When did burning down the house become the preferred solution for sorting out a society’s various problems? In 2016 I labeled this preference for disruption our “iconoclastic moment,” a conclusion since borne out by a recent study by several political scientists.
An interesting research paper by Michael Petersen, Mathias Osmundsen, and Kevin Arceneaux argues that “chaos Incitement” has become its own political objective for some voters. (“A ‘Need for Chaos’ and the Sharing of Hostile Political Rumors in Advanced Democracies.”)1 This often means abandoning the value of consensus-building, and at the same time demonizing enemies and violating long standing political norms. While the conclusion of the paper isn’t surprising, it is sobering to see that many citizens, especially in the United States, are more interested in the destruction of institutional values than the refinement of them. The authors found significant agreement among supporters of President Trump with the following kinds of agree/disagree items:
I fantasize about a natural disaster wiping out most of humanity such that a small group of people can start all over.
I think society should be burned to the ground.
When I think about our political and social institutions, I cannot help thinking “just let them all burn.”
We cannot fix the problems in our social institutions, we need to tear them down and start over.
Sometimes I just feel like destroying beautiful things.
Not everyone gave an affirmative response to all these assertions. But nearly half did. And this is clearly not the way a civil society is supposed to work. Many would be more inclined to “troll” another than offer a constructive response. Alas, in tight elections they can make a difference.
The question remains as to whether democratic stalwarts in the west will right themselves after having been steered by some these folks onto dangerous shoals.
And it’s not just the United States. Part of Britain’s civil life has been trashed by the never-ending serial drama of Brexit. Boris Johnson’s purge of 20 MPs in his own party last year, including former Chancellors of the Exchequer Nicholas Soames and Ken Clark, was unprecedented in recent British history. This act of putting a gun to his own feet, along with his backsliding on a Brexit agreement, has left the British leader with no easy finale in December. This enactment of British nativism now has weakened Europe and seems destined to make our closest ally the Dis-United Kingdom.
Of course, this has played out in much the same way in the United States, with increased tariffs, punitive immigration policies, and sabre-rattling that unsettles our friends. Equally bad, there are signs that American businesses are hard-pressed to find enough service and farm workers: a former entry point for many emigres who aspired to live the American dream.
In different ways the yellow jackets of France were another manifestation of popular disruption disturbing the placid surface of French culture. Immigration, jobs lost to mechanization, and a generally dystopian view of politics has humbled many western nations who could count on a degree of optimism to quell periodic rumbles of unrest.
France’s Emmanuel Macron clings to a vision of a thriving and diverse France. But Boris Johnson in Britain and Donald Trump in the United States seem to have become untethered from the usual obligation of a great leader to nurture a nation’s best values, among them: the pluralism that comes with being open societies. Neither are temperamentally close to being institutionalists like former leaders George H. W. Bush, Barack Obama, Tony Blair, or John Major. They accept the chaos they have sowed, and have frequently doubled down, using denial instead of policy to steer through daunting challenges, including the ongoing pandemic.
1PsyArXiv Preprints, 2018.