I’m frequently astonished at how contemporary American politics feels so far removed from what I learned in school or experienced through most of my adulthood.
Sure, we had the upheavals of the Vietnam War and Watergate and 9/11 and the cynical exploitation of racial divisions. We had Republicans preaching the virtues of trickle-down economics and Democrats countering that government could be a vehicle for positive change.
But there were basic norms, appreciation of expertise, even some respect for those with whom we disagreed.
That was then.
Now there appears to be a substantial subset of Americans for whom fomenting chaos is the goal. They exist on both sides, although, evidenced by Donald Trump, they are far more common on the right.
At the recent annual convention of the American Political Science Association, the winner of the best paper in political psychology focused on the “need for chaos.”
The three political scientists who wrote it maintain that the growth of vitriolic conspiracy theories on social media has enabled those who are deeply disenchanted to revel in creating upheaval for upheaval’s sake.
Such people are more against everything than for anybody, concluded Michael Bang Petersen and Mathias Osmundsen, political scientists at Aarhus University in Demark, and Kevin Arceneaux, a political scientist at Temple University.
Their summary: “We show that this extreme discontent is associated with motivations to share hostile political rumors, not because such rumors are viewed to be true but because they are believed to mobilize the audience against disliked elites.”
The authors measured this “need for chaos” among those they describe as frustrated status seekers: “We show that chaotic motivations are surprisingly widespread within advanced democracies, having some hold in up to 40 percent of the American national population.”
Americans polled answered questions like these: “I think society should be burned to the ground.” Twenty-four percent said yes.
Or, “When I think about our political and social institutions, I cannot help thinking, ‘Just let them all burn.’ ” Forty percent concurred.
Or, “We cannot fix the problems in our social institutions, we need to tear them down and start over.” Also 40 percent.
The authors termed those results “staggering.”
They also write: “We suggest that these chaotic motivations go beyond traditional forms of democratic discontent such as political cynicism and populism. Instead, they are potentially more akin to precursors of the sentiments associated with radicalism.”
Well, that’s reassuring.
In his latest New York Times column about the chaos study, Thomas B. Edsall writes about how Trump has exploited “chaos-inducing issues like racial hostility, authoritarianism and white identity politics.” Edsall’s headline: “The Trump voters whose ‘need for chaos’ obliterates everything else.”
Citing the chaos study, Edsall writes that a segment of the American citizenry “that was once peripheral is drawn to ‘chaos incitement’ and has gained influence by connecting with the like-minded via the internet.”
The professors caution they are not saying hordes of Americans are ready to take it to the streets. But they write that “the study provides insights into the kinds of thoughts and behaviors that people are motivated to entertain when they sit alone (and lonely) in front of the computer, answering surveys or surfing social media platforms.”
The political mood that lifted Trump in 2016 was fertile ground for fearmongering. The sense of a growing economic and social divide exacerbated by the loss of manufacturing jobs to automation and the global information economy was a big part of it, but so was the perceived threat to the superior status of being white in America.
Petersen, one of the political scientists, told Edsall that support for Bernie Sanders in 2016 also correlated to this quest for chaos.
Petersen wrote that preliminary examination of the data shows “that the ‘need for chaos’ correlates positively with sympathy for Trump but also — although less strongly — with sympathy for Sanders. It correlates negatively with sympathy for Hillary Clinton.”
No kidding. The chaos crowd wanted no part of Clinton, an accomplished traditional politician.
A recent column in The Economist described a subset of Sanders’ supporters in much the same way, saying he has “an almost cult-like hold on a small but meaningful minority of the Democratic electorate,” the kind not seen since Eugene McCarthy’s Democratic presidential campaign in 1968.
“Sanders’ erstwhile success appears to have owed less to his left-wing proposals than a vaguer appetite for disruption,” argued the columnist.
The fact that 12 percent of Sanders’ disappointed supporters voted for Trump over Clinton in 2016 illustrates what could happen again, the column said.
“Those who care mostly about health care or education policy seem to have shifted to (Elizabeth) Warren. The remaining diehards seem more energized by anti-establishment grievance.”
“The burn-down-the-house iconoclasm of his base” will not be easy to mollify even if a Democratic presidential nominee adopts many of Sanders’ far-left positions, opined the column.
“Elizabeth Warren can kiss my ass,” was what one socialist for Sanders told The Economist. Another Sanders backer dismissed former Vice President Joe Biden as a “moderate Republican.”
The column suggests a Democratic nominee other than Sanders could fail to attract some of his supporters, possibly helping Trump get re-elected. That would be similar to 1968, when disappointed McCarthy supporters refused to fully back Democrat Hubert Humphrey, boosting Richard Nixon.
Now, before I stir up the next round of outrage about my disrespect for Sanders, this column isn’t about him.
It’s about a profound sadness that a country that was once far more united than divided is now anything but.
Trump did not create this. He just exploits it.