Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Why Play with Fire? Four Explanations

cross-posted at dagblog.

In my last post, I was worrying aloud about politicians who just couldn't seem to get it together to denounce violence and generally encourage the lunatic fringe to chill out. The intervening days, with the arrests of the "Hutaree army" and of the lunatic who threatened Eric Cantor on YouTube, make the question even more pressing. It's increasingly apparent that there really are dangerous and excitable people to whom you should absolutely not say words like "Armageddon" or "Apocalypse," and palpably clear that whipping up violence won't only harm people on a single side of any political debate. (The "both sides do it" argument, even when it's not factually refutable, is an insane excuse. The idea that political violence might threaten you or your family is not a reason not to try averting that violence.) So, my question remains: why keep the inflammatory rhetoric? Why speak out of both sides of the mouth, with the old condemn-but-condone act? ("Violence is wrong, but the Democrats shouldn't be surprised because they're destroying the Constitution." Please.)

I don't want to lump everyone, or everyone on one side of the aisle, together. There are only a few people actually explicitly calling for mayhem, like the malicious clown Mike Vanderboegh who openly called on other "Sons of Liberty" to break the windows of Democratic lawmakers. Although none of these behaviors is either right or prudent, there remains a real difference between actively urging violent action, as Vanderboegh has, less direct incitement of the kind favored by Beck and the Tea Partiers, and simple refusal to give a full-throated condemnation. All of those behaviors are dangerous, but some are even more culpable than others. And the people indulging in these behaviors have a range of different motivations and incentives: the extremists at Tea Parties aren't fueled by the same things that motivate the politicians, who themselves have different motivations than the broadcasters.

But the Vanderboeghs are actually easier to understand than the politicians and the broadcasters. Vanderboegh's behavior is more outrageous, because it explicitly urges criminal behavior while the others simply provide rationalizations for crime, but it's also makes more transparent sense. Vanderboegh is comfortable urging violent action because he hasn't got much to lose, and more importantly because he hopes to prevail through violence. He seems genuinely to believe that he speaks for a righteous majority who can achieve their political goals if they break enough windows. Of course, he's wrong: he's fringe, and a major outbreak of violence would almost certainly lead to a massive backlash against his position. The Hutaree also fit this model: they have relatively little to lose in the current dispensation, and they actually seem to believe that their terrorist action could start a popular uprising that they would win.

The establishment figures, the elected officials and the multimillionaire broadcasters, are harder to understand, because they can't possibly be deluded in the way that Vanderboegh is. They must know, on some level, that any serious outbreak of civil violence would undermine their own positions. And unlike Vanderboegh and the Hutaree, they have plenty to lose. The Republicans in DC have to know that becoming seen as the party of insurrection would mean the end of their political fortunes for a generation. And Glenn Beck has to know that if some domestic terrorist cites him as an authority, his career will end.

So what on earth could motivate these people, who have to know that violence is not in their own interests? I have four hypotheses, which apply in different degrees (and with frequent overlap) to different players:

1. Lost in the Game
Some major players, I suspect, are not thinking at all outside the rules of whatever daily news-cycle game they're playing. Others are simply not thinking ahead. Some people are, for whatever reason, unable to evaluate anything, even public safety, on its policy merits, or to imagine real-world consequences in a way that comes home to them. When they hear news of unsettling rhetoric or violent behavior, they don't think about what might happen outside the Beltway or the studio. They simply take the news as part of a struggle for political advantage, or as a way to attract ratings. The daily spin has become these people's primary reality, or at least the reality to which their behavior responds. I believe Eric Cantor to be one of these people; denouncing the Democrats for denouncing death threats is clearly oriented toward the spin world rather than the real world. It's to Cantor's personal, real-world advantage that no one harm or threaten members of Congress, but he seems primarily concerned with how threats and denunciations of threats function as political rhetoric.

The ugly part of this is that certain figures on the Right are currently boxed in tactically in ways that keep them from taking a stand on the violence, for fear of being outflanked by some rival. If John Boehner comes out and joins with Pelosi to denounce inflammatory rhetoric, he might actually be attacked from the Right (by Cantor, or else by someone yet more radical than Cantor) during the next Republican leadership election. If Beck seriously backed off his conspiracy theories or stopped comparing Obama to Hitler, he might lose his core audience and be overtaken by some still-crazier broadcaster. A dynamic in which some people's short-term interests discourage them from confronting violence is sobering at best.

2. Low Estimation of Their Following
You know who would really be risking a lot if there were a serious and sustained outbreak of anti-establishment violence? Rush Limbaugh. The man's a multi-millionaire. The status quo is very, very good for him, and civil unrest would cost him big time. Yet the man is on TV and radio every day, telling people that anyone who uses words like "factory" is a "Marxist-Leninist" and calling the current Presidential Administration a "regime," as if it were some kind of occupying junta. What does this tell us? It tells us that, when you get down to cases, Limbaugh doesn't think that he has that many followers.

Oh, he knows he has a few million followers. And he has to know, on some level, that some of those rubes are actually going to buy his act and believe that the elected President of the United States is a Communist tyrant. But Limbaugh knows that even if ten or fifteen percent of his audience decides that the United States is being unlawfully occupied and it's time for a war of "liberation," they don't have the numbers to start one. Sure, there might be some domestic terrorism, on the Oklahoma City scale or even greater, but Limbaugh figures he doesn't have enough believers to actually disrupt the status quo and put El Rushbo's vacation homes and stock portfolio in jeopardy. Also, Limabaugh may be counting on the fact that his viewers and listeners skew quite old, and are less likely to actually act out in criminal ways than the same number of equally angry and disaffected twenty-somethings would.

3. Poor Risk Evaluation
Some people saying things that are inflammatory or provocative are basically playing the odds: somebody might take them seriously and do something awful, but probably no one will. And, like a lot of folks in daily life, those people take a low probability (or high probability) to be determinative; most people operate on the the principle that when something is 99% (or 97% or 95%) likely to happen it will happen, and that things that are only 5% or 3% or 1% probable won't. (Additionally, we all have a natural tendency to view probabilities unrealistically when they apply to us, minimizing the odds of misfortune and maximizing the odds of good luck.) That's a mistaken but still workable approach to everyday probabilities, but a terrible one when applied to calculating serious risks.

The first problem is that low probability has to be weighed against the possible gravity of the consequences. Russian roulette, after all, is a game that you have a nearly 84% chance of winning. An 84% chance means it's a ridiculously bad idea, because if you lose you die. And if we imagined playing Russian roulette with some smaller hypothetical chance of losing, imagining a revolver with 400 chambers and only one bullet, the odds would still remain completely insane. (Taking a 0.25% chance of a bullet in the head is incredibly risky, because even that small chance is a real chance.) I'm sure it's easy enough to say something crazy into a microphone, figuring that there's only a one in a million chance that some yahoo will act on it, but that one in a million chance is still unacceptable if it's a chance that the yahoo blows up a building with people in it.

The second problem, of course, is the law of big numbers. A risk of less than one percent sounds tiny if you're only running the risk once. But if you apply that risk to a big enough number, you will get some bad results. Given enough chances, even a crazily improbable event will become inevitable. A statement that would only provoke one person in a million to committing violence is not responsible when you make that statement to three hundred million people. And it gets even less responsible when statements like that keep getting made every day.

4. Hopes to Prevail
I wouldn't accuse any specific individual of harboring this intention, and I don't believe many people share it. Indeed, I think that most people on the Right would recoil at any expression of this idea, and if anybody is thinking it they're certainly not sharing that thought, not even with their close ideological allies. But it remains possible that somewhere in the ranks of the inflammatory and the pointedly anti-anti-inflammatory there may be people who do secretly hope to benefit from small, containable amounts of political violence.

If such people exist, they are distinct from the Vanderboeghs and the "Captain Hutarees," who are hoping for a broad violent upheaval and hope to win it. The people I'm more worried about don't expect such a conflagration, don't want one, and know that they would lose badly if one happened. No rational person expects to glean any advantage from large-scale violence. But one might conceivably use an atmosphere of potential violence, and of low-level scuffles and intimidation, for political gain. It's a loathsome tactic, but it's been done before: by the Know-Nothing Party in the 19th century, by the Klan and others during the Jim Crow period, and by thuggish local machines of various stripes. Intimidation has sometimes gone a long way in our politics; outright terrorism has usually backfired.

For the most cynical of the cynical, the goal is to keep their followers' rage simmering without letting it boil over. Having people rant and scream in town hall meetings last summer is now regarded in the media as an effective political tactic; angry protesters in the halls of Congressional office buildings before a key vote is apparently also considered part of the game. But if things get crazier, the sponsors and allies of the crazy will pay a steep political price. The cynical strategy is to keep people inflamed, but not to get too many people hurt. It's a reckless strategy, and no one using it could actually be sure that it would work, because mob anger is too unpredictable. You can't keep a pot simmering forever; unless you turn off the heat, it will boil over or its contents will eventually burn.

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