strong distant enemy turns the weaker side to violence against more accessible local targets-- against rivals similar to themselves rather than enemies who operate on a different scale of organization.

This is in keeping with general theory of violence. Despite rhetoric of bravery, dedication to fighting the enemy, and self-sacrifice for the cause, most violence is successful when it attacks a target weaker than oneself. In street violence, bigger groups attack smaller ones they happen to encounter; in riots, it is mainly isolates who get beaten up by larger clusters. The preferred tactics of violence on all scales are to catch the enemy off guard, to establish surprise and momentum; to beat the enemy psychologically before beating them physically. Thus burglars prefer to break into houses in their own neighborhood, even if there is better loot to be taken in richer places; but burglars from the ghetto feel uneasy about being in the suburbs, and more psychologically empowered on their home turf. Armed robbers tend to stay close to home, too, but will venture out to no-man’s-lands like semi-deserted commercial districts, or look for isolated victims in interstitial areas with little street traffic. Having a gun is not sufficient to feel strong; feeling dominant in the setting is even more important.

This is one reason why black street gangs virtually never take part in mass shootings in schools; this is a phenomenon among alienated white youth in all-white schools. Black gang violence almost always takes place on their own turf-- on their street, or the streets adjacent to it, the turf of a familiar rival. On the whole, more distant parts of the city are a mystery to local gangs, since they rarely venture there. Although they may have an anti-white ideology, it rarely comes into play as a practical opportunity for violence.

So far, this has been about small group violence, usually armed with no more than handguns. In the world of better organized violence, military and police forces can range more widely; so do insurgent groups like terrorists. Fighting further away from your home base requires more organization. It needs more logistics, ammunition, transportation; better planning and intelligence; more organizational backup to call in for help or to extricate you. And it requires more organizational solidarity-- groups which continually motivate each other to adhere to an ideology and to commit themselves to the emotionally difficult task of confronting the enemy, especially when taking the attack to their turf. Big organizations like armies and police usually undertake such ventures when they have overwhelming numbers and weaponry. Small terrorist groups need the support of closed-off cells, living clandestinely, obsessively planning their moves. Casual street gangs have none of these resources and little of their tight, dedicated organization. Hence their rhetorical commitment to toughness and violence can only come out against easy targets, like themselves.

An escalated war against the police needs more social resources to go on the attack.

Race riots and politicization

Riots are an opportunity for mass participation. Although gangs may take part in them, a much larger proportion of the local population is involved: In the biggest race riots of the 1960s, 10-15% of black men took part, and another 30-40% were spectators and sympathizers .(Collins, Violence: 520)  As usual in most kinds of violence, a small percentage of the crowd does most of the violence, but the part of the crowd that merely acts as spectators adds to the emotional atmosphere of breakdown of ordinary law. This is what creates a “free space” or “liberated zone” where the police, for a time, do not intervene. In fact, violence between authorities and rioters takes up a relatively small amount of the time during a riot; looting and burning give the crowd something to do, prolonging the dramatic atmosphere that would otherwise disappear if there were nothing to do but go home.

A paradoxical result is that American race riots always take place in the minority ghetto, usually on its borders and main commercial streets where there are stores operated by non-black ethnics. The 1992  L.A. riot after the Rodney King verdict was largely property attacks on Korean and other Asian store-owners; photos show widespread participation by black and Hispanic crowds. The Crips and Bloods called a truce in their normal hostility so that they could take part in the riot.

Riots publicize ideologies of protest. But whatever the slogans and the statements of spokespersons who are quoted in the news, at the line of confrontation mainstream society is always represented by the police. The police are often the only  visible presence of white society in what Elijah Anderson calls “black spaces.” Much of the time they are regarded as an occupying force. A riot not only brings about a confrontation of masses of local people against masses of police, but it is one of those rare moments when locals have enough numbers and enough emotional dominance to be able to defy the police.

The precipitation point for riots has usually been a confrontation with the police. The Detroit riot of July 1967, which lasted 5 days and resulted in 43 killed, 2000 injured, and 7000 arrested, began when police raided an after-hours bar on a hot summer night; in the atmosphere of the civil rights struggle, bar patrons fought back and the small police party retreated. When they returned several hours later with reinforcements, locals pelted police cars with bricks, again causing them to withdraw. The June 1967 Newark riot (26 killed) began when a taxi driver was arrested and rumors of police atrocities spread among taxi drivers. Although the issues of a riot may be framed as white vs. black, or mainstream society vs. criminals and radicals, on the ground the main conflict is between police and locals; and this sets the pattern for polarization within those groups as they perceive each other. *

* Sometimes also the Army is called out to end a riot. But in the US the army is a national institution with a lot of legitimacy; occasional killings by the army (such as Kent State in 1970) do not give rise to anti-army ideologies. Things are different in this respect in Mexico, and in many Latin American, African, and South Asian states, where the army is widely regarded as a political instrument or a corrupt organization. In the US, however, most collective resentment is acted out against the police.

Rioters always lose in the end, but riots give memories of pride and defiance. Their residue over time is to escalate long ground-swells of rebellions, in whatever form they come out.

Riots are better able to make a political statement than gangs. Although they almost never invade white territory, riots attract universal public attention; and although their threat of “the fire next time” is just rhetoric whose reality consists in burning their own neighborhood, the city and usually the nation has to at least temporarily pay attention to the racial divide. This is also an opening for political movements and non-violent demonstrations; the radical-flank effect of riots is to give the moderates more claim to make reforms, lest the violent fringe grow stronger. Liberal politicians and even some conservatives reacted by making reforms in the 1960s, dismantling the legal institutions of segregation. The movement for racial integration also improved the situation of black and other minorities in the middle class.

It left a lower-class black population that continued to be segregated and in an increasingly dead end economic situation. Poverty itself does not mobilize well-organized rebellion, since mobilization needs resources. The inner-city ghetto devolved into the land of the gangs, creating an underground economy of the drug trade, and in some places like Chicago, big corporate gangs taxing the off-the-books economy of the poor. For several decades, riots and demonstrations declined, while the crime rate surged, above all in black neighborhoods.

In the relatively peaceful period without riots to mobilize political concern, the black-vs.-mainstream divide deepened and entrenched. Civil rights reforms on the legal level mainly benefitted a minority middle class. The worst part of the ghetto has remained black-- that is to say, African-Americans, descendents on the historic slave population; newer dark-skinned immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean on the whole have done better at acquiring middle-class jobs. This class-race-ethnic combination is the core identity for the contemporary race war. Although many black people are middle class and most are not gang members or criminals, * the  police widely perceive themselves as facing a hostile enclave in the midst of the larger society. The cops are not even necessarily white European ethnics; many are Hispanic, some are Asian and a few are black. But on the whole these ethnic groups identify with mainstream society and historically have conflicted with blacks. Cops (whether they are seen as heroes or racists, and whether or not they are white) and black men (whether as dangerous criminals or innocent victims) have become the two counterpart symbols of everyday conflict in America. The African-American lower-class gang culture is the image that outsiders have of where the trouble comes from, and the atmosphere of polarization generalizes this image to all ambiguous encounters with blacks.

* The proportion of the black male population of teens and young adults who belong to gangs is about 10-12%.  Calculated in Collins, Violence: p. 372.

Escalation of police tactics

Police tactics against crime in the ghetto have gone through a series of developments. Traditional policing in the era of official segregation in the South meant white police would arbitrarily enter any black dwelling looking for suspects. But on the whole, crime of blacks against each other was not regarded as very important. In the North and especially in the era of the civil rights movement, police tended to abandon the ghetto. Elijah Anderson reports that in the 1980s and 90s the ghetto was largely unpoliced; both in the sense that police did not patrol there often and that they were slow to answer complaints; moreover when police did arrive at a scene of robbery or violence, they were peremptory towards everyone. In scenes with a good deal of angry talk, the victim or complainant could easily find oneself being arrested. Accordingly, ghetto residents were wary of calling the police. In this atmosphere, residents attempted to provide their own protection, what Anderson calls “the code of the street.” The stance was for everyone to appear tough, especially men but also women, dramatizing by voice and gesture they were ready to use violence. Anderson emphasizes that for the majority of people, the street code is a front, an effort to head off violence; only a minority within the ghetto would actually “go for street,” carrying weapons and living as predatory criminals. As noted, only a fraction, about one-tenth of black male youth belong to gangs, but the “decent” citizens (Anderson describes this as a folk term in some northern cities) also give off a protective veneer, that could impress outsiders that they are dangerous. Thus the street code, meant to act as a show to fend off being a victim, in the eyes of the mainstream and the police, made most ghetto residents appear indistinguishable from violent criminals.

Another tactic, largely by white politicians, was to create severe penalties for drugs. These laws were increasingly enforced, both for sale and for possession, leading the huge growth of incarceration of blacks and Hispanics by the 1990s. Since the drug laws fell on both the criminal segment and many of the “decent” segment of the ghetto, they added to racial polarization. Prisons became the center for spreading the antinomian culture. Severe sentences did not much affect the drug business itself, since those most likely to be caught were low-level dealers, who could easily replaced since they were one of the few prestigious career paths in the ghetto.

The high volume of drug arrests also had an effect on the police. As Peter Moskos shows in his ethnography of the Baltimore police force, and Philippe Bourgois in his research on north Philadelphia drug markets, police know the justice system is overcrowded, and that prosecutors and judges let many suspects off. Police become cynical about the revolving-door process, as well as exasperated by the defiant attitude it fosters among those they arrest. Police respond with their own informal punishment. This includes the tactic known in the culture of Eastern police forces as “a rough ride”-- leaving a prisoner shackled but not secured to a seat in the police wagon while they are roughed up by wild driving. This is apparently the scenario in April 2015 by which Freddie Gray-- a black man who been in and out of court multiple times for minor offenses and parole violations-- ended up dying from a broken spine after being arrested by Baltimore police.

Around the year 2000 came a reversal in police tactics. Previously they tended to neglect ghetto crime except for easy busts for drugs. Now computerization added new weapons. One version was COMSTAT, a centralized system put in place by the New York Police Department, that compiles crime reports not in old fashioned monthly or yearly statistics, but in real time; now police commanders could see where crime was surging in the city and flood that area with cops. COMSTAT is credited with having reduced the crime rate in New York City from one of the higher to one of the lowest big cities; it resembles the “surge” that General Petraeus used in Iraq to secure areas from insurgent forces. The main limitation of COMSTAT is that it is expensive to implement. The NYPD is unique in the size of its police force (35,000), and its ability to move forces around; most smaller police departments lack the manpower for local surges.

Computerized record-keeping has been put to a different use in other cities. Patrol cars now have on-board computers, which officers can use-- not only at any arrest or encounter with a suspect, but at any contact with a civilian. Infractions as minor as driving with a broken tail-light or selling cigarettes on the sidewalk now routinely result in a records check. Many minorities living in the gray economy have past infractions; and these are often compounded by failing to appear for court appearances, or failing to pay fines. As Alice Goffman shows in her ethnography of a small Philadelphia street gang, the court system tends to nickel-and-dime poor people to death-- metaphorically, of course, since these are generally fines in the hundred-dollar range that poor people have a hard time paying. The fines mount up since failure to appear or failure to pay results in yet another fine. Everything compounds each other in this system of city administration, policing, and antinomian street culture. Any innocuous police stop can result in arrest on outstanding warrants; it is still a revolving door but the police now are a constant, annoying presence in people’s lives, spreading the feeling that everyone is a suspect. The court system supports itself with fines, encouraged by city administrations under the pressure of mainstream resistance to raising taxes.  And not only big city courts and police forces use this strategy of controlling the poor by collecting fines on them. Towns like Ferguson, Missouri use a version of old-fashioned speeding traps on passing motorists, now updated with computerized records to fine the poorer citizens of their own town for minor offenses and accumulated penalties.

The result is escalation on both sides. The police are now more actively harassing the poor, and the poor are exasperated and defiant like the man in Ferguson who walked away from an officer and was shot in the back.

Middle-class tax revolt, revenue-strapped city administrations, and the predatory use of police as a cash-collecting machine blend together into a Kafka-esque system of feedback loops. Legitimation was given to the process by the “broken windows” theory of crime control, which encourages police to crack down on small offenses like urinating in public in order to eliminate signs of being places where laws are not enforced. Modern day computerization and so-called “best practices” have their worst effect on the street where the two most exasperated components of the system come together: cops and poor black people. *

* Other kinds of escalation in police tactics have happened, such as the militarization of police equipment since the late 1990s. But helicopters, armored vehicles, and body armor are used mainly for crowd control and riots, and probably have little effect on the tensions of everyday policing. Demonstrations and riots, as noted, are occasions where the anti-police constituency gets better organized and more politically effective; so the threatening face of heavy military equipment probably is no more than false comfort for the police.

Escalation of gang weapons and insurgent resources

On the other side, escalation of weapons and tactics has also gone on. In the 1950s, gangs mostly fought with handmade “zip guns” firing single shots. Their most dramatic weapon was the switch-blade knife, which made a sinister motion as the blade whipped out-- but was not itself particularly deadly, since knife fights are mostly for show and usually inconclusive. Gangs became more deadly, and the murder rate picked up in the 1970s and 80s as more guns came on the scene.

Nevertheless, for the most part gang weapons do not produce  much firepower. The accuracy of pistols is poor beyond a few dozen yards; while at very close range, the adrenaline surge tends to produce wild firing. Urban gang members rarely practice on a shooting range; and most patrons of gun ranges are white. There is great admiration for guns in the gang culture, but most gang members are not gun experts. The guns available in the illegal market are often of low quality-- here too the poor tend to get shoddy products. In the gang milieu, these defects don’t matter so much, since most of the time what happens consists of blustering and showing off. Close ethnographic observers of the gang scene find they display their guns, even gesture with them, far more than they fire them. Shoot-outs with rival gangs usually are brief , and getting hit is mostly a matter of chance. Not surprisingly, when shots are fired they often hit bystanders, including children; this is particularly likely in drive-bys where members of one gang fire at a gathering in a park or street that includes members of a rival gang. Hitting innocent victims is sometimes welcomed by gang members since it enhances their reputation for being ruthless.

The low quality and low competence of gang firepower is one reason they use it mainly against each other. Rarely do they attempt to shoot it out with the police, since they are almost always outgunned, not to mention the capacity of police to call in reinforcements to almost any level necessary to prevail. *

* The most organized violence against the police was by the Black Panther Party during 1967-70, in ambushes, gunfights, traffic stops and police raids. A total of 1 officer was killed and 4 wounded, while the Panthers lost 10 killed. By 1969-71, the Black Panthers were mainly involved in internal violence against splits and rival groups, with another 10 killed.  The Panthers began as a group to monitor police violence by armed patrols, but turned into a combination of political movement and gang, financing themselves by a tax on robberies and extortions carried out by members. 

In recent years, there are occasional postings of cell-phone photos of gang members carrying heavier weapons such as AK-47s. Nevertheless, this looks like the usual blustering, since one rarely hears of such weapons being used in gang fighting, or against the police. Long guns are more accurate than pistols, and can deliver a higher volume of fire. On the whole, they have been used in overt race war only when the local situation gave temporary emotional dominance to insurgents.  In the 1967 Newark and Detroit riots, snipers with rifles fired at police and National Guard troops from their home base in the ghetto. The July 2016 Dallas sniper represents an exceptional level of escalation of firepower, producing a total of 12 casualties. He came from a suburban area and never participated in the gang lifestyle-- which as we have seen, is very poorly adapted for fighting with the police. In this respect, the Dallas sniper more resembles the isolated school rampage shooter, amassing weapons in secret; the difference being both his target-- police rather than school children-- and his military training and his practicing weapons tactics. The Dallas sniper, in effect, was more assimilated into white society, and he used white weapons and followed a white scenario of mass killing.

The strongest similarity is to the so-called “Beltway sniper” in October 2002, who fired on white people from a car, killing 10 over a period of weeks.  This turned out to be a black military veteran, who (unlike gang members) trained for sniper skills, including with his 17 year-old protégé, who did the firing from a peep-hole in the trunk of their car. The motives and tactics of gangs, armed robbers, and grudge-obsessed rampage killers are different. But such tactics propagate by imitation, especially when they are highly publicized in the media. In a situation of emotional escalation of black-vs.-police conflict, one can expect cross-overs as the most militant individuals pick up the most lethal tactics.

The most effective escalation: communications and multi-pronged mobilization

The biggest weapon in escalating black insurgency has been, not weaponry, but publicity and politics.  During the civil rights period of the 1960s, victories were won because different styles of organization fought on different fronts. Non-violent protests by Freedom Riders, church-led alliances, and direct-action organizations like CORE, created a certain amount of attention, especially when they became well-publized martyrs to segregationist violence. Riots engaged more of the black population, and created an unavoidable sense of national emergency. A fringe of individuals and organizations (SNCC, Black Panthers, Black Muslims) emerged that openly advocated violence. Most of the actual gains, however, were won by the most conventional part of the movement, the NAACP and the Urban League, whose lawyers challenged segregated arrangements in the courts. It was more of a tacit coalition than an explicit one, since most of these organizations disavowed at least some of the others. But their combination created the sense of national crisis that eventually moved the balance point of American politics and the judiciary towards integration.

The same pattern is reemerging in the current war of cops and blacks. The side against police violence includes legal organizations, some politicians, organizations of non-violent demonstrations, as well as a violent fringe of militants. We should also count the gang violence of the black community as part of the larger movement or atmosphere of resistance, along with the antinomian thrust of the youth culture. The big difference from the 1950s and 60s is now there is a national mobilization on the other side as well. The civil rights movement was opposed by a mainly Southern segregationist bloc. Today there is a widespread national constituency for cracking down on what is seen as out-of-control lawlessness.  Escalation and counter-escalation have been occuring on both sides. Both sides have gotten more sophisticated in recognizing each other’s tactics. The pro-police side sees that the black insurgency operates in tandem with political and media fronts, and has tried to counter them as abettors of violence.

The major new weapon on the side of the anti-police insurgency is in the realm of communication: the cell-phone camera. This had its analogy in the 1950s and 60s, when on-the-spot television news was just appearing, and police attacks on civil rights marches made sensational coverage, especially when reporters were also attacked in the mêlée. The new phase of mobilization against the police began in 1991 when Rodney King’s beating by a group of police was filmed by a resident with a new product, the video camcorder. The cell phone camera has made videos recording ubiquitous, and the decentralized social media of the Internet has made it hard for authorities to crack down on it.

Mobile videos of the police in action are not the whole story; they only work in tandem with the range of other tactics and organizations-- demonstrations, riots, political movements, law suits. The police recognize videos as an escalation against themselves. Confiscating cameras becomes a new side-issue and flashpoint for further conflict. There is some validity in arguments that videos capture only a part of the encounter and miss the verbal lead-up to the confrontation; the solution to this, however, could be more recordings, including voice, of police encounters with citizens. It is also true that police body cameras can be dysfunctional or deliberately turned off. All such recording devices become an expanding battleground. One can anticipate there will be more things to fight about in the future.

Counter-escalation on both sides spins off from the same technical innovations. Cell phone cameras and the social media come from the same IT revolution that brought squad-car computers and police tactics of running the record on everyone they stop. Both police and citizens use their electronic networks to call for backup; the police in a more organized way, with greater weaponry and authority; the street people in a more sensationalist way, seeking backup in the form of  collective emotions, demonstrations, and politics.

Are there any paths to de-escalation?

After every highly publicized incident, whether the casualties are among the people or the police, mainstream figures call for calm and reconciliation. These calls have little effect on de-escalating the overall situation. Most violence and conflict in all forms is carried out by small fractions of the population. There is always an array from the most militant fringe, through the seriously committed partisans, to those who are less involved. Between the two sides of a conflict, those nearer the center are the ones most willing to listen to a message of reconciliation.  But it is the extremes who carry on the fight, and drive the level of escalation.

The flashpoint is the police on the streets.  Cops are under tension every time they stop a suspect. Tension is higher if conflict has escalated recently by previous incidents; higher if it is a neighborhood with a high crime rate; higher if there has been a chase, or alarming reports over police radio links.

Tension rises sharply when the citizen isn’t cooperative or is defiant. Richard Rubenstein, a sociologist who worked in the Philadelphia police force, reported that the first thing an officer wants in any encounter are signs that the person will not make trouble. He insists on taking the initiative, and controlling the situation in little details, since these are the warning signs for bigger trouble. Donald Black, who pioneered ride-along observations in patrol cars, calculated that the chances someone would be arrested did not depend on race per se, but on whether the person was defiant-- and in the 1960s black persons were more defiant to the police (not surprisingly, since this was the era of the civil rights movement). Car chases and running away increase officers' tension even more, since these are also acts of defiance. Citizens who turn their backs and refuse to stop are acting defiantly, even if the initial order was something trivial like “move to the sidewalk” (the first step in the 2014 Ferguson shooting).

Adding together any or all of these factors increases tension. Bodily this is experienced as adrenaline rush, the flight-or-fight arousal. The biggest danger with an adrenaline spike is the loss of perception and fine motor control. When heart rate races to 150 beat per minute or more, fine motor control is lost. An officer may reach for a gun when he thinks he is reaching for handcuffs or a taser. Trigger fingers produce wild or uncontrollable firing. Officers in shootouts report time distortions like going into a bubble, vision turning into a blur or tunnel vision on only one part of the scene. Hearing often goes out so that they don’t hear their own gunshots; voices become incomprehensible. It is a situation ripe for miscommunication and misperception.

Adrenaline-produced distortions explain why shooting incidents happen where it turns out the suspect did not have a gun, or was reaching for an ID; situations where stops for trivial reasons blow up into killings. Since adrenaline takes time to subside, the cop may empty the magazine of his gun, even after the suspect is motionless on the ground. Catching these details on video certainly looks like an atrocity.

Teaching awareness of body signs and emotional control

What can be done? The key is training cops to keep their bodily tension under control.  Sociologist Geoffrey Alpert found that officers who are better at controlling the escalation of force have a more deliberate and refined sense of timing in the moves of both sides. More attention to such micro-details should train more police officers up to a high level of competence.

Individual officers vary widely in their use of force. About 10% of police account for the bulk of all force reports; and less then 1% fire their guns in multiple incidents. (Collins, Violence: 371) The polarized viewpoint see cops in general as being out of control; but the real issue is to make better officers out of the fraction that cannot control their emotions and physiology.

Adrenaline can be lowered, for instance by breathing exercises described by Army psychologist David Grossman. Police training should incorporate more explicit awareness of the distortions caused by tense confrontations. Weapons training tends to go in the opposite direction, stressing quick reaction, and training for automatic “muscle memory” in the default scenario that saving lives depends on rapid action. Police tend to be trained for extreme situations rather than clear assessment and self-control.

In the field, police dispatching and radio calls tend to turn situations into scenarios where the suspect is regarded as extremely dangerous.  Citizen calls to the police may say, someone might have a gun; or that someone might be engaged in a burglary. The dispatcher tends to turn this into a simpler form, there is a gun or a burglar. When messages are transmitted from one patrol car to another, the process by which rumors are propagated takes over. As psychological experiments have shown, each link in a chain of oral reports tends to simplify the message, leaving out any special qualifications and turning it into the most obvious cliché.  In the case of police transmissions, the more cars called to a scene, the more likely the message is to turn into an extreme threat; weapons are definitely asserted to be present; hostages tend to mentioned whether they exist or not and the suspect becomes reported as saying he will won’t die alone.

The combination of these processes explains events like the incident in Cleveland  in November 2014. The officer who shot an adolescent carrying a toy gun on a playground had raced to the scene and fired within 2 seconds after jumping from his car. Better trained officers would be aware of their own body signs and the danger zone of perceptual distortion, and would not attempt to fire until they had a clear view of the situation.

Such events are preventable. The answer is not so much after-the-fact criminal charges and court trials-- these rarely result in conviction, and focus on punishing individuals rather than on the improvements that can be made in police procedures. Better training can be undertaken at local initiative by police forces willing to do so. This should include techniques for becoming aware of one’s own adrenaline level and heart rate-- body signs monitors like those used in physical exercise would help here. And techniques should be emphasized for getting adrenaline under control.  There also should be better training of police dispatchers, to make them aware of the distortions they introduce into messages; and making patrol officers aware of the rumor-like exaggeration in their own chains of messages to each other. A useful role of Federal and State governments would be to review police training programs, to assess whether they are sufficiently teaching bodily and perceptual awareness of the distortions of adrenaline rush. Emphasis needs to be upon best methods for calmly and accurately assessing the situation before escalating it.

What about the other side of the counter-escalation, the anger, hostility, and defiance in the black community? I have focused on what can be done by police to control their use of force, because this is where public policy might be implemented. But escalated conflict is driven by the extremes at both ends of the distribution, and the tough guys of black and Hispanic communities would  be harder to reach.  Nevertheless, the message is much the same.  Be aware of one’s own adrenaline, one’s rush of emotions, the situational blurring of attention to everything but the impulse to dominate. And be aware of the same processes going on inside the person on the other side-- awareness of how to calm police down rather than rile them up. A glimmer of optimism comes from group psychology programs in California prisons, where convicted murderers learn to re-experience the events that led to their imprisonment, and to focus on better control of their emotions. Prisoners who completed the program and were released on parole had a re-arrest rate much lower than usual. It is not impossible that in the future self-training in micro-situational awareness could spread even in the most violent part of the population.

Framing the issue as racism doesn’t solve it. Cops without racist attitudes, under these kinds of tense situations, and with their adrenaline out of control, can trigger off violent atrocities. The answer isn’t in the attitudes; it is in the micro-techniques of how to behave in confrontations. There is a workable solution. Whether we will implement it or not is another question.


Randall Collins. 2008.  Violence: A Micro-sociological Theory.
Randall Collins. 2012: “C-Escalation and D-escalation: A Theory of the Time-Dynamics of Conflict.” American Sociological Review

Eric C. Schneider. 1999. Vampires, Dragons and Egyptian Kings: Youth Gangs in Postwar New York.
Martín Sánchez-Jankowski.  1991. Islands in the Street.
Scott Decker and Barrik van Winkle. 1996. Life in the Gang.
Richard T. Wright and Scott Decker. 1994.  Burglars on the Job.
Richard T. Wright and Scott Decker. 1997.  Armed Robbers in Action.
Elijah Anderson.. 1999.  Code of the Street.
Elijah Anderson. 2012. The Cosmopolitan Canopy: Race and Civility in Everyday Life.
Deanna L. Wilkinson.  2003.  Guns, Violence and Identity among African American and Latino Youth.
Sudhir Venkatesh. 2006.  Off the Books. The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor.
Sudhir Venkatesh. 2008.  Gang Leader for a Day.
Randol Contreras. 2012. The Stickup Kids.
Andrew Papachristos. 2009. “Murder by Structure: Dominance Relations and The Social Structure of Gang Homicide,” American Journal of Sociology.
Joseph Krupnick and Christopher Winship. 2015.   "Keeping Up the Front: How Black Youth Avoid Street Violence in the Inner  City"  in Orlando Patterson and Ethan Fosse (Eds.),  The Culture Matrix: Understanding Black Youth.
Alice Goffman. 2014. On the Run.
David Skarbeck. 2014.  The Social Order of the Underworld. How Prisons Gangs Govern the American Penal System.
C. Eric Lincoln. 1994.  The Black Muslims in America.

Jonathan Rubinstein, 1973. City Police.
Donald Black. 1980. The Manners and Customs of the Police.
Peter Moskos. 2009. Cop in the Hood.
Dave Grossman. 2004.  On Combat. The psychology and physiology of deadly combat in war and peace.
David Klinger. 2004.  Into the Kill Zone. A Cop's Eye View of Deadly Force.
Geoffrey P. Alpert and Roger G. Dunham. 2004. Understanding Police Use of Force.

Saturday, October 15, 2016


The term charisma is thrown around a lot these days, applied to everyone from pop stars to the merely well-dressed. Sure, words can mean whatever you want them to mean, but they lose their power to explain what is going on. In sociology, charisma is a theory about a particular kind of power, contrasted with bureaucratic power and mere traditional authority. For Max Weber, who originated this analysis, charisma is a main source of historical change, but it is unstable and doesn’t last. It doesn’t mean just fashionable or popular; it means leadership that accomplishes big things.

We can improve Weber’s theory. When we closely examine charismatic people, we find four kinds of charisma-- i.e. there are four different ways that people get charisma. A few people have most or all of them; some get it from only one source.

1. Front-stage charisma
2. Back-stage charisma
3. Success-magic charisma
4. Reputational charisma

1. Front-stage charisma

Front-stage and back-stage are Goffman’s terms for regions of everyday life: whether you are putting on a public performance and doing official things, or when you are in private with your intimates. Back-stage is informal, and it includes both hanging out with your buddies and confidantes, and planning how to handle your front-stage performances. The glib term “transparency” so widely demanded today implies there should be no backstages; no one ever gets to plan anything or to say what they really believe; it all has to be goody-goody front-stage clichés.

Front-stage charisma means putting on overpoweringly impressive performances in front of an audience. The crowd is not just convinced; they are swept off their feet. It is more than just an entertaining moment; after such an experience, we will follow them anywhere. Charisma seizes people’s emotions and shapes their will. A charismatic leader is a great speech-maker. Their speeches recruit a movement.

Jesus is the archetype of front-stage charisma. His sermon on the mount spills over into miracles among the audience. Throughout his career he has mastery of crowds. Even with hostile crowds, he breaks their momentum, seizes the initiative, and ends up emotionally dominating.

Other speech-makers with charismatic power include Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Julius Caesar, and on the dark side of the force, Adolf Hitler. The entire Nazi movement was built on mass-participation performances, including their sinister marches, swastikas, Heil Hitler! salutes, and loud-speakers. A charismatic leader is master of the mass media of the day, whatever they may be.

2. Back-stage charisma

Having front-stage charisma does not mean you are charismatic in the informal situations of everyday life. Winston Churchill was regarded as rather an ill-mannered drunk at dinner parties. Alexander the Great was inspirational at the head of his troops in battle, but he palled around with his buddies and sometimes got into fights with them.

An example of purely backstage charisma is T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia). When recruiting an Arab army against the Turks in WWI, Lawrence did not try to dominate meetings or give orders. He let the warrior equality of the desert take its course as they discussed at leisure whether to follow the British or not; when the timing felt right, he would quietly announce that he was going to attack such-and-such, whoever felt like coming was welcome. Lawrence also had weapons, money, camels, and a string of military successes, so he soon was being greeted with enthusiastic shouts by warriors rushing to join him. Back on the British side of the lines, Lawrence was quiet but welcome because he brought good news. After the war, he hated publicity and disguised himself as much as possible.

Others with back-stage charisma included Napoleon and Steve Jobs. I will comment on their interactional techniques in a further post.

3. Success-magic charisma

Weber’s main criterion is that charismatic leaders are credited with supernatural powers. Jesus, Muhammad, and Moses are associated with miracles and direct contact with the divine. On the secular level, charisma comes from a string of successes, especially against the odds. Such a leader becomes regarded as unbeatable.

Napoleon acquired such reputation for a long string of battle victories that enemy generals said his presence on the battlefield was worth 40,000 troops, and advised the strategy of going up against other French generals rather than Napoleon himself. Hitler’s reputation in Germany took off with a series of diplomatic and military victories from the mid-1930s through 1941, backing up his earlier boast to make Germany great again.

In the business world, Steve Jobs already had a reputation for backstage charisma when he first developed Apple Computer Co, but his public image changed from eccentric to unbeatable after his return to Apple in 1997 and a ten year string of soaring product roll-outs. He artfully combined success charisma with frontstage charisma, organizing dramatic product launches and making Apple stores scenes for enthusiastic crowd participation.

Unbroken success is hard to come by, and virtually all charismatic leaders have to deal with failure at some point. But charisma requires at least an aura of success. One way this happens is that belonging to a growing movement of enthusiastic followers gives confidence the leader’s promises will pay off. In the stock market, a cascade of followers is a financial success in itself.

4. Reputational charisma

If you have charisma, you get a reputation for it. The fourth type of charisma is a result of the other three. There is also some feedback effect; the more widespread your reputation for charisma, the more it pumps up your appeal as a frontstage performer and as a miracle-worker. But this brings us onto tricky grounds. People who want to be charismatic can try to manipulate it, by working the public relations machine. How successful is this?

One limitation is that the competition can get crowded. There is a limit on how many charismatic people can exist at the same time, especially when they go up against each other. * It would be like having too many prima donnas at a party.

*  In examining the networks of philosophers across history, I found a pattern of “the law of small numbers”-- the number of famously creative persons in one generation was almost always between 3 and 6. Whether a similar law of small numbers operates for politics or business has not yet  been found.

The struggle for fame will shoot down many contenders, especially in an era dominated by easy access to mass media. This implies that you need a foundation in one of the other three forms of charisma, to have a chance at reputational charisma.

Television and video images convey not just reports of what people did and said, but what they looked like saying it, as if they were face-to-face with the viewer. That turns the most basic test of charisma more into the second type. Back-stage charisma depends on the kinds of emotions conveyed by facial expressions and body rhythms; people are good at picking up genuine emotions and feel uneasy about emotions which are forced. **

** Soon after the 1980 campaign, I attended a meeting with Paul Ekman, the psychologist who pioneered research on the facial expression of emotions. Ekman commented that Jimmy Carter had a forced smile, whereas Ronald Reagan’s smile was genuine. Similarly fateful were the disastrous attempts at false impressions in the 1988 campaign, with Michael Dukakis shown in a political ad riding in a tank, and the 2004 campaign with John Kerry shown duck hunting.

Subtypes of merely  reputational charisma include:

-- ephemeral pseudo-charisma:
You get a big reputation; enthusiastic crowds flock to see you; everybody wants to get near you, touch you, get your autograph or a selfie with you. This is pretty much the definition of being an entertainment star. It tends to be ephemeral, all the more so as the competition for attention goes on.

It also happens in politics. An example is Gorbachev, who was treated like a rock star, especially in Europe during the mid-1980s. He held out a new future, ending the Cold War, negotiating nuclear weapons reductions, and democratizing the Soviet Union. By 1989-91, these reforms overtook Gorbachev himself; he was not only deposed, but lost his charisma.  It comes and goes; until the early 1980s, Gorbachev was just another Communist apparatchik, protégé of the KGB chief Andropov who came to power after Brezhnev’s death. Gorbachev had a period of genuine successes, but his reputation at its height was a bubble that burst when public attention turned elsewhere.

-- historically retrospective charisma:
Some individuals’ charisma is created after their death. An example is Queen Elizabeth the First, whose name is attached to the Elizabethan age. She was not a speech-maker, and she did not direct the policy of England to any great extent during her reign. Major decisions, like executing Mary Queen of Scots and thereby setting off the Spanish Armada, were made behind her back. She had no great skill in winning people over backstage. The impression of her supreme greatness comes from two things: first, her court made a big deal out of flattering her, surrounding her with elaborate courtesy and ostentatious display. She wore magnificent costumes and jewels and was the center of impressive entertainments and ceremonies. In this respect, she was quite a lot like a Chinese Emperor, surrounded by protocol in the Forbidden Palace, while the secretaries ran the country.

Second: the Elizabethan period (and its continuation into the reign of her successor, James I) was a time of great successes for England: the end of the Protestant/Catholic struggles; the growth of English sea power to world class; the historic outpouring of English literature, a good deal of which was dedicated to Elizabeth or performed in her presence. Truth be told, Elizabeth was a magnificent symbol, but a charismatic leader only by historical courtesy.

One of the loosest ways of getting called “charismatic” is merely to be a famous name at a time when important things happened. If we use all four criteria, we can check empirically whether this person was charismatic or not, and in what way. We can look at whether they were good at swaying crowds and recruiting followers; and if they could make disciples out of their intimate acquaintances. Every famous person can be assessed this way, if we have the records. For ancient people this is not always clear. We know too little about the life of Gautama, who became the Buddha. Confucius was not a public success although he did recruit the first generation of followers who later burgeoned into a dominant movement in the history of China.

At any rate, we have four ways people become charismatic, and these can be used to examine any particular case.

Does Donald Trump have charisma?

[1] Front-stage charisma is his strength.  He dominates public meetings, making the crowd enthusiastic and intensely loyal on his behalf. In that sense he is a great speech-maker, although not at all in the style of traditional oratory. His sentences are short and often repetitive, his vocabulary limited. This brings out an important point: effective speech-making does not depend on its formal qualities. Front-stage charisma is generated by connecting with the audience, building emotion, and riding with it. 

Trump stands out from other politicians by constantly doing something surprising. From the point of view of his opponents, this means saying things which are shocking; but it also leaves them spending most of their time responding to him, expressing outrage, and rebutting his claims. Trump thus always seizes the initiative, and refuses to give it up. Whereas most people lose emotional energy when they are attacked by a barrage of criticism, Trump does not back down, but renews the attack. Media scandals usually destroy people’s careers, but Trump is unfazed by them, and uses them to focus even more attention upon himself.

Trump uses the media to monopolize the focus of attention of the wider public; he uses his rallies as a stronghold to protect himself from fallout. The way he stands firm and plunges even further ahead in his pathway makes him a beacon for his followers. He becomes an emotional energy hero: no one can top him or push him off his trajectory. *

* In contrast, in the 2000 campaign, Pat Buchanan, a candidate with a similar anti-immigration message, was confronted at a rally in Arizona by a young man, who said, I am one of the Mexican border-crossers you are talking about. What about me? Buchanan was shaken, replying apologetically, I didn’t mean you in particular. Trump is not shaken by pressure to behave according to conventional good manners; in similar situations he attacks. Early in his campaign, he rejected persistent questioning by television journalist Megyn Kelly, shifting the focus to her effort to control the topic. This is where his notorious “blood oozing out of her...” remarks came from. Feminists found this scandalous; but it also alerted the audience that this was someone who would not be pushed around by reporters, even in the smallest details of questioning.

Always doing something surprising; never letting the other side set the agenda; seizing the initiative and never giving it up: these are key characteristics of highly charismatic persons. I have documented these same traits in the face-to-face encounters of Jesus. Obviously I am not saying that Trump resembles Jesus in other respects; yet both illustrate a high degree of front-stage charisma.

Emotional energy is confidence, enthusiasm, initiative, and persistence. In Interaction Ritual (IR) theory, emotional energy is the result of successful encounters. That requires getting everyone’s attention focused on the same thing; generating a shared emotion; and building up rhythmic entrainment so that the group feels themselves unified and strengthened. Successful IRs do not have to start with positive emotions; negative emotions like fear or anger also work because they attract so much attention. The key to a successful IR is to transform the initial emotion into a feeling of collective solidarity in the group. We may be angry but we are angry together, and that makes us strong; fearful or frustrated but fearful and frustrated together. Trump is a master of this dynamic in public events. Pushback from the outside does not faze him, since it is what keeps his rallies intense; and his followers, who might otherwise be emotionally intimidated by that pushback in the general population, find Trump a pillar of strength. He is the unusual person who not only rides out scandals, but flourishes on them.

[2] Back-stage charisma.   Trump is much less charismatic here. By all reports, when he interacts with people one-on-one, his attention wanders. He gets along with persons who are extremely deferential to him. He is more domineering than inspiring. Hence his preference for big rallies; small meetings with one-on-one interaction are not his forte, not where he gets his emotional energy.

[3] Success-magic charisma. This is part of the image that Trump claims for himself, that unlike others he is always the winner. Nevertheless, many of his business ventures have been failures, with numerous bankruptcies. Clearly Trump is not in a league with Caesar or Napoleon with their string of victories, or with Bill Gates or Warren Buffett in business success.

A number of mitigating points need to be made. Virtually no one has an unbroken string of successes (see Napoleon, Caesar..). A reputation for success-magic can be upheld by springing back from failures. This is what Trump does with his bankruptcies, especially since he dumps the loss on his investors. Michel Villette, in his study of great fortunes made in Europe and the US during mid-20th century, found that most of them went through bankruptcies and legal fights, which they emerged from successfully by hard-balling everyone else. Trump fits that pattern.

In his business career, Trump uses his claims to making great investments as a way of snowing financiers into investing. When the enterprise fails, they are in so deep that they have to bail him out. In his personal business, Trump has played explicitly on the theme, too big to be allowed to fail.

Is this success-magic charisma? At best, a manipulative form of it, characteristic of the world of skyrocketing finances from the 1990s through the present.

[4] Reputational charisma. This kind of charisma is derivative of the other three. There is a multiplier effect, once the reputation machine get rolling. Thus far (mid-October 2016 at time of writing) it remains to be seen whether Trump will turn out to be another instance of ephemeral pop-star reputation.

In sum, Trump has front-stage charisma, and not a lot of the other three kinds.

Does charisma win elections?

Politics is a competition. Being charismatic for one group of people does not make you charismatic for everyone; and that is true for any historic figure we can think of. So having opponents who deny your charisma does not mean you don’t have it.

Modern media-oriented political campaigns give a premium to charisma or what looks like it. Are elections determined by who has more charisma?

In the primary campaigns, the only other person who built up a charismatic profile was Bernie Sanders. Clearly this was all front-stage charisma. Sanders is not imposing as a personality. Throughout his career in Congress, he was an isolated figure whose vote was rarely sought out by anyone. He has no record or reputation for success. What he did find, in the 2015-16 campaign, was a constituency who wanted somebody radical, who could voice their criticism of the establishment. Bernie Sanders epitomizes Weber’s point that charisma comes from the audience more than from the individual himself. This helps explain Bernie’s reluctance to shut down his campaign, even after he had clearly lost and his continued criticism was damaging Hillary Clinton’s general election. He went from nobody to charismatic leader-- as long as he stayed in the magic spotlight of his enthusiastic rallies. In this last respect, the Sanders and Trump campaigns are similar.

Hillary Clinton is not charismatic. She has had to learn how to make political stump speeches. She has mastered the rhetoric, the gestures, the facial expressions. It still doesn’t look spontaneous.* Over the years, Hillary was known as a get-down-to-business, get-things-done person, the opposite of warm and fuzzy. Her campaign smile, in particular, is what Ekman would call a forced smile. I suggest that her front-stage demeanor, more than anything else, is what gives many people the feeling she is not trustworthy. The scandal-politics of issues about emails and Monday morning quarterbacking over terrorist attacks are less telling than the emotional resonance that many people feel is missing in her public face. By all accounts, she is a capable person backstage. She has a mixed record of success, no reputation for magic. Like most politicians at the height of a campaign, she does generate enthusiasm from her hard-core supporters; that comes less from her own charisma than from the audience projecting their emotions onto her.

* Senator Ted Cruz in the Republican primaries displayed a speaking style that also looked artificial: rhetorical statements, followed by pause for effect, accompanied by sweeping arm gestures. It went on too long and looked like it was coached, without getting the rhythm right. Trump beat everyone to the punch with his spontaneity. The other politicians made him look good.

Strong charisma is rare. In most elections, in the US and elsewhere, there has been no charismatic figure. If we drop down to a looser criterion-- how did the candidates compare in whatever lesser degrees of charisma they had?-- it still would not be clear that the person who looked more charismatic won. Sometimes clearly charismatic persons lose: Churchill’s party lost the election of 1945 even though Churchill personally was at the height of his war-time reputation.

This is an open field for research: examine elections by rating the candidates on the four kinds of charisma. There are instances where the most charismatic figure rolled to victory (FDR’s string of four terms), others where the charismatic leader lost (Teddy Roosevelt in 1912), plenty of elections where nobody was charismatic or their charisma did not come until later (Lincoln during the Civil War, Woodrow Wilson at the end of WWI). Charisma is just one ingredient in political success, and we haven’t yet measured how it stacks up against other conditions.

Charisma is not the only form of leadership

There are other kinds of successful organization leaders.

-- The harmonious team manager,  who gets everyone working together and focused on goals. Eisenhower was an example; never a battlefield leader, he kept the war effort going by managing difficult personalities like De Gaulle and Churchill, Patton and Montgomery. Another person, well known to myself, is a woman who wherever she goes is always elected to lead the organization or chair the committee. She gets along with all factions, keeps things moving, and is appreciated for winding up meetings without wasting time. (She is my wife.)

-- The smart decision-maker and strategist. There is a lot of hype about this, especially in business, so we need to keep a careful scorecard.  In politics, an example is 19th century German chancellor Bismarck, who engineered the unification of the German Reich, and out-maneuvered the left by introducing a welfare state. Today, the nearest example may be California Governor Jerry Brown (in his later career): he plans ahead for political crises and budget shortfalls, using the ballot initiative to change legislative rules so that his bills can get through. Brown avoids charisma and minimizes public campaigning. Backstage, he skips chit-chat and plunges immediately into goals and how to reach them. Unlike charismatic leaders, strategists of this sort tend to be undogmatic, and are willing to buck their own party and borrow policies from the opposition. Bill Gates’ career at Microsoft is a business example.

-- The coalition-builder.  Lyndon Johnson, never charismatic in public, was a power-house at lining up votes for legislation, with a mixture of schmoozing, horse-trading, and putting on pressure. Abraham Lincoln, who was a good orator, also had this skill. Coming into the presidency in a very divided political situation, he put as many of his opponents as possible into his cabinet, then played them against each other so as to get the most effective financial and logistical effort for the war. His non-charismatic side was just as important as his public charisma, which grew towards the end of the Civil War.

Bottom line: Charisma is one way to mobilize people into action. In elections, charisma does not always win. In  running an organization, charismatic leadership works best in combination with a details-oriented team, as seen in the second incarnation of Steve Jobs at Apple. In running a government, the non-charismatic styles are an indispensable ingredient.

Charisma shakes things up. Other leadership styles are needed to get things done.


Randall Collins, The Sociology of Philosophies. 1998.
Paul Ekman, Telling Lies: Clues to Deceit in the Marketplace, Politics, and Marriage. 2009.
Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. 1959.
Michel Villette and Catherine Vuillermot, From Predators to Ikons: Exposing the Myth of the Business Hero. 2009.

On Jesus’s interactional style:
“Jesus in Interaction: the Micro-sociology of Charisma”

On Steve Jobs, Napoleon, and Alexander the Great:
Randall Collins and Maren McConnell, Napoleon Never Slept: How Great Leaders Leverage Emotional Energy.  2016. Maren Ink.

On T.E. Lawrence:
“How to Become Famous: the Networks of T.E. Lawrence”

On Queen Elizabeth the First:
Susan Doran, The Tudor Chronicles 1485-1603.  2009. N.Y.: Metro Books.
Garrett Mattingly, The Armada.  1959.  Houghton Mifflin.