Thursday, December 1, 2016


The Trump saga bears an uncanny resemblance to the TV show, The Sopranos, that ran from 1999 to 2007. Both are essentially soap operas, serial melodrama of domestic life, set on the edge of criminality, and beyond. This is a big part of their popular appeal.

A family in every sense of the term

Tony Soprano is the head of a Mafia family, seen through the lens of his family life. This is a good way to sentimentalize organized crime, even with its violence and treachery. It makes these into homey and sympathetic people who go through the same things as the rest of us: the kids growing up, messing up in school, teens stretching the limits. A mid-life crisis that sends the husband into psychotherapy with a female psychiatrist. A middle-aged housewife flirting with a good-looking Catholic priest, while her husband shacks up with young bimbos. Soap-opera stuff, but she can brush it aside precisely because they are bimbos, not real rivals, knowing underneath it all that Tony Soprano is committed to his family. Just boy stuff, as Melania Trump might say.

It is an old-fashioned Italian family.  The father is the undisputed boss, loyalty the chief virtue. Everything centers on a family business, continuing across the generations, branching out to relatives who can’t be forgotten, no matter what. Uncle Junior, an over-the-hill hoodlum. Tony’s querulous mother, who berates him for not coming to see her enough, while he maneuvers her into a nursing home she hates. Christopher, the nephew learning the business, callow and sleazy but an eager enthusiast, a sort of male ingénue working his way up in a crime career.

As a Mafia family, it combines domestic with fictitious kin and pseudo-family relations. Hoodlums like Pauley and Big Pussy, who come over for home-made Italian pasta and are regarded as family by the kids. Boyhood friend Artie, a genial restauranteur who provides another meeting-place and prospers under Tony’s protection. The Mafia operates in a world of small family-run businesses, never in bureaucratic corporations or chains. They are independent, outside of formal rules and record-keeping, under the radar. Family-like loyalty and privacy is the secret of their success.

Tony’s headquarters is the back office of a roadside strip joint-- or for that matter, out front at the bar where the girls undulate while insiders shop-talk and plot. Tony lives in a big house in a wealthy suburb, but he commutes every day to a neighborhood of cheap store-fronts where his business associates hang out. Killings take us inside kitchens and meat-lockers; bodies are buried in garbage dumps-- one of Tony’s fronts is the waste disposal business.

This is crime with a work ethic. Tony and his gang are always taking care of business-- one difference between the Mafia elite and casual robbers who commit the intermittent stickup to finance their drug habit. They keep regular hours and put in overtime when needed. Tony suddenly stops his car to chase down and beat up a guy who owes him money-- a gambling addict on the hook for huge interest to Tony’s shylocking operation. Taking his daughter on a visit to a New England college, Tony spots an aging police informer now in an FBI witness protection program; so while Meadow listens to the college admission spiel, Tony sneaks out to kill the rat. Drama is always popping up in the midst of ordinary routine. 

Behind the scenes of everyday life, something is hidden and exciting. This is the formula for detective stories-- that distinctively modern form of literature, enlivening our disenchanted world where almost everything is routine. The Sopranos works the formula from the point of view of the criminals, while bringing it closer to our own lives by embedding crime business in the cycle of domesticity.

The Trumps

The Trumps are another family in the pre-modern mold.

Donald, of course, the head of family, both domestic and business, with precious little distinction between them. An over-the-top egotistical self-promoter. That itself is a business asset, since Trump is a brand name, in a post-modern economy where branding is the core money-maker and the grunt work is shunted off to the periphery. Even the controversies add to the attention. Is he a mega-billionaire? Is he faking it, a pyramid of debts and shaky holdings? It’s all part of the drama.

Trump is a pre-modern business model in the most post-modern of economic sectors. Flashy hotels, golf resorts, casinos, the “in” places where the action is. His venues are places for spectacle and entertainment. Beauty pageants. Boxing promotions where famous fighters shake hands in the front rows and Penthouse Pets parade around the ring carrying the round cards and have their pictures taken with Donald Trump.

The web of businesses is family held, avoiding bureaucratic strings. Trump decides as much as possible himself, surrounded by a loyal core of long-time employees, many of them women. In addition to this pseudo-family, his businesses are run by his children, especially his highly competent older daughter, Ivanka, and her husband Jared. He is the kind of relative who gets absorbed into the core of loyalists. Jared is a parallel to Donald’s own career: launched by a wealthy entrepreneurial father, striking off in his early years on his own ventures; even taking over when the father gets caught on the wrong side of the law. Like the Mafia, it is more of an umbrella for holdings than a vertical bureaucracy. As a closely-held family business, it stays as far as possible from the formal rules and record-keeping of big corporations, publically-traded companies, and government regulations. Like the Mafia, it is based on the opposite of transparency-- which means open to formal oversight and outside interference.

Managing the network of enterprises is very labor-intensive, a more than full-time job-- in effect no time off at all, no distinction between private life and work. Trump manages it by being very quick and decisive. He also needs very little sleep, a workaholic who gets his emotional energy from his business interactions where he is always in the center of control. For implementation, he has to rely on trusted followers whose loyalty is unquestioned. And he does this successfully by grooming his children to join him in the inner circle. Far from leaning over backwards to avoid the impression of nepotism, he concentrates on making nepotism work.

Even Trump’s bitterest opponents give tribute to his family. On campaign and in the public eye, they make a good impression: good-looking, well-dressed, well-behaved, seriously involved. They are in implicit contrast to so many children of elite families, the spoiled rich, the money squanderers, the druggies, the Teddy Kennedys with their car crashes, Sarah Palin’s family of trailer-trash scrapes, Bill Clinton’s and Jimmy Carter’s black-sheep brothers. Donald himself may create the scandals but his family is united in riding them out; this is not one of the all-so-frequent upper class families divided by battles over inheritance or waiting for the older generation to quit. How does Trump keep them loyal and committed? Apparently, by involving them from an early age. He keeps them around and pays frequent attention to them--- not by taking time out from his business, but by bringing them into it as much as possible. Donald’s divorces and remarriages do not prevent him from keeping his children close. He claims to have told them every morning at breakfast to stay away from drinking and drugs. Like Donald, they are not party animals but call the shots at promoting parties: similar to Mafia chiefs who run the drug business but strictly prohibit using it themselves. Trump himself does not drink, one reason why he can be up in the middle of the night sending Tweets.

Trump’s pre-modern family/business is a source of controversy, especially in the period of transition to the Presidency, and very likely beyond. The two entities are almost co-extensive, the opposite of the now-conventional wall between public and private life. It is considered mildly scandalous that Ivanka, Jared, or Donald Jr. are involved as diplomatic contacts and  go-betweens with foreign leaders. This will not go away. Trump’s business and political careers have been based on defying pressures to adhere to conventional consensus. Like the Mafia, the familistic structure is the source of its strength. Controversies about it are just one more thing keeping the Trump saga in the center of attention.

Another level up in social class

The Trumps and The Sopranos are not identically patterned. The Sopranos are upwardly mobile from the working class. They have made it into the upper-middle class segment that lives in the expensive suburbs but still does their own cooking. They have all the middle-class comforts but talk in the accents of East Coast immigrant working class. Tony’s mob is centered in grubby working class areas and caters to working class male recreations. They have money for NFL games, NBA, hockey-- for that matter, they are the clientele as well as some of the more profitable workers servicing Atlantic City casinos like Trump’s. As sociologist David Halle found in his research on oil refinery workers in northern New Jersey (almost exactly where Tony lives), they are working class on the job, but at home they are middle class, by their expenditure patterns and by the respectable activities their wives drag them to.  The sociology of this group is perfectly captured in the tug-of-war between the stripper bars across from the factory where many workmen spend their lunch and after-work hours, and the Catholic church events and school activities their wives involve them in. The Mafia is, so to speak, the most aristocratic of the working-class aristocracy.

If The Trumps are a version of The Sopranos, they are a very upper-class version. They are the glittery part of the upper class. There also exists a more traditional, boringly respectable part of the upper class, the world of polite formal occasions, charity balls and opera openings, ladies’ luncheons, stuffy men’s clubs (now become stuffy men’s and women’s clubs), testimonial dinners and cliché-recycling conferences. The Trumps have entree into this, but it is not what elevates them to the center of public attention.

Women are a crucial part of Trump’s image. His wives have all been fashion models, but distinctive ones.  Sexy rather than the skeletal look of the runways; sleek and glamorous in a throwback style that is more Playboy than fashion-world edginess.  Supermodels who spin off their own brands and ride the momentum of their circle of fame into personal business lines. Trump and his women play off each other like acrobats on a high-wire act. Their audience is middle-brow, not the esoteric in-group fashion statements of the self-consciously sophisticated. This is not Mamie Eisenhower’s upper class, nor Truman Capote’s. The Trumps present the upper-class image most palatable to today’s lower-middle and working class.

Are there sleazy business dealings? Of course. Hard-ball lawsuits; aggressive bankruptcies; stiffing your contractors; making your lenders absorb losses because you are too hard-charging and too big to fail. These tactics are not exactly unknown in the creation of big business fortunes, from the time of Rockefeller to the corporate raiders of the present. French sociologist Michel Villette found that virtually all of the big fortunes made in Europe and the US since the 1950s involved shady legal tactics. Machiavelli wrote that the way to carry out a coup is to chop off your enemies’ heads, display them on the city walls, and join the church procession at the cathedral next morning. The modern American way of laundering predatory fortunes into respectability is to ostentatiously give a lot of money to charity, especially through a family foundation. Trump’s style is more in-your-face, making up in boldness for what it lacks in smarminess.

The Mafia-family genre

The Sopranos is in the lineage of sentimentalized Mafia films going back to the early 1970s. The Mafia was a very secretive organization, above all in its center of power, New York City. Although there were occasional spectacular murders and high-profile investigations, on the whole the structure and operations of the Mafia were little known until the revelations of Joe Valachi, an FBI informant, in 1963. This inspired a popular novel, which became the Godfather  in 1972. Like The Sopranos, the technique is to present a Mafia family sympathetically, from the point of view of its home life.   We see less about Mafia rackets than in The Sopranos, as most of the plot is taken up with a Mafia war. The aging Godfather (Marlon Brando) is badly wounded in an assassination attempt; his boys have to take over the family and fight off a rival borgatta.

The plot takes a sentimental turn. The youngest son (Al Pacino) has been brought up to go straight; he has gone to college-- the first of his family-- and is expected to assimilate their wealth into the WASP elite. But with his father incapacitated and the war going badly, the youngest son volunteers to be the go-between to negotiate peace with the rival Mafia chief. They scope out the meeting place in advance, a restaurant where they can hide a gun in the toilet. Pacino arrives, is patted down for weapons; eventually excuses himself to go to the bathroom, comes back and shoots the enemy chief. Then he goes on the lam to Sicily, where he learns about his Mafia roots and acquires the manners that will eventually promote him to Godfather when he returns to America.

The Godfather mixes incidents from different historical periods. Marlon Brando’s character is based on Carlo Gambino, who took over one of the five New York families after a Mafia war in 1957. But the restaurant murder is based on the 1930-31 Mafia war that established Italian hegemony in the New York crime world. One of the lieutenants, “Lucky” Luciano, decided to end the war by double-crossing his boss. What happened was roughly what we saw in The Godfather-- the young man telling the Boss he's got a deal with the enemy, going to the toilet, the bodyguards disappearing while killers burst in shooting. A few months later, Luciano pulled another tricky set-up on the other remaining Boss, using  hired Jewish hit-men in disguise. This was epoch-making for the New York Mafia, since Luciano proceeded to set up a five-family “Peace Commission” to approve all Mafia hits and keep its affairs under cover by systematic bribing of New York officials.

Flash back to the present, which is to say 1972, the year The Godfather set a box office record. It was the triumphant era of the black Civil Rights movement, the latter phase when white ethnics started making similar demands for recognition. Mafia secrecy was not blown just by best-sellers and Hollywood. Joe Colombo (head of the Colombo family) was making public speeches rallying Italian-Americans like Frank Sinatra, to protest against defamation (such as the slur of mentioning the Mafia). Joey Gallo, believed to have engineered the shooting of Colombo at his Columbus Day rally in 1971, was temporarily the darling of cafe society before being shot at a Manhattan restaurant in 1972.

The Mafia saga is full of ironies and contradictions, as far as its public image goes. One of the slogans among intellectuals in the 1970s was “the rise of the unmeltable ethnics”-- an attack on White Anglo-Saxon Protestant domination, and a refusal of the ethnics to assimilate to it. This is part of the rhetoric that by the 1980s became known as Political Correctness, and which continues today in an expanded array of group identities that claim revenge on WASP (and male) domination. The Godfather films were the first triumph in popular culture of this anti-establishment rebellion. The irony is that The Godfather  represents successful upward mobility from ethnic roots into the American upper class. In a climactic scene, Al Pacino is now the Godfather, married to a naive WASP woman, a trophy bride for the upwardly mobile. She has qualms about whether her husband is involved in all the violence that swirls around their luxurious life. Finally she confronts her husband: Tell me the truth. Did you order these killings? Pacino counters: if I tell you, will you stop asking? Yes, she says. OK, he replies, No. The Mafia has made it; the family is intact, even managing to assimilate a clueless upper-class WASP into its underground life.

The Godfather is a coming-of-age movie, reaffirming your ethnic roots. Our hero grows up to become his true ethnic self, defeating all enemies both professional and cultural.

The Sopranos have not changed much from this point. They are middle-class Americans, with the lifestyles of 30-40 years later. Instead of grand Mafia chiefs, they are in the local grind of  organized crime, showing more working class roots than The Godfather did. Partly this reflects a real historical decline in the Mafia; with RICO prosecutions since the 1980s, the remaining Mafia families have nothing like the money and influence they had at mid-century. This is one reason why it feels harmless to be a fan of thinly fictionalized Mafia characters; they have been displaced by Dominican mobs, Russian oligarchs, and Mexican cartels in the sphere of big-time crime. Minor league criminals with a family organization that lends itself to sentimentalizing, the Mafia has become a comfortably naughty entertainment.

Why Trump is Great Box Office

Trump’s political campaign dominated public attention from the outset. It’s the Hollywood principle-- it doesn’t matter what they say about you as long as they spell your name right-- in spades. Trump hooks people’s attention, whether they like him or not; especially when not. It is like being addicted to daily soap opera. The Sopranos blended soap opera with Mafia violence. The Trumps blend soap opera with edgy big business and edgy politics. Tune in for another episode to find out what outrageous thing he’s said today.

Trump goads people into responding to him, so much so that every candidate he faced spent most of their time talking about him. On policy issues, his stances have been heard before. The movement of grass-roots outrage at illegal immigration has existed for decades. Trump ratcheted up the hyperbole with his slogan about building a wall, and when Mexican leaders responded angrily, topped himself by claiming he would make Mexico pay for it. Job loss to foreign countries and profits going overseas has been an issue on the left; Trump made it his issue with over-the-top threats against China. Opponents play into his game by taking what he says literally and venting about it, whereupon  instead of backing off he thumbs his nose at them. The underlying game is who gets to frame the issues and who grabs the center of attention speaking about them; Trump wins on both counts.

Even without the issues, the topic became his unconventionality and norm-breaking of the established customs of public life. It began with Trump belittling other candidates to their face, turning dignified debate formats into a political version of the Jerry Springer show. The press is accustomed to creating news by their questions at press conferences; Trump refused to let them control the situation, calling out persistent reporters for their pushiness. After the election, the usual behind-the-scenes selection of top officials was been turned into try-outs televised at the front door. Manners became the message. Established media and politicians constantly find themselves playing straight man to his punch lines. Constantly upsetting the apple-carts made all other candidates look static.

How to defeat the politics of scandal

Established social life relies on the mechanism of scandal to keep things conventional.  But Trump constantly plays on the edge of scandal anyway; digging up dirt about his past is only ephemeral news. He won’t release his tax returns, although every other candidate has done it for years? It’s a custom, not a law, and anyway (actions speaking louder than words) I’m not going to do it just because you demand it. Bring on the next scandal. How about the pussy-grabbing tape? Ordinarily sex scandals are deadly in public life. How Trump survived the outcry is instructive. He refused to apologize, and even counter-attacked with sleazy sex-charges of his own. The refusal to apologize is itself outrageous, in the eyes of the attacker. But a scandal is an emotional snowball; once it gains momentum, anyone caught off balance by it gets flattened. Whether by instinct or by calculation, Trump held his ground and played for time.

One thing that helped is how expectable the politics of scandal has become. In the normally deadlocked mode of American politics, where it is difficult to win on the issues, the weapon of choice has been to spring a scandal. Experienced political operatives are familiar with the Saturday Night Special (for a Tuesday election date); with the October Surprise that the Clinton campaign surely must have thought would clinch their victory. Trump not only rode it out but battened on it. As Republican political pros joined the chorus of shocked voices, Trump marshaled his supporters to stand fast: whatever we may feel about his language, we’re still there on the issues; the other side is worse; it’s just dirty politics, this October surprise. Above all, breaking the emotional momentum.

As sociologists have pointed out, a scandal is a multi-layered event. First, something is revealed that is considered a scandalous breach of propriety. But what gives the scandal its power is the secondary scandal, looking for the cover-up; widening the hunt to those who not only connived but failed to do anything about it. A truly powerful scandal is where everyone who fails to denounce the scandal becomes a target. If you are not with us in the witch-hunt, you must be one of the witches. That is why the chorus of former supporters joining in the denunciation is the switching point. The attitude of prominent supporters like Mike Pence and Reince Priebus kept the secondary scandal from getting out of hand. (There would be no equivalent of the Republican senators who joined the Watergate investigation and thereby raised their own popularity.) It was a pause, a slowing-down that broke the emotional momentum. During this period stories emerged of voters who were afraid to express their support of Trump; but at least they didn’t denounce him. Pressure to join a nation-wide denunciation dropped. Soon it was just the Democrats talking to themselves. In the politics of scandal, the time-dynamics of collective emotions are the key. A few weeks of relative calm gave opportunity for other events to intrude (the FBI/email flurry, round 2) and the sex scandal was old news.

Has America gotten beyond the politics of scandal? Not likely. Not everyone has the bluster to play it like Trump; and he had plenty of experience with scandals in his business/ entertainment career, where scandals don’t necessarily hurt. Probably the profession of political operatives, battered as they are, will keep the Saturday Night Special in their playbook.

A new era of media politics?

It is often said that Trump’s style is tailored to the social media and the dispersion of attention away from the traditional gatekeepers of public information. This is true, although the mainstream media still provide some common focus of attention, that would otherwise be lacking when everyone is camped in their own little Internet world of the like-minded. Trump won because the mainstream media, competing among themselves for market share, quickly publicized every outrageous thing he said on Twitter and every incident at his rallies. After all, long political campaigns are very repetitive, and stump speeches hardly make breaking news. The politics of edginess, combined with the saga of the glittering Trump family, made it irresistible to put him in the driver’s seat in the struggle for attention.

The Sopranos are the archetype of the serial melodrama that lets us live vicariously in a family that is like ours but more exciting. But at least we knew it was a show put on for our entertainment. The Trump show is orchestrated by Trump himself, with the aid of a loyal family team, smoothly on display. It has just the combination of glitter,  shock value, and old-fashioned loyalty to keep us watching. And in politics, as in most things, controlling the center of attention is the formula for success.

How long will it last?  Even the most popular TV shows have their day; the greatest box office records are eventually eclipsed. Here is another problem for the sociology of emotional time-dynamics. If scandals have a make-or-break turning point within their first weeks, what determines how long political soap opera keeps up its fascination? Stay tuned.

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Civil War Two, Part 1 by Randall Collins

Civil War Two, Part 1

by Randall Collins

Giveaway ends May 24, 2018.

See the giveaway details at Goodreads.

Enter Giveaway


Ari Adut. 2008. On Scandal.

David Halle. 1984. America’s Working Man.

Joseph Pistone. 1987. Donnie Brasco. My Undercover Life in the Mafia.

Selwyn Raab. 2006.  Five Families. The Rise, Decline, and Resurgence of America’s Most Powerful Mafia Families.

Michel Villette and Catherine Vuillermot. 2009. From Predators to Icons. Exposing the Myth of the Business Hero.

Sunday, November 13, 2016


The civil war in Syria has now killed a quarter of a million people, and driven 4 million people to foreign countries where they wait hopelessly in the limbo of refugee camps. Half the people who remain in Syria are homeless. Out of a population once estimated at 18 million,  about three-quarters have lost everything.

This self-destructive war began in 2011 in the Arab Spring, imitating popular demonstrations elsewhere in the region that temporarily brought down authoritarian governments. But these were tipping-point revolutions, winning by contagious mass enthusiasm that brought a segment of the regime's forces over to the revolutionary side. Tipping points work best when the action is concentrated in a capital city. But where struggles are dispersed, the regime fights back and battles take place across the country, the moment when a few army leaders can settle things by switching sides has passed. Concentration favors short and relatively bloodless transitions; dispersion creates lengthy civil wars.

Syria had two big metropolitan areas, each about 2.5 million. While fighting developed in Damascus in the south, Aleppo in the north initially tried to stay out of it. But neutrals soon become victims as conflict escalates. Rebels turned from peaceful demonstrations to guerrilla tactics. Since guerrillas depend on hiding in the civilian population, they made places like Aleppo into battlegrounds. Civilians were hit both by guerrillas weapons and by the regime's counter-attacks. The cycle of atrocities had begun, each side motivated by hatred and revenge for what the other side did to them. In the atmosphere of polarization, neutrals are condemned as no better than enemies. This helps explain the callous disregard for the millions whose livelihood is destroyed in somebody else's fight.

What can the rest of the world do?  The spontaneous sentiment in a world of mass communications is to support the good guys and help defeat the bad guys. The problem is that in this kind of war the good guys turn into bad guys too. Guerrilla war is intrinsically messy, and anti-guerrilla war carried out by air power tends to destroy everything on the battlefield, no matter who happens to live there.

Outside intervention makes things worse.  A civil war that would wind down by running out of resources is kept going artificially, when outside regimes send in weapons and fighters to their favorite factions. Ideological wars are particularly vicious, since an ideology recruits the most dedicated believers.  Today this is most obviously militant Islam, but the same destructiveness has been seen for ideological volunteers fighting for fascism, communism or democracy, as in the Spanish civil war of the 1930s.

And multi-sided conflicts are most difficult to settle. A two-sided war has a clear termination point. But three, four, five or more factions, especially when they have independent bases and external allies, make an intrinsically unstable situation, where the weakening of some factions opens up opportunities for others to form. This is chaos in the technical sense of the term; the system does not stabilize if one faction is destroyed, it just gives rise to further conflicts.

In such a configuration, the rise of something like ISIS was predictable. Its potential destruction will not end the instability. Syria was not simply democratizers vs. Assad's regime; but Sunnis, Shi'ites and sub-factions (Alawites, Druze), and Christians; Arabs and Kurds; plus tribal alliances. Superimposed on this are the outside interventions, some motivated by religious sympathies, others by geopolitical aggrandizement.  High-minded outsiders like the US are not exempt; whether our motive is fostering democracy, countering terrorism, or just acting like a Great Power, we add one more source of fuel for the fire.

Is there any realistic solution?  Hobbes proposed, apropos of the English civil war of the 1640s, that any strong regime is preferable to endless fighting of everyone-against-everyone-else.  It is hardest to see this at the outset, when everyone is enthusiastic for their cause and sure they will win. But once a conflict has been going on long enough, many people realize that the fighting is worse than whatever we were fighting about. This is certainly the case in a civil war like Syria that has been going on for almost six years and destroyed three-quarters of the country.

The emergence of a sentiment for peace ushers in the most difficult phase of political conflict: the peace movement opposed by the hard-liners. There are hard-liners in different factions, but united in the emotion that their sacrifices should not be in vain, that they must continue to fight because victory by the enemy is unthinkable. The new axis of conflict becomes victory at any cost, against peace while there still is something to be saved.

Hobbes' solution in Syria would be to let the Assad regime win. None of the fanatical religious factions would bring a stable government; the Assad regime at least has protected minorities like Christians. This solution would be unpalatable to many, especially to outsiders who have other concerns than the plight of the Syrian population. This includes politicians in the U.S. who don't want to look weak, and whose only idea is to throw more military force into the chaos. A really courageous diplomatic move, allying the US and Russia to end the war with an Assad victory, would save lives. The alternatives are to go on destroying what is left of Syria, and generating even more of a refugee crisis.

A U.S.general in Vietnam, after obliterating a village, said that in order to save the place it was necessary to destroy it.  Can we learn enough from history to stop following this kind of thinking? 

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Civil War Two, Part 1 by Randall Collins

Civil War Two, Part 1

by Randall Collins

Giveaway ends May 24, 2018.

See the giveaway details at Goodreads.

Enter Giveaway

Further analysis in:

Randall Collins, "Tipping Point Revolutions and State-Breakdown Revolutions,"

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

I argued there are four kinds of charisma (frontstage charisma, backstage charisma, success-magic, and reputational charisma); the more kinds you have, the more charismatic you are; but there are other kinds of political leadership and charisma does not always or even typically win elections.

Of the four kinds of charisma, the most easily visible are front-stage charisma as an inspiring public speaker, recruiting followers dedicated to a mission; and being known for a string of successes. 

As a measure of public appeal, look at the percentage of popular vote won by all major candidates for president from 1828 through 2012, from Andrew Jackson to Barack Obama. I will leave aside, for the moment, the earlier elections from 1788 to 1824,  since these were essentially indirect elections by state legislatures.

Home run records and popular vote records

If we followed the changing record for presidents winning the highest percentage of voters-- in the same way we can follow the record for home runs in a season-- it would look like this:

Andrew Jackson 1828            56.0% of the vote
(since Jackson’s record wasn’t broken until 1904, I will insert in parentheses some other players who had very good years: )
(Andrew Jackson 1832  54.2%)
(Abraham Lincoln 1864  55.0%)
(Ulysses S. Grant 1872  55.6%)
Teddy Roosevelt 1904  56.4%-- new record
Warren G. Harding 1920 60.3%  -- new record
(Calvin Coolidge 1924  54.0%)
(Herbert Hoover 1928  58.2%)
(Franklin D. Roosevelt 1932 57.4%)
Franklin D. Roosevelt 1936  60.8%  -- new record
(FDR 1940   54.7%)
(Dwight D. Eisenhower 1952   55.2%)
(Eisenhower 1956    57.4%)
Lyndon Johnson 1964  61.1%  -- new record
(Richard M. Nixon  1972  60.7%)
(Ronald Reagan 1984   58.8%)

Since Reagan, no one has come close to the record. The highest have been G.H.W. Bush 1988 (53.4%) and Obama 2008 (52.9%). In three recent elections, no one broke 50% (a return to the fragmented politics of the mid-1800s). [Update November 2016: make that four recent elections.]

There are some surprises. No matter how great you are, charismatic, victorious, or likeable, you never get as many as 2 out of 3 people to vote for you, at least not in the United States.  In the 47 elections from 1828 to 2012, only 4 times someone cracked the ceiling of 60%. In fact, getting 54% of the vote was done only 16 times (out of 112 major candidates); it is like hitting 50 home runs or batting .350.

Is getting a high vote percentage a mark of charisma?  Some of the undoubtedly charismatic presidents were record-holders-- Jackson, Teddy Roosevelt, FDR--- and a couple of other charismatic leaders are high on the list (Lincoln hitting 55%; Reagan hitting 58.8%).  But Lyndon Johnson, who holds the current record at 61.1%, was not charismatic. And the president who smashed Teddy Roosevelt’s record at 60.3% was Warren G. Harding in 1920-- an astounding surprise, since Harding went on to become one of the most scandal-ridden and ineffective presidents. (In his previous career, it is true, he was regarded as a great orator.)  If Andrew Jackson is the Babe Ruth of American presidential sluggers, Harding was the Roger Maris-- a record with an asterisk. We all breathed a sign of relief when the home run record was smashed by a real slugger like Mark McGwire or Barry Bonds-- in politics, it was FDR, who proved it was no fluke by beating the 54% mark 3 times. (Jackson and Eisenhower was the only other persons to do it twice.)

And there were up-and-down politicians like Richard Nixon, who had one great year-- 60.7% in 1972-- but who lost other elections and won in 1968 with 43.4%.  Calvin Coolidge was the opposite of charismatic, but he is on the list (barely at the cut-off point of 54.0%).  Herbert Hoover was briefly second highest all-time (58.2% in 1928), then went on to take one of the worst defeats in his match-up against FDR. (He also did exactly the wrong things in dealing with the Great Depression of 1929.)

Charisma can help win elections, but it isn’t essential even for winning big. Some charismatic politicians either were defeated repeatedly (Henry Clay, William Jennings Bryan, each three times), or scraped into office (JFK and Woodrow Wilson never cracked 50% of the popular vote). 

Other things are involved in winning elections, notably who your opponent is, and whether something dramatically good or bad happens near election time. Nixon’s nearly record-breaking victory in 1972 happened against a little-known anti-war candidate (George McGovern). How Warren G. Harding dominated in 1920 seems mysterious, but it was apparently a backlash against Woodrow Wilson taking the U.S. into  World War I after promising not to; and then campaigning for a League of Nations and a nation-state for every ethnic group, which made him a charismatic figure in Europe during 1918-19, but played badly at home. Some popularity happens on the rebound or as a continuation of somebody else. Eisenhower’s popularity in 1952 and 1956 came as he succeeded a very unpopular president (Truman’s ratings had fallen to a record-low 22% in 1952; and Ike went on to end the Korean War deadlock that brought Truman down).  LBJ’s record-setting victory in 1964 came as he stepped into Kennedy’s shoes after the emotion-grabbing assassination, and proceeded  in a wave of legislation in 1964 to do everything JFK had promised but didn’t carry out. LBJ’s popularity ratings started high but slid downhill continuously during the Vietnam War, enough so that this political pro recognized it was time to bail out on running for re-election. 

Popularity ratings highs and lows

Since the 1940s, we have standardized popularity polls. Gallup polls ask the question of whether you approve of how the president is handling his job. This isn’t exactly a measure of charisma, since it doesn’t tap into that I’d-follow-him-anywhere quality of the symbolic leader.  Charisma is not a personality trait but an emotional relationship between a person who represents a principled ideal and a group of dedicated followers.

Presidential approval ratings respond to emotional events, but these peaks are very unstable. Here are the highest ratings:

90% approval for George W. Bush, mid-September 2001 (right after the 9/11 attack).
89% for George H.W. Bush, early March 1991 (right after victory in the 4-day Gulf War).
87% for Harry Truman, June 1945 (right after Victory in Europe -- V-E Day).
84% for Franklin Roosevelt, January 1942 (a month after Pearl Harbor and declaration of war against Japan).
83% for John F. Kennedy, May 1961 (just after the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba).

These are called rally-round-the-flag ratings. The nation comes together around the presidential symbol immediately after a dramatic conflict event. It isn’t necessarily a victory; 3 of the top 5 ratings happened after we were attacked or defeated.

The peaks come from the emotional effect of outside events, not from the individual. George W. Bush’s rating was 51% in early September, just before the 9/11/01 attacks. Harry Truman’s rating dropped to the low 30s in 1946, bounced up and down in the mid-levels, and bottomed out at 22% in February 1952, during the bogged-down Korean War. George H.W. Bush’s ratings shot up from the mid-50s in late 1990 to 89% with the Gulf War, but dropped 60 points in the year-and-a-half that followed.  George W. Bush fell from 90% on a downward path to the low 30s in 2007 and 19% in the financial crash of October 2008.

FDR and JFK, on the other hand, maintained quite high ratings throughout their terms in office (JFK averaged 70%, FDR 63%). This is probably an effect of charisma, since these were charismatic speakers who inspired many idealistic followers. 

Other peaks for non-crisis presidents were 79% for Lyndon Johnson, immediately after taking over for Kennedy-- an overflow of JFK adulation in the period of national mourning. Dwight Eisenhower had 79% in December 1956, just after he had won his second term. Since Eisenhower was not a charismatic speaker or personality, this shows more of a good feeling or likeability rating. Ike’s average ratings in office were 65%, next highest to JFK’s 70.1%.

Approval ratings are a mixed measure, a melange of sudden events, likeability, and charisma. Is there anything else we can do with these polls? It would be nice if we had a series of questions across all the presidents asking, does this person represent an ideal you are dedicated to? Are you an  X-follower, equivalent to a follower of Jesus or Joan of Arc?

Look at popularity polls from the other direction: lowest popularity ratings. Including the ones we have already seen, the record lows are: George W. Bush 19% (October 2008),  Harry Truman, 22% (February 1952), Richard Nixon 24% (July-August 1974), Jimmy Carter 28% (June 1979), George H.W. Bush 29% (July 1992). Everybody had their ups and downs.

So who had the highest floor? JFK never dropped below 56%.  FDR’s floor, and Eisenhower’s, were next at 48%.  The only president whose floor never went below 50% was one of the three most charismatic presidents of modern times. (Since there were no polls of this sort before 1937, we don’t know about Teddy Roosevelt; but he did lose an election in 1912, coming in impressively second on a third party ticket.)

One conclusion is that charisma is never universal. Nearest to it are the momentary events that stir everyone into public rituals like putting out flags that proliferated during September-to-November 2001, but even these peaks never get above 83-90% of the population. Looking at it the other direction, even very unpopular moments for presidents leave about a quarter of the population supporting them. These are the hard core base that anyone successful on the national stage acquires. Charisma is what adds to that base and pulls one’s public reputation up to a solid majority, unshakeable even in bad times.

Politics is a process of conflict, a struggle between opposing factions. This is especially true in a democracy, where popular elections regularly mobilize people both to support and to reject. Democracy is a good breeding-grounds for charisma, but we should not expect it to produce unanimity.

And this is what we see in presidential elections. Getting 56% to 61% of the vote is as high as it gets.

All 44 U.S. presidents from 1788 to 2016

We can divide them in 3 groups:

I. the first 7 presidents from George Washington to Andrew Jackson: the founding network

II. the 18 presidents from 1837 to 1901: mostly mediocre except for Lincoln

III. the 19 presidents from 1901 to 2016, Teddy Roosevelt to Obama: intermittent charisma

I. The first 7 presidents are the famous names of American history: Washington-- Adams-- Jefferson-- Madison-- Monroe-- John Quincy Adams-- Jackson. But being famous is not the same as being charismatic. Of the 7, only 2 were charismatic: Jackson strongly so, Jefferson in a milder version.

George Washington was certainly revered.  He was elected twice, unopposed, by the electoral college that was not selected by popular vote. He did not have front-stage charisma: he was not famous for making speeches or stirring up emotional crowds. He had no success-magic; his record as a general was mainly a string of defeats and retreats; the key battles of the Revolutionary War were won by others. What Washington did was hold the Continental Army together through bad times until the British finally gave up their costly effort to hang onto the colonies. In the chaos of the loose Confederation, Washington led the movement for a Constitutional Convention, presided over it, and saw it through-- with the assistance of a strong team, most of whom also became presidents. 

Personally, he was known for great dignity and dedication. Did this amount to back-stage charisma? He impressed people in personal contact, although he did not always get his way, as in asking the Continental Congress for money. His reputation grew in the period of constitution-making, and he became an icon, his picture in every patriotic home. Score Washington un-charismatic on most counts-- demonstrating that charisma is not the only way to become an icon.

John Adams was more of a political organizer, on the northern end of the Massachusetts/Virginia coalition that made the new nation. He negotiated peace with Britain in 1782 and served as a key diplomat. Un-charismatic, but an important coalition-maker rewarded as Washington’s vice president and successor.

Thomas Jefferson was the best-known of the Virginia politicians. He became known, not so much for speeches but for his writings criticizing British rule, which made him Virginia’s member on the Committee of Correspondence organizing the colonies into revolt. His eloquence got him chosen to write the Declaration of Independence. He was minister to France, America’s most important ally, and Washington’s secretary of state. Jefferson was among the first to see the new direction of politics, resigning from the cabinet to oppose Hamilton’s policies, then running against John Adams with a new Democratic-Republican party. Jefferson led the emergence of political parties, creating the first nation-wide network to campaign for electoral votes. This made him widely popular, not just as a hero of the Revolution, but by actively stirring up public support. He was famed as the spokesman for decentralized democracy and for the Louisiana Purchase, the first big territorial expansion of the U.S. and a result of his diplomatic experience. Jefferson’s charismatic reputation came less from swaying crowds than from circulating written ideology, from a new style of political organizing, and spectacular diplomatic successes.

James Madison was a political negotiator and coalition-builder. Agreeing with Washington on the need for a stronger union than the disastrous Articles of Confederation, Madison’s plan became the basis for discussion at the 1787 Constitutional Convention. He campaigned for it by writing pamphlets-- the main form of political communication at the time. The Federalist papers were an act of coalition, written by Madison together with Hamilton and John Jay, even though they would become political enemies in the new government. A member of Jefferson’s political team, he became his secretary of state and successor, winning re-election even though the War of 1812 was going badly at the time. 

James Monroe was primarily a diplomat and loyal team member. An officer in Washington’s army, Monroe learned law as an aide to Jefferson, then followed him as minister to France, and negotiated the Louisiana Purchase from Napoleon. He became Madison’s secretary of state and secretary of war. After belated victory against the British in 1815, Monroe won the elections of 1816 and 1820 with virtually no opposition, the opposing Federalist party (which was anti-France and pro-British) having collapsed. His most famous achievement, the “Monroe Doctrine,” was actually formulated by his secretary of state, John Quincy Adams. It made a principle out of U.S. success in keeping European states out of the continent, extending the project to Latin America where a series of revolts against Spain were breaking out as the Napoleonic wars disrupted distant colonial rulers. (Monroe took advantage by purchasing Florida from Spain in 1819.) Jefferson and his successors, although militarily weak, played on the advantages of their French alliance to expand territorially; meanwhile settlers and Indian-fighters were moving west anyway. The whole team became cloaked in an aura of national success.

John Quincy Adams was a lifelong diplomat. He accompanied his father on European missions in the 1780s; and served every president as minister to European states. As Madison’s secretary of state, Adams purchased Florida and improved relations with Britain.  Following the usual succession, Adams ran for president in 1824, and was defeated by Andrew Jackson in the popular vote; but since no one had a majority of the electoral college, the election was thrown in the House of Representatives, where political deals made Adams president. Regarding himself as old-school gentleman above politics, Adams made no effort to deal with Congress or to dispense patronage, and was overwhelmingly defeated by Jackson in 1828. John Quincy Adams worked quietly behind the scenes and was uncharismatic in every respect. He considered himself a failure as president.

Andrew Jackson was the first really charismatic American politician. A long-time frontiersman and Indian fighter, he became famous by defeating the British in 1815 at the Battle of New Orleans. His new form of party politics was like Jefferson on steroids. He brought class conflict out into the open, campaigning as the people’s choice against the rich elites of the East. The 1828 election was the end of the founding network that had handed on the torch of office for 40 years. 

It also was a transition to a new style of campaigning. By 1840 it consisted of marches festooned with banners, wagons with brass bands (“bandwagons”), slogans endlessly repeated, the whole baby-kissing ritual that has endured down through the television era. Jackson had frontstage charisma that his predecessors lacked, in part because electioneering was becoming a big noisy public ritual. Combine this with a contentious ideology, and the ingredients were there for a president expected to turn things upside down. This Jackson did, above all by instituting an all-out spoils system for federal offices. This too enhanced political enthusiasm and Jackson’s reputation as a man of the people rather than the established elite.

Bottom line on the founding network: they were uncharismatic because they didn’t need to be. They got power by circulating writings among the high-literate class and building the country by skilled diplomacy. The new electioneering style came in with the prestige of wider democracy, which also set off a demand to manufacture charisma and hero-worship. With paradoxical results, as we shall see.

II. The 18 presidents from 1837 to 1901 are remarkable for lack of charisma.

From Van Buren to McKinley, there is only one strongly charismatic president, Abraham Lincoln. Only 3 ever won two consecutive terms (Lincoln, Grant, and McKinley--the latter two distinctly uncharismatic). Two died in office of natural causes; 3 were assassinated; 4 were not even renominated by their own party; another 2 were defeated for re-election; 4 declined to run again, declaring themselves exhausted or disillusioned with the office. In other words, 15 out of 18 could not generate enough popularity or success to keep on going.

Leaving Lincoln aside, few of the rest had any kind of charisma. Five presidents (William Henry Harrison, Taylor, Grant, Hayes, Garfield) were former generals, nominated as war heroes rising above divisive political issues; none did well in office. Grant’s administrations were full of corruption scandals, though he won reelection on the prestige of his Civil War victories; but even as a general, Grant was quietly persistent rather than charismatic.

Only 3 presidents had frontstage charisma, in the form of great speech-making. Lincoln, of course, but the rest of the list is surprising. James Polk was known as a star orator in Tennessee politics, an avid follower of Andrew Jackson, whose seat he occupied in Congress. He attempted to evade the increasingly divisive slavery issue by a platform of national expansion. Polk bluffed a war with Britain to settle claims to the Oregon territory, then invaded Mexico to acquire the rest of the continent all the way to California. Despite his success, the Mexican War was opposed by principled northerners, and a split among Polk’s own Democrats over slavery left him so exhausted that he died 3 months after leaving office at the age of 54.

Andrew Johnson has the historical reputation as one of the worst presidents, as the first to be impeached (although acquitted). In fact, Johnson was unusually courageous. He was the only one of 22 southern senators who refused to leave the Union, whereupon he was almost lynched by outraged Virginians. Lincoln gave him an administrative job and added him to the ticket in 1864, as a gesture of reconciliation towards the South. After Lincoln’s assassination, Johnson attempted to continue Lincoln’s policy of leniency, but he was sharply attacked by the Republican majority in Congress who wanted a punitive reconstruction. Early in his career, Johnson had been another Jacksonian populist, known as a fiery stump speaker. Having both charisma and courage of his principles did not save him from ignominious failure; in fact his courage contributed to it, since he refused to maneuver politically, and he lacked the key requisite of charismatic leadership, an admiring audience.

Cleveland, who won two terms separated by a defeat (followed by winning the rematch), had the reputation as a reformer, taking on the corrupt Tammany Hall machine in New York, then pushing for civil service reform at the Federal level. This was obviously a political opportunity, since so many administrations had gone through scandal, and presidents found themselves besieged by office-seekers who sometimes shot them when disappointed. He was one of the few presidents to ride out a sex scandal, admitting to fathering an illegitimate child, and then beating the opponent who made the charge-- Blaine, equally tarred with the reputation as a corrupt machine politician. Defeated for office in the 1888 election, Cleveland declared there was “no happier man in the United States.”

The most charismatic speaker of the entire period ran for president three times and lost all of them: William Jennings Bryan. Known as the silver-tongued orator of the prairie, Bryan was defeated twice by McKinley over banking interests versus cheap money for farmers. McKinley had strong establishment and machine politics backing, and projected an image of dignified respectability that prevailed over the tub-thumping of Bryan’s raucous campaigns.

Putting it all together, frontstage charisma paid off in political success for only two: Lincoln and Polk. Both paid the price; Polk retired exhausted from political infighting; Lincoln was assassinated.

What brought them down is emblematic of the entire period. There were too many contentious issues and deep-rooted factions: class conflict, banking issues, slavery, territorial expansion, the spoils system. That is why so many presidential candidates were compromise candidates nominated after lengthy convention balloting, or were disowned by their own party. A charismatic speaker on matters of principle might seize the public imagination of one segment, but could rarely win the presidency or carry out his program when in office. Inability to generate really sweeping charisma was built into the divisive structure.

Lincoln, who had great skills as a negotiator and coalition-builder, to go along with his oratory, was alone in coming out of it with a towering reputation. His martyrdom helped. In fact, we can date the moment when Lincoln became adulated by huge numbers of people: late April 1865. His body was taken home from Washington to be buried in Springfield, Illinois. It was a distance of 700 miles, but the train route covered 1700, snaking back and forth so that millions of people could stand by the tracks to witness the procession. It took 13 days. It was probably the biggest funeral ritual ever, and had all the successful ingredients: people assembled, united in focusing their attention on one thing, welling up with one common emotion intensified by each other. The result was turning a man into a symbol, a sacred object representing the solidarity of the nation.

III. The 19 presidents from 1901 to 2016. This is the era of statistics and surveys, and we have already seen its high and low points. 

Three presidents were charismatic speakers and public heroes (Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Kennedy), although only two had a record of successes; JFK’s program was largely carried out by his uncharismatic successor, Lyndon Johnson. Eisenhower, although uncharismatic, was unusually popular. Reagan, quite successful in his program (though correspondingly disliked by the ideological opposition), also was near the peak in voter support, although his popularity floor was lower than the others. Obama, known as a charismatic speaker, was an ineffective politician. His peak popularity rating (not unusually high at 69%) was just after his inauguration in 2009. His floor was a mediocre 37%, and his average approval 47% (a figure beaten by 10 of the last 13 presidents).

Overall, 6 of 29 modern elections were won by strongly charismatic leaders (Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, JFK); another 4 elections were won by well-liked but uncharismatic figures, Eisenhower and Reagan.  About 80% of the time, an uncharismatic person wins the presidency.

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Civil War Two, Part 1 by Randall Collins

Civil War Two, Part 1

by Randall Collins

Giveaway ends May 24, 2018.

See the giveaway details at Goodreads.

Enter Giveaway


In addition to the standard sources, see:

On the struggle to expand the voting franchise in the U.S. from the 1780s to the 1840s:
Chilton Williamson, 1960. American Suffrage from Property to Democracy.

On the creation of political parties in the Jefferson era:
John Levi Martin, 2008. Social Structures. Chapter 8, “From pyramid to party.”

On the dynamics of political scandals:
Ari Adut, 2008. On Scandal.

On flags and other rituals of public support after the 9/11/01 attack:
Randall Collins, 2004. “Rituals of solidarity and security in the wake of terrorist attack.” Sociological Theory 22: 53-87.

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.

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Civil War Two, Part 1 by Randall Collins

Civil War Two, Part 1

by Randall Collins

Giveaway ends May 24, 2018.

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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

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