In the wake of the FBI’s search of former President Donald Trump’s private residence in Florida, right-wing social media erupted with violent threats against law enforcement and political opponents. One enraged Trump supporter launched an armed attack against an FBI office in Ohio. A New York Times article on the rise of political threats and actual violence in the year and a half since the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol by a pro-Trump mob quoted Rachel Kleinfeld, a senior fellow in the democracy, conflict, and governance program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Kleinfeld, an expert on political violence in developing countries as well as in the United States, pointed to three critical ways that ordinary people can come to embrace violence:
- Setting political aggression in the context of war.
- Describing it as a defensive action against a belligerent enemy.
- Persistently framing an adversary as irredeemably evil or less than human.
“The right, at this point,” she observed, “is doing all three things at once.”
In this Vital Center discussion, recorded before the FBI search of Mar-a-Lago, Rachel Kleinfeld unpacks her scholarship on rising political violence in the United States and how she became one of the leading experts in this field. She touches on her research and experiences in violent societies like rural India and post-Soviet Russia, her role as co-founder of the Truman National Security Project to develop progressive alternatives to Republican national security policies, and her efforts to bolster democracy at home as well as in post-civil-conflict societies abroad. She also talks about how political polarization and factionalization open the door to authoritarianism and how to reverse the trend toward rising political violence.
Rachel Kleinfeld: You just don’t get civil wars in strong democracies with strong institutions. They just don’t happen. They happen in countries with weaker institutions and particularly with more brutal institutions. If you have 40% of your country voting to weaken institutions with a strong leader, that moves you a lot closer to a world in which violence is more possible.
Geoff Kabaservice: Hello! I’m Geoff Kabaservice from the Niskanen Center. Welcome to the Vital Center podcast, where we try to sort through the problems of the muddled, moderate majority of Americans, drawing upon history, biography, and current events. And I’m thrilled to be joined today by Rachel Kleinfeld, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. She works in the Democracy, Conflict and Governance Program, where she focuses on issues of rule of law, security and governance in post-conflict countries, fragile states, and states in transition. Welcome, Rachel.
Rachel Kleinfeld: Hi, great to be here.
Geoff Kabaservice: Great to have you with us. Prior to coming to Carnegie, Dr. Kleinfeld was a co-founder and president of the Truman National Security Project, for which Time magazine in 2010 named her one of the top 40 civic leaders under 40 in America. Coincidentally, Rachel, the profile following yours alphabetically in that series was Mike Lee, who was then a Tea Party activist turned candidate for the Utah Senate.
Rachel Kleinfeld: Indeed. We had a very interesting conversation that night at the bar before I knew who he was.
Geoff Kabaservice: Interesting. So that Time profile began: “Born and raised in a log cabin in Alaska, Kleinfeld… started workshops for young progressives on national-security issues after watching John Kerry lose to George W. Bush in 2004. Her goal: to prove that Democrats can articulate strong and sensible alternatives to GOP defense policies.” Does that now strike you as an accurate view of what you had in mind in starting the Truman National Security Project?
Rachel Kleinfeld: You know, they had to make it short and sweet, and reporters write their own things. First of all, I didn’t grow up in a cabin. In Alaska, we call houses that have indoor plumbing “houses.” If they have outdoor plumbing, they’re cabins, and mine had indoor plumbing — but it was a log house. And as for the substance of it, it was post 9/11 and America had just invaded Iraq. And when we started Truman, we thought it was really time for a smarter national security policy that just took into account many more tools of national security and was aware of the blowback that we were starting to get. So it was really about articulating an entirely different national security policy. But because the Republican Party was so tied to Iraq and some of the policies of George W. Bush at the time, we wanted to help progressives articulate that policy set.
Geoff Kabaservice: Got it. And I understand that also had, and still has, members in chapters in most major U.S. cities?
Rachel Kleinfeld: That’s right. When I ran it, we had 10 chapters and about 80,000 folks around the country who were advocates. Now, it’s still going strong. I haven’t been running it for a decade, so I’m not sure how big it is. But it’s gotten a lot bigger.
Geoff Kabaservice: And in 2011, you were appointed to the Foreign Affairs Policy Board, which advises the Secretary of State, and you served in that role through 2014. And as you said, I guess sometime around that time was when you left the Truman Program and joined Carnegie, in which scholarly capacity you have gained international renown for your work on troubled democracies around the globe facing problems such as polarized electorates, violence, corruption, and poor government. But your work has come to have unexpected and increasing relevance to the United States itself, where we’re seeing a rise of political violence, increasing disrespect for the rule of law, and democracy itself under threat.
Rachel Kleinfeld: Sadly, that is true. When you work on failing democracies and violence, you really hope you don’t start working on your own country. And I guess it’s been about four years now that I’ve been working on our country, about six since we started trying to raise the alarm that our country needed it.
Geoff Kabaservice: You were interviewed recently by the On Point program on Public Radio. And one of your fellow guests who also was warning against this danger to our democracy was Bill Kristol, who used to be, as a neocon, the sort of ideological antagonist of the kind of approach you were trying to bring to national security through the Truman Program.
Rachel Kleinfeld: That’s exactly right. This world of our failing democracies brings strange bedfellows together. And so I spent the first decade of my career starting an entire organization in order to counter the neocon worldview, and now here I am working very closely with Bill Kristol and a whole set of other Republicans to try to restore democracy in America.
Geoff Kabaservice: In fact, there are a number of Republicans on my side who’ve worked with you on the bipartisan boards of directors on which you serve: of the National Endowment for Democracy and Freedom House, as well as the Bipartisan National Task Force on Election Crises in the United States. And in March of this year, you offered testimony on the rise of political violence in the United States and damage to our democracy to the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol. And of course, the idea that Liz Cheney would’ve been aligned with a number of people from progressive positions would’ve seemed unlikely just a few years ago.
Rachel Kleinfeld: I’ve told many of my Republican colleagues, who I’m really proud now to call friends, that I really hope we can get America back on track so I can go back to fighting them very vociferously over policy issues. But right now, things are just too important. And so we need Liz Cheney and Jamie Raskin to work together, and you need me working with whomever I can find on the Republican side because the issues are serious.
Geoff Kabaservice: At what point did you begin to realize that your work on violent, fragile democracies might be pertinent to what was happening here as well as abroad?
Rachel Kleinfeld: A good friend and colleague, a woman named Nealin Parker who now runs a group called Search USA but had been at the time the acting director for the Office of Transition Initiatives — which is the part of our government that goes overseas when there’s political mayhem and spends time, sort of fast-reaction troops, they get on the ground and they try to help with elections going wrong, with conflict or post-conflict; they’re kind of the Marines of the aid world, as it were — she reached out to me and said, “I’m really worried. I think that the signs in America look more like Kenya 2007 than I’d like.” And I said, “Oh yeah, they certainly do. That’s absolutely true.” And she said, “Don’t you think we should tell somebody?” And I thought, “That’s a good idea.”
And so I had been in the midst of working with a group of philanthropists who work on democracy for a program that they had coming up, and I just put together a scenario, just a one-page tabletop scenario using only things that had already happened in America — so it was not prognosticating in the least, it was just putting together news stories that had already happened — about political violence and how it was inching up. And it scared the bejeezus out of the philanthropists. And then they asked me, “So what do you think?” And so Nealin and I and a woman named Ashley Quarcoo who now runs the PFAD [Partnership for American Democracy] — I forget what it stands for, but it works on democracy — we put together a conference and brought together all the knowledge we could for philanthropists and policymakers on political violence overseas and what we were seeing in America and the trendlines. That was 2018, I think, 2019.
Geoff Kabaservice: Yeah, alarming. You, in your On Point interview, referenced a survey by Garen Wintemute of the UC Davis’ Violence Prevention Research Program. And I looked up those stats. They measured support for and willingness to engage in violence to advance political objectives. And he and his team found that more than 40% of Americans now agree that having a strong leader for America is more important than having a democracy. 22% thought that political violence was at least sometimes justified in general. 78% thought violence was at least sometimes justified for specific political objectives, among which the leading options included to return Donald Trump to the presidency this year, to stop people who do not share my beliefs from voting, and to preserve an American way of life based on Western European traditions. 10% were at least somewhat willing to threaten or intimidate a person and 7% to kill a person in the service of their politics. And these really do not sound like the responses one might expect in what’s supposed to be the leader of world democracies.
Rachel Kleinfeld: So we’re seeing a whole series of surveys that are supportive of the sort of things that that survey found. That was a very strong methodological survey. It surveyed more than 8,000 people; 1,000 people is generally considered fine for extrapolation and this was eight times that. They tried to get a random sample, but they ended up over surveying older people; older people don’t tend to commit much violence, so the numbers are even more strong in that way. They also tended to survey slightly more affluent people who also, generally speaking, are less likely to commit violence. Some of those numbers you cite are of the people willing to commit violence, so it’s not quite as large as it sounds. But they’re disturbing. In the end, what they found was a couple million Americans who are willing to consider violence, have thought through what that means in terms of very specific kinds of violence.
The one number you didn’t cite is that more than 50% of the survey respondents thought that a civil war was likely in the next couple of years. But the one that you did cite was actually the most worrying. More worrying than the violence stats to me is the fact that so many Americans are willing to give up democracy for a strong leader. Because what we know about violence is you just don’t get civil wars in strong democracies with strong institutions. They just don’t happen. They happen in countries with weaker institutions and particularly with more brutal institutions. Americans have some trouble with police brutality compared to our peers, and if you have 40% of your country voting to weaken institutions with a strong leader, that moves you a lot closer to a world in which violence is more possible.
Geoff Kabaservice: Really alarming. In the interest of getting things a little less dark, I just want to ask you something about your background and influences that brought you to this work. So the Time profile said that you grew up in Alaska, if not necessarily in a log cabin. And something interesting about your work to me is that you come from a progressive orientation but I think it feels like the West and its individualist tradition, and maybe even knowing something about firearms, has influenced your work, as well as your work with the military. So was Alaska at all influential in your thinking?
Rachel Kleinfeld: Oh, absolutely. I’ve lived and worked in the West as much of my adult life as possible. I was born and raised in the West. And Alaska, when I was growing up, was one of the most violent states in the country in the ‘90s, which was the most violent time in modern times in our country. So I had guns pointed at me or shot at me a number of times as a kid. And I think that inured me a little bit to maybe the consequences of it. We had bullet-making equipment in our basement. My parents had firearms for self-defense and for hunting. So very different from now, but it was something I was comfortable with. And I grew up shooting as well with my dad. Obviously, that’s not normal back East, but it’s very normal in the West. And so I had that comfort level. And then I saw a decent amount of violence for a kid who had a pretty upper-middle-class upbringing. And then it really came home to me when I was older, when I was in Russia and then later in India, the effects of violence on a political system. And I think that really set the stage.
Geoff Kabaservice: I feel like that ‘90s TV comedy Northern Exposure, which was set in Alaska, a little bit soft-pedaled the violent aspect.
Rachel Kleinfeld: Quirky characters that can sometimes get a little heated under lots of snow cover.
Geoff Kabaservice: It rings a bell. So speaking of Russia, I understand that you spent part of a summer, I think, in high school in what was by then St. Petersburg. I was a Yale undergraduate in the ‘80s and a grad student in the ‘90s, and I sang with the Yale Russian Chorus. And we went to what in the Soviet period was called Leningrad and then, after the fall of the Communist regime, when it again became St. Petersburg. And I wonder what your exposure to that kind of somewhat lawless although interesting environment in a nascent democracy, what that was like for you.
Rachel Kleinfeld: It was a formative experience. I went for part of the winter in 1992, and then the summer in 1993 by myself. My brother, who was also in high school, had gone there and refused to come back and go to college. And so I was sent to find him and make him go to college. In my family, sending your kid to Russia by themselves was fine, but not going to college was not fine. And so, as you said, it was when the Soviet Union was really falling apart. I was supposed to stay in an Intourist hotel, but because I was supposedly a dancer with the theater that my brother was running, I got away from that. But it was just as everything was falling down. And the theater that we were working in was right above the largest mafia casino in St. Petersburg. And so every day we would walk past kiosks that were on fire because they hadn’t paid their protection money.
We’d get hit up by thugs. The Americans started coming in ‘94 en masse; that’s when you started seeing all the privatization folks coming. But ‘92, ‘93, we were still really a rarity, and they thought we were really wealthy. And so some of the mafia tried to sell us a nuclear submarine; we’ll never know if that was a possibility. They kidnapped two of the theater folks and left them tied up in the woods and we had to go find them. So it was a dangerous time. And it was a time when you really understood what it means to be in a country where all rules are off.
Geoff Kabaservice: In hindsight — this is I realize a very big question and neither of us really are super-expert in this area — but should America have put less emphasis on, let’s say, sort of free-market reforms in Russia and more emphasis on maintaining order to prevent the kind of authoritarian counter-reaction that we’ve seen under Putin? Or were things more or less bound to happen as they happened, do you suppose?
Rachel Kleinfeld: No, I don’t think anything is inevitable, nor do I think those were the only two choices. I think there was a real conflation of the market economy with democracy, which was mistake number one. And there was a real conflation of the market economy with privatization without understanding that if you’re moving from a communist country, certain people are going to benefit vastly from that privatization. And if you don’t put more regulation on it, you’re going to create a set of oligarchs, which is just what we did. In people’s minds in Russia, they had been very excited about democracy. They thought it meant mostly that they would all get wealthier, that their quality of living would improve. And instead, what they saw was that really pretty skeezy people, for lack of a better word, got super-wealthy. Most people were selling off their samovars and their historical relics in the streets on blankets when I was there. And what democracy meant, since it had been conflated with this economic program, was a winner-take-all system in which the winners were not people who, in the Soviet era, would’ve been considered moral.
Geoff Kabaservice: A few years ago, I read a book by a woman who was formerly your colleague at Carnegie, Sarah Chayes, called Thieves of State. Essentially it was about corruption and why it was almost impossible to have global security, in the sense that the United States was advocating, in really deeply corrupt societies. I wonder if you are familiar with that work and her conclusions.
Rachel Kleinfeld: Very familiar. She was a colleague of mine when she wrote it. And she and I — but she’s been a stronger voice, I would say — have been really trying for years and years to get the national security establishment to take corruption seriously as a national security threat. I certainly saw it in Russia. I saw how that corruption aided everyone from terrorists in Chechnya, who could just get through by paying some border guards bribes, to the kinds of failures that we saw in Afghanistan that she writes about.
Geoff Kabaservice: So you went to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar and got your D.Phil. from St. Anthony’s College. What did you write about for your thesis?
Rachel Kleinfeld: I wrote about building the rule of law and how the U.S. and the EU went about it, and where we were actually doing it versus where we weren’t actually doing it but just saying that we were doing it — for instance in places like Russia. But I got very interested… In between college and grad school, I worked in India for a while, and I was working in really rural India on microcredit programs. We were trying to give very small loans to people in rural areas so they could start bicycle repair shops, or barber shops, or what have you in a very strong caste system where what they could do was pretty circumscribed as it were. And the landlords in these areas — they were very feudal, these areas — would say that we were taking the women to be brought as prostitutes to the big city when we were taking them to see how to sew something in another village. Or they would tell the men that we were stealing their children when we were weighing their children to make sure they weren’t malnourished in order to give them malnourishment drinks. I saw how the landlords were really trying to enforce their control over labor with threats and eventually with violence.
I saw a significant amount of violence during that time that I won’t describe here. It’s pretty upsetting. But that understanding of how violence was playing a role in that country to hold down development, it made me very interested in the rule of law. And it turned out that no one was really looking at these issues of violence and development, violence and democracy, and how violence was playing into gaming the system in these structures.
Geoff Kabaservice: Something that I really find remarkable, looking over your record at the Truman Security Program, is the insights that it gave you into public service. I was interested to see that you not long ago retweeted Robert Bateman’s valediction in Esquire for Shawn Brimley, who was executive vice president for the Center for a New American Security and died recently at much too young in age. And Shawn was not somebody who the vast majority of Americans ever would’ve heard of, but he had a real and positive impact.
Robert Bateman wrote: “If we are to attract the ‘best and brightest’ to selfless service, we must acknowledge those who fit that model. We must laud them. That is something that requires a culture change, apparently, here in the United States. A shift in which Americans of all stripes stop thinking that D.C. is a ‘swamp’ that needs to be drained to one that thinks, ‘We should send our best there, to help guide our nation in its most important decisions.” And I wonder how you would respond to that general assessment.
Rachel Kleinfeld: It’s hard to hear about Shawn. He left behind three little kids and a wife, and he died very young and very suddenly. But the assessment’s right. I ran the Truman Project and we had a couple hundred, maybe a thousand folks working everywhere from Capitol Hill to elected office to appointed office all over government when I left. And I was sort of den mother to everyone. I didn’t want to serve in government myself; I’m pathologically allergic to bureaucracy. But I thought I could sort of assist other people in doing that.
And so I knew a lot of people doing just incredible work, really for no… The amount of money they could have made if they went to Wall Street or went to work for McKinsey was just vastly more. They worked far harder than they would ever get credit for in situations that were really tough. If you’ve even worked in the State Department, you’re working on very tough issues if you’re worried about countries with corruption or violence or political failure — but if you’re also just trying to book a ticket, with all the regulations that Congress puts on what kind of airplane ticket you can buy from place to place, which takes forever.
I have immense, immense respect for the people who I worked with, and who I’ve worked with in Washington in general, compared to every other place I’ve been in and lived in. I think the fact that it’s so easy to denigrate politicians and civil servants is something that, first of all, is allowing our last government to gut the civil service. We already have a civil service much, much weaker than most other countries that are pure democracies. Gutting it is not going to attract better people. And then we have far more political appointees. They transfer in and out constantly, and you need good people. We have thousands of positions that need to be filled with extremely little job security, long wait times to get those jobs. They’re tough jobs to do. They pull you away from your family. Practically everyone ends up in couples therapy after they’ve attained high levels at the White House, on both sides of the aisle. These are tough jobs. And if we don’t start respecting them, we’re going to get what we deserve.
Geoff Kabaservice: And what do you say, or what would you say, to young people who are thinking about a career in public service?
Rachel Kleinfeld: I would encourage them, but I would also be clear-eyed about what they’re getting into. I think first of all, they have to just be willing to work with bureaucracy. There’s a lot of it. There is little job security. Getting your security clearance is tough, especially if you’ve done anything worthwhile in the world. If you’ve lived in America your entire life, never traveled overseas, speak no foreign languages — congratulations, you’re in the CIA. But if you’ve done anything that would make you actually suitable for these jobs, it’s very tough. You could wait on that job for a year and a half while you’re working at Subway or some other job where you could leave it quickly. They’re tough, and I would recommend to people that they get it, but I try to be really honest about what they’re getting into.
Geoff Kabaservice: What made you want to move from running an organization to going into scholarship?
Rachel Kleinfeld: I’ve always had a background that mixes politics and policy and scholarship. Whenever I’ve been very active in the politics and policy world, I want to think harder. And when I’m thinking harder, I want to be active in the world. And so I’ve tried to mix the two. At Carnegie, I do a huge amount of board service and also just work in the democracy sphere, trying to put my research into action. When I was running the Truman Project, I was writing my dissertation on the weekends. I wrote my second book on the weekends as well, to keep a hand in scholarship. It’s always been hard for me to just pick one.
Geoff Kabaservice: In your 2018 book A Savage Order: How the World’s Deadliest Countries Can Forge a Path to Security, there’s an intriguing note in the acknowledgement that the book’s genesis derived from your reading Larry McMurtry’s novel Lonesome Dove. Can you tell me about that?
Rachel Kleinfeld: Sure. Richard Danzig, who had been secretary of the Navy and is just a really brilliant guy and scholar, was also a friend and a mentor. We’d actually worked on bioterrorism issues twenty-some years ago, and looking back over that report, it was chillingly useful to today. But we met in Aspen – I was doing an Aspen program, he was doing a different program at the Aspen Security Group — and we just happened to be there at the same time. And we went for a walk, and he found I had never read this book. He bought me the book and he signed it immediately so that I couldn’t return it, which I think he knew was going to be my plan. As soon as we parted, I was going to return it because I didn’t read Westerns. I wasn’t interested.
So I had this book and I was going to Aspen Security Group meetings, which were all about Pakistan. That particular meeting set was about Pakistan and how their Intelligence services were helping the Taliban and the general instability that they were spreading. And then this book Lonesome Dove, it’s a novel, but it’s incredibly well-researched. If you know the West and the history of the West you know that, if anything, McMurtry downplays a lot of the history because some of it is just too unbelievable, from a sociological perspective. But I know the history of the West pretty well — it’s something I’ve always been interested in — and I was just blown away. It was such a good novel. It was very historically accurate.
And what I saw in it was… The West — somewhat similar to countries that are “fragile states, as we talk about now — had this large border with Mexico that was extremely porous and quite violent, where people could raid and then go back in and out, just like certain countries I was working on in Africa at the time. You had tribes that were raiding settled groups. You had outlaws who were left over from the Civil War, who were roaming around the West. You had sort of ongoing Civil War fights between these outlaws… From the North you often had sheriffs, and from the South you often had groups of people trying to steal and rape and so on, and so you also had the sort of Civil War fight playing out a top of that. And the economic policies that Lincoln put into place about moving West and the westward expansion were differential based on whether you were an insurrectionist, a Confederate, and so that played into the crime.
And I thought, “My gosh, this is a lot like a post-conflict country that I’m studying in another country. Why in the world did America come out of this? How did it come out of this? And if America could come out of such a bad situation, could other countries?” And so I wanted to go look at other countries that had gotten into that level of violence, civil war and post-civil war conflict, and had also come out of it.
Geoff Kabaservice: Can you tell me something about the broad conclusions of your book A Savage Order?
Rachel Kleinfeld: Sure. I found that… So I was looking at democracies in particular that got very violent and came out, because the political trajectories are different for democracies and autocracies. What I found was that they can come out. It’s a hard path, and it’s a path that tends to start with the middle class, which is not the people that are generally focused on by the development agencies or the military or what have you. Usually diplomacy focuses on the spoilers and the people at war, and development focuses on the poor. And nobody’s really paying attention to the group in the middle that has a voice in the system and has a say but aren’t part of either of these groups.
And what I found was that was actually the crucial group. Generally speaking, when democracies became very violent, it was because the government was somewhat complicit in that violence or some portion of the government was allowing that violence to continue — because otherwise people would vote it out. They were often allowing it to continue by pitting one class against another, by focusing a lot of the violence on marginalized groups in order to allow themselves some level of impunity at the top. And for that reason, the middle class had to pick a side. And the government would work pretty hard to make sure that the middle class thought the violence was all coming from the poor and marginalized people and that they needed to support stronger government, stronger law and order, stronger security to hold back the violence.
While that made a lot of sense on the surface, when the government itself is the problem, in fact what you needed was more transformation of government and to clean up the government — often clean up corruption, certainly clean up a lot of police brutality and security service brutality. And when the middle class recognized that — and a social movement could help them recognize that, and I talk about the civil rights movement in the United States but also movements in Sicily and the Republic of Georgia and Bihar, India and so on — then they could create real transformational change. But even then, the politicians that needed to get rid of the violence often weren’t the ones to continue on with democracy. They were often state-builders but not democrats. You needed the citizens to keep holding them accountable and keep the country on track.
Geoff Kabaservice: Is that generally speaking what happened in a country like, let’s say, Spain?
Rachel Kleinfeld: I didn’t study Spain. I looked at Italy and the mafia violence, the “years of lead” and the violence after that. And it was certainly what happened in Italy.
Geoff Kabaservice: Let’s again turn to the United States and the ways in which all of your lessons from these other countries are now being applied here. You’ve had a very busy past few years. Let me just point listeners to a few of what I think are some of your significant writings of recent years. In September 2020, there was an op-ed in the Washington Post you wrote called “The U.S. Shows All the Signs of a Country Spiraling Toward Political Violence.” In the Journal of Democracy in October of 2021 you had “The Rise of Political Violence in the United States.” In March of this year, you co-wrote an article with Amy Slipowitz for the Fulcrum entitled “Democracy Is a Victim of Indifference.” And then in July you wrote a piece in Just Security called “The GOP’s Militia Problem: Proud Boys, Oathkeepers, and Lessons from Abroad,” which among other things led to you being interviewed by Greg Sargent in the Washington Post.
Political violence in modern times once seemed all but unthinkable in the U.S., and now really all the ingredients for political violence are here — and in fact violence is already having a real impact on our politics. Can you talk generally about what those ingredients are and how you’re seeing them manifest in the United States now?
Rachel Kleinfeld: Sure. When you study political violence, you look at a country’s resilience factors and its risk factors. The good news is the United States has a lot of resilience factors. We have a very strong and nonpartisan military. We have strong institutions. We have an old democracy, although I tend to tell people it’s not as old as we think. Democracy has been around almost 250 years, but we’ve only had an ethnically plural democracy with full voting rights since 1965 — so that puts us on par with the democracies that are newly independent countries after colonialism. We’ve got kind of a mix of old institutions but this new problem of heterogeneity in our voting public. Anyhow, we have a lot of resilience factors, and those are really important resilience factors. As I said earlier, countries that have strong democracies and strong institutions and high capacity levels just don’t have civil wars.
That said, we have a lot of risk factors. So when you look at the risk factors, you look at democratic institutions weakening. We’ve been seeing that very strongly. If you look at the Varieties of Democracy Index, you look at the Economist Intelligence Unit, Freedom House (where I sit on the board), the World Justice Project’s Rule of Law Index, America’s slipping fast on all of them. Some chart it to 2010, to 2017, 2016. But the trajectory is very, very clear. So our institutions are weakening. That’s a big risk factor.
You look at factionalization within your elites. Basically, if you have two parties that disagree on policy, that’s called democracy. But if you have two parties where identities start lining up, that is called factionalization. And the more identities that line up, the more troublesome it is. So what you’re seeing in America over the last couple years is that it used to be you could be a Southern Democrat who was a white union guy who might have not particularly progressive views on race, but you were a Democrat because you were in the union or what have you, or because your family was Democratic. And you could have a Republican from the Northeast who had a lot of similar overlapping views.
Now what you’re seeing is white men are much, much more likely to be in the Republican Party. Minorities (visible minorities) are more likely to be in the Democratic Party. You’re seeing a geographic breakdown between rural and urban. You’re seeing a religious breakdown, religious versus non-religious, all the religious groups versus the non-religious and so on. What we found in our studies is that the more identities line up, the more… Countries are twelve times more likely to go to civil war when you have identities lining up like this in America. And in America, they’re very sorted. So I tell you that I drink hard kombucha over the summer, you know I’m a Democrat, and you probably can figure out where I shop because all these things go together in America.
Geoff Kabaservice: Ezra Klein had a book recently called Why We’re Polarized…
Rachel Kleinfeld: I’ve got it right here, yes.
Geoff Kabaservice: …where he kind of really both explained well and popularized this process by which identities that once upon a time would’ve been very disparate come to be stacked and reinforced.
Rachel Kleinfeld: Exactly.
Geoff Kabaservice: For example, the fact that you owned a gun wouldn’t once upon a time have been central to your identity any more than the fact that you owned a blender. But increasingly, for many people, that is very central to their identity.
Rachel Kleinfeld: That’s exactly right. These things, the signifiers change. So the fact that I’m a woman could have just been that I was a woman, meant nothing. But now, post-Dobbs, it’s going to mean a lot more to people. That identity becomes more salient. So the risk factors that we’re seeing: democracy weakening, the factionalization of elites… We’re a heavily armed populace. That’s not a risk factor in and of itself, otherwise we would have been at war long before — we’ve been heavily armed for many, many years — but it’s an exacerbating factor. America has more arms in private hands than I think the next five militaries, including our own, and double the number of Yemen, which is the next highest country. So people have the means if they would like to.
Then we start looking at security services. Are the security services leaning to one side and how brutal are they? It’s hard to trace the brutality in America’s security services because we don’t keep good statistics, but they sure are being popularized more. And in terms of partisan leanings, it used to be that the police were actually pretty mixed. They were conservative, but they voted on both sides in part because they’re unionized and the Democrats worked pretty hard for those unions. You started seeing that change in 2020 with the BLM protests and the results of that. So we’re now seeing real partisan ideology influencing policing. These are all really bad signs.
Geoff Kabaservice: Given that you had worked in the Truman Program with a lot of people in the military, do you think there’s been a similar process going on at both the officer and enlisted ranks in the United States military?
Rachel Kleinfeld: I was talking recently with the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs about our joint feelings about where the military was, and I was really dismayed that he was in agreement with me; I was really hoping he would push back. The military has long been a bastion of professionalism, and compared to most other countries it still is. It’s got strong doctrine and it just beefed up its doctrine against extremism. Veterans, however, have been being recruited really heavily by the Oathkeepers. The whole idea is that you keep your oath and keep serving your oath in private life. Afghan war veterans are really angry at how our government pulled out of Afghanistan — I have to say, I share that anger. If you look at More in Common’s research, they blame civilian leadership and they blame their generals. That’s worrisome because it means that you might have a breakdown in the chain of command. If the generals are saying we’re not going to follow the Insurrection Act and a president calls the Insurrection Act, they might get some rogue units moving with them.
The National Guard is under state leadership, although it can be called up for federal leadership. The feds have long set the general rules. For instance, there’s 17 or 18 vaccines that you get to be ready, because half our fighting force in Iraq and Afghanistan were National Guardsmen and -women. But that’s been challenged recently with the COVID vaccines. A whole series of governors, including from my home state of Alaska, started challenging the feds’ right to make the military take vaccines. It’s a huge readiness issue, because when they get COVID they’re out for weeks to a month depending on how bad it is. But it’s also a challenge to who governs our National Guard. And we’re starting to see the Guard used for very political missions at the border and so on by states trying to make political hay out of it.
Guardsmen also have been particularly wary of getting vaccinated, which might just be about the vaccine but it can also be a proxy for your political beliefs. So that’s potentially problematic. And then the last group that I worry about in the military is certain units of special forces. We’ve seen in Germany recently that some special forces units began moving toward neo-Nazism and white supremacy. In America we have not traced that yet. But special forces became really lionized in the Afghan and Iraq wars. They were given a lot more freedom from the rules. And in certain cases, there’s certain cults of personality that got going, especially when Trump was giving pardons to people guilty of war crimes. And that’s dangerous. Those particular units could act as spoilers of one sort or another.
Geoff Kabaservice: There’s a lot of surprising insights that come from your work. But one of them, for me, was that inequality, economic inequality, is one of the main structural factors that predisposes a society to political violence. How does that work?
Rachel Kleinfeld: So inequality is extremely highly correlated with violence of all types, not just political violence but also homicide — even domestic violence, which usually moves in different directions. I think it works in a couple of different ways. One is that when people feel disrespected — which they might feel disrespected if they are earning a lot less than people around them, because we look at our status in a highly relative way. When I worked in India, I was living for a while with a family that was kind of the rural bourgeois. The girls in that family had two outfits, they had two salwar kameez, that’s it — but they were rich in that society compared to everyone else we were interacting with. And they acted like rich girls despite the fact that in America they would be just dirt poor; they didn’t have running water, they didn’t have electricity.
So wealth is highly relative, and if you’re feeling disrespected, it triggers other identity markers. You might say “Okay, I’m disrespected because of my wealth, but I care a lot that I’m white or I care a lot that I’m male.” If I get dissed in one way or another by a woman, by a minority, I might be more likely to react, or by someone different than me. Or if it’s minority to minority, if I’m just being disrespected in one way or another, I’m more like… Because you’re particularly on edge about the fact that you feel that lack of status. We’re just highly status-driven animals.
Another way that I think inequality plays in is that people don’t notice or care that a lot of other people are dying. That’s less true of political violence, although somewhat. I mean, we’ve had a thousand election officials threatened to date, by the Department of Justice, and there’s not a big public outcry saying, “How dare you doxx the people who are checking me in when I try to vote!” But that’s happening all over the country. Similarly…
Geoff Kabaservice: The Department of Justice’s dossier of threatened election officials is over a thousand, but I suspect that’s only a fraction of the total.
Rachel Kleinfeld: That’s right. The Brennan Center says less than half are reporting, and they’ve prosecuted three. You wouldn’t see that happening if people cared. But one of the things we know about violence is that it’s highly geographically concentrated, if it’s criminal violence — to the idea that one block, or even one house, one apartment building can be just hotspots of violence. And this is global, not just in America. So if you have a huge increase in murder, it can be the kind of thing that is really only felt by a small proportion of the country. And the reaction of other parts of the country can be, “Well, we’ve got to up law and order,” which is what’s happening in America right now. We had a 30% rise in our murder rate two years ago and then it kept on going up. It’s the biggest we’ve ever had. And the country’s up in arms: “More law and order, more law and order.”
Well, if you’re part of one of the minority groups that is persecuted by the police as much as you’re helped by the police, you’re sort of stuck. You want the police; if you look at African-American communities, they tend to want more policing. But they also want better policing. They don’t want to accidentally be shot. And that leaves a lot of room for self-justice, for saying, “We’d rather have the police, but we don’t trust them, or they’re not showing up.” Our clearance rate for homicide, the rate at which they’re being solved right now, is less than 50%. So if you’re in a community with a lot of violence and less than half are getting solved, you might take matters into your own hands. And that’s why it spirals.
Geoff Kabaservice: A lot of scholars — such as, let’s say, Robert Putnam, Kevin Vallier — have documented the decline in social trust in America. How does this decline in social trust predispose us towards violence of this kind?
Rachel Kleinfeld: That’s a great question. I call social trust society’s immune system. It lets us fight off problems of all sorts, kind of ecumenically. If there’s a problem and you’ve got a healthy immune system, you’re much more likely to fight it off. What we’re seeing in America is very low trust levels, but not the lowest they’ve ever been. What we saw actually was that under Obama’s presidency, they bottomed out, and they bottomed out specifically for white Boomers and the Silent Generation. And because the Boomer generation was so large, that was the nadir. But they were rising for African Americans and the younger generation.
Since that time, what we’ve seen is they’re still very low, but the racial differences have continued. So when they rise for whites, they go down for African Americans and vice versa. That’s a real problem. That means that you can’t get the country as a whole to feel trust in the system. It’s either working for whites or it’s working for minorities, and it’s not working for both in the perceptions of those people, ever. We are a multiracial country. We’re a country in which… I don’t really believe the majority-minority thesis. We’re a country in which everybody’s getting kind of mixed up over time, with lots of mixing in all sorts of ways. And you can’t have a country like that where some portion of the population doesn’t trust the other portion.
Geoff Kabaservice: A lot of political scientists have discerned in our current setup what they call asymmetric polarization. In other words, the Republican Party has gone further to the right than the democratic party has gone to the left. While I can argue that on certain issues, I do think it is true that the Republican Party in particular has a real problem with allowing (perhaps even encouraging) political violence. We always, in the historical business, try to figure out where does this start? I would actually point to Newt Gingrich as really introducing dehumanizing language into the way that Republicans spoke about their Democratic opponents.
Rachel Kleinfeld: Newt Gingrich… I mean, when you look back at history, there’s this “great man” theory of history that certain individuals really matter — and, I would add, great women. But certain people really matter. Newt Gingrich did not only introduce dehumanizing language — I think you’re right. Before that, when Pat Buchanan tried to run under the Republican ticket, he was just run out of town. He wasn’t allowed to be a Republican. He could run as an independent on Ross Perot’s ticket.
Not only did he introduce that kind of scorched-earth language, he also really destroyed Congress. Congress was set up first — it’s our first branch of government — and it’s supposed to be a very strong branch. What he did was he slashed the budget, which slashed the staff so that Congress couldn’t really do the things that needed to do, and so it started relying more on lobbyists. It started to be more parliamentary, where it sort of leaned into the executive if it was their party in power.
So instead of really serving as an independent branch and a check on executive power, we’ve gotten more of a monarchical president, less of a functional Congress. People feel that there’s gridlock and that their Congress isn’t doing anything, and they react by moving in an extra non-democratic direction. Because they want things done. We look at… I just flew back last week from Newark airport. If you want an argument for why people want to live in China, it’s Newark Airport. Not that I want to, but the infrastructure in this country needs work and people feel that. And then they think, “Well, why can’t our government solve some of these problems?” And that was Newt Gingrich.
Geoff Kabaservice: Yeah. Thank God Eric Greitens lost his primary in Missouri, but there again you have someone who’s really pioneering this idea of going out and murdering your political opponents, who in this case happen to be “RINOs” — that is to say, pro-democracy Republicans. And some of the most disturbing material for me in your writings, particularly in the Just Security piece, is how what we’re seeing in the Republican party is the willingness by an anti-democratic, authoritarian faction to use violence as a way of intimidating and ultimately purging pro-democracy conservatives from the Republican Party.
Rachel Kleinfeld: That’s right. And I think you talked about asymmetric polarization before, and I want to tie these together, because I think there’s a lot of misunderstandings about what’s polarization, what’s antidemocratic or authoritarian behavior. The way I see it, the left started moving in a more polarizing direction culturally quite early. Matt Yglesias, your colleague, traces this on racial issues — after Newt Gingrich, but still early. And then what you would see was this asymmetric polarization where the left was moving culturally quite far, whereas the right was moving politically — so they would use political power. And that’s why it doesn’t show up in the data, because the data is just chasing political power, really; it chases bills. So you get both sides polarizing. That polarization has now opened the door to autocratization, because when you hate and fear the other party, you really want to subvert democracy in order to make sure you stay in power.
And this is the thinking behind Mike Anton’s “Flight 93 Election”: you’ve got to run the cockpit and commit suicide for your democracy, basically because otherwise the plane’s going to run into the White House; this idea that you need to allow authoritarian or antidemocratic action because otherwise the other side is just too scary. And so what we’re seeing now in the Republican Party is this desire to take — a faction wants to take power by any means necessary, including a lot of violence against other Republicans who are standing in their way because those other Republicans are too attached to the institutions in their mind and too willing to play by the rules. And they’re the only ones standing between themselves and the democratic hordes that’ll harm them.
So the polarization is allowing authoritarianism. It’s also allowing a decent amount of violence. And because of the binary in our political system — because we don’t have ranked-choice voting, we don’t have proportional representation, we don’t have a lot of ways in which you could represent more people — the average voter is left at the general election with your side or this other side. And they often vote for their side. Most voters are low-information voters.
Geoff Kabaservice: Milan Svolik at Yale has done a lot of research into how people are willing to tolerate undemocratic behavior by their party, even if they claim to be attached to democracy, using societies like Hungary as a case study. And now of course we’ve seen Viktor Orbán addressing CPAC, the gathering of the conservatives here in this country. It’s all rather disheartening.
Rachel Kleinfeld: It’s disheartening to Democrats. I think it’s emotionally harder for Republicans because they’re losing their tribe, and we’re a tribal society. And right now being a Never Trumper is such an unattractive proposition. People lose their friends, they get threatened, they lose their jobs. I know a number of these folks who have had to be picked up in mid-career where they thought they were flying really high. No one wants that if they can avoid that.
And so what you’re seeing now is a lot of the business Republicans, for instance, just keeping their heads down, hoping this’ll pass. And we see that in Hungary, you see that in Turkey and India — it doesn’t pass. What happens is it gets worse and worse until business community can’t avoid taking a side. We’re seeing that a little bit with DeSantis and so on in Florida, but it can get so much worse. And I really hope that my Republican colleagues can start standing up a little more, and that my Democratic colleagues are willing to work with them and not just wag their fingers and say, “Look at what you’ve wrought.” Because that’s really the only way we’re going to stop this slide.
Geoff Kabaservice: And your Fulcrum piece with Amy Slipowitz really emphasizes that ultimately there’s no escaping this situation.
Rachel Kleinfeld: Yeah. I mean, you see the numbers on secession. There’s Russia… Actually, Putin just hosted a conference on secession in a number of countries, a number of democratic countries, and he brought Texans there too. So there’s a clear foreign hand trying to push these ideas that are indigenous to America but nevertheless being helped along by our buddy Vladimir Putin. And this talk is just crazy. First of all, if Texas goes, or Florida goes… They’ve got strong economies, but we’ve seen Texas’ energy grid all by itself, and it didn’t look that good. And they’re now getting, I think they’re up to 80 days of over 100 degrees. That’s not a country that’s going to stand on its own very well. And similarly, the Democrats who are talking about secession because they’re upset about abortion rights — well, what happens to those women? They still exist. They’re just now in another country, so you don’t have to think about it? That’s ridiculous. So, we’re going to have to hang together. Those of us who study war know that is a very bad option.
Geoff Kabaservice: You had a piece in Persuasion last month called “There Won’t Be a ‘Civil War’…” — but! A very implicit “but” hung over that. And you pointed out that “while it makes no sense to attack a high-capacity state, it makes a lot of sense to use violence to gain and maintain power within that state.” And I think that’s what we’ve been seeing, certainly from Trump on down.
Rachel Kleinfeld: Yeah, I think that’s right. And I think Americans think of civil war and then it sounds impossible. We think of blue and gray uniforms and scratchy wool. That is not going to happen again. But what we are seeing is what looks a little bit like Jim Crow redux — not about race so much as about party. And so the kind of violence that’s implicit but a very real possibility that’s hanging behind people’s voting behavior and so on and threatens to come out if certain people are willing to vote, or if certain election officials — right now, it’s mostly at the institutional level — If certain election officials don’t tow the line and make the rules the way they want them to. Then you’ll see violence. And you’re seeing that with people’s homes. So that’s what we’re likely to see. And I think if they win, this Trumpist faction wins, that’s probably where it’ll stop. Ironically, if they lose, I think we’re more likely to see something like Northern Ireland’s troubles. And that suggests that we really need some stronger safeguards, because neither of those situations is a good one.
Geoff Kabaservice: Could you see a repeat of something like the 1898 Wilmington, North Carolina insurrection with an armed faction?
Rachel Kleinfeld: We had a lot of violence in the 1800s, especially the late 1800s. There’s a great book by Ned Foley, Ballot Battles, about that historical period. And the Supreme Court is trying to send us back to that. One of the reasons we had so much violence was that state legislatures got a lot of leeway in deciding election rules and state courts did not, and federal courts didn’t really have a lot of jurisdiction. So when a state legislature and a governor disagreed, there wasn’t a lot of ways to solve that problem. And so you would see militias being called out by the governor, private militias being called up by state legislatures. The Supreme Court right now is trying to bring back this “independent state legislature” theory. They’ll vote on it in June. That is not a good sign.
And in that period of time, we had immense inequality. People feeling that democracy was bought — which, on both sides of the aisle, the one thing Americans agree is that our democracy is bought and corrupt. So that was similar. And then you had a lot of people trying to bring about their will through private violence, whether it was anarchists or communists or mining companies or Rockefeller Oil. And so I think that it’s not a crazy thought that that is the kind of era we’re headed toward.
Geoff Kabaservice: So as a last question, what can be done to avert some of these worst scenarios and squelch some of the violence that we’re seeing even now?
Rachel Kleinfeld: So the great news is that we’re not very far along. I mean, when my friend came to me and said, “Doesn’t this remind you of Kenya 2007?” I thought, “Yeah, the trends do.” And we know what the trend lines are, and the trends are very common across countries. But the death toll is nothing like that. And so what we have right now is a lot of intimidation but not a lot of actual violence. And that means there’s still time to turn it all back. Once you get violence, you get tit-for-tat, where people start excusing the violence on their side and committing it on the other side, and it has a logic of its own. We’re not there yet. And so the easiest way to turn it back is for politicians to disavow it. Politicians play a huge role in what’s normalized for their followers. And there’s good research studies internationally, but there’s also good lab evidence in America, that if Trump would denounce violence, if Biden would denounce property violence that’s more common on the left, you would see big reductions. If the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs would say, “We’re not going to use the Insurrection Act,” you would see veterans stepping away.
So we need a lot more public figures on both sides denouncing violence, very publicly. On the right, they’re doing the opposite. There’s been over a hundred campaign ads made with guns this cycle, 25 of which include significant threats. That’s the wrong direction. So we need our public figures to denounce violence. We need to vote for the ones who do, and not vote for the ones who are using it in their ads and so on. And then, as everyday people, we need to recognize that we are going to live together in this country, and we need to start looking at what a future looks like where we’re living together. Right now, I don’t think anyone has a real forward-looking vision for what it means to be one country. And we’d really better develop one quickly.
Geoff Kabaservice: I realize that “law and order” is a phrase associated with the right side of the aisle. But why is it that Democrats such as, let’s say, Merrick Garland’s Election Threats Task Force don’t seem to be doing anything to defend against these violent threats, to prosecute the people who are making them, to actually defend democracy against armed intimidation?
Rachel Kleinfeld: I have a lot of frustrations right now with the executive branch. Now, the White House can’t control the DOJ; they’re independent. The DOJ has a lot on its plate. They’re working the most complex criminal trial I believe ever prosecuted in the United States with January 6th. So I understand there’s a lot going on, and it’s important to hold January 6th insurrectionists accountable. But looking forward, these folks doxxing the election officials really matter. And a lot of us are trying to get them to take that more seriously. There’s a problem… Because free speech is so broad in our country, defining a “true threat” is a little bit hard, but out of a thousand cases, there are more than three true threats. I know of more than three myself, just looking at the language and knowing the law.
So I think they’re being real conservative because they don’t want to bring cases that’ll lose, but they sure need to get a lot more proactive. So do states. States have anti-militia laws, but right now, New Mexico and I think one other state are the only two that have tried to prosecute an illegal militia within the state. That’s a state-based law. So we just need a lot more accountability — ideally from Republicans who are prosecutors and AGs so that it doesn’t look partisan, but it just says, “You can’t have violence in a democracy. That destroys the idea of civil public debate. And that’s where we’re going to draw the line.”
Geoff Kabaservice: Well, I very much hope that line will be drawn. Rachel Kleinfeld, thank you so much for talking with me today.
Rachel Kleinfeld: Thank you. Real pleasure.
Geoff Kabaservice: And thank you all for listening to the Vital Center Podcast. Please subscribe and rate us on your preferred podcasting platform. And if you have any questions, comments, or other responses, please include them along with your rating, or send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks as always to our technical director, Kristie Eshelman, our sound engineer, Ray Ingenieri, and the Niskanen Center in Washington, D.C.