Editors’ Note: Alejandro Portes continues HistPhil’s forum on “uncivil civil society.”
I have adapted the title of this comment from the classic article by Sheri Berman, “Civil Society and the Collapse of the Weimar Republic” published in 1997. Since that time, several additional studies have documented the close relationship between German associationism and the rise of the Nazi party to power in the early 1930s.[i]
I borrow the subtitle from earlier articles of mine that sought to counter celebratory accounts of social capital by Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone, and his followers with a list of negative consequences of associationism, including exclusion of outsiders and mutual support in the rise of fanatic beliefs.[ii]
These studies were largely of historical and academic interest until recently, but events over the last year in the United States have brought their relevance back with a vengeance. The country is confronting the rise of an authoritarian, racist movement—following the “charismatic leadership” of former U.S. president Donald Trump—determined to bend reality to its ideology and gain political power. The traumatic events of January 6th of this year represent the signal moment in which this movement made its most aggressive appearance in national life.
How should we understand the surging of this movement? In a more recent article, I attempted to trace the origins of populist nationalism in the United States to the rapid de-industrialization of the country, the sense of loss and disorientation among workers of the former industrial working-class, and the fear among white Americans that their place in society was being taken over by black Americans and immigrants. In the same article I made use of detailed reports from sociologists who had gone deep into areas of the country where this movement is strongest to make sense of the grievances and the beliefs of those supporting it. Robert Wuthnow, one of these scholars, summarized his findings as follows:
[T]hey live in a world constructed by Rush Limbaugh and Fox News… their outrage is quieter… It is built in the conversations in the coffee shop and the co-op.[iii]
What I did not realize when perusing this literature is that all the reported encounters and interviews conducted by these scholars took place in groups. As the above quote suggests, co-ops and coffee shops were such places, but they also included churches, prayer-groups, Tea Party meetings, and others. Rarely do we see mention of an individual or family being interviewed on their own. The small towns and rural communities included in these studies are tightly-woven and group-oriented, well representing the kind of high social capital that Putnam and others celebrated. They are also hotbeds of white racism and support for conservative causes—from opposition to abortion to the demonization of (non-white) welfare recipients.
Of course, these views are not just found in small towns. I encountered versions of them in several recent conversations with conservative Cuban-Americans in Miami, another community characterized by strong social capital. I became convinced that their militance and absolutism was in part a product of these tight-knit social networks. Indeed, several of these Cuban-Americans traveled to Washington D.C. to participate in the insurrection of January 6th. They were headed by Enrique Tarrio, a Cuban-American of African descent who is the leader of the so-called “Proud Boys.”
Tarrio was arrested upon arrival in D.C. but others in his organization marched on. What is notable about the January 6th mob is that most participants were members of organized groups. Few came on their own. Like Wuthnow’s respondents in Southern co-ops, they egged each other on in their beliefs and motives, collectively asserting that the 2020 election had been stolen from Trump and, by extension, from white America.
A key issue of concern in the rise of the extreme right is the ease with which its supporters accept and disseminate deranged stories about their political opponents without an ounce of evidence. From the big lie about the stolen 2020 election to the assertion that the Democratic Party is riddled with and led by pedophiles, these notions are proclaimed with absolute conviction. How could such a paranoid vision of reality come to be accepted by so many? My hypothesis is that social media platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, have a great deal of responsibility for this, reinforced in turn by organized groups on the ground. These social media outlets allow their audiences to be quite selective. They only tune into what they want to hear. In turn, that novel information is disseminated among grassroots groups that, having no other point of reference, come to accept it willingly.
As shown by Berman and Voth and his associates, the Nazi party was successful in recruiting new members by working through organized groups, many of them with non-political views—rabbit breeders, rural co-ops, and singing clubs. The same studies show that Nazi recruitment was less successful in regions of Germany where strong political institutions prevailed.
There is a lesson in this. As about 40 percent of the American electorate continues to bowl with and for Trump, the rest of the country and its institutions should remain in a state of alert. The lie that the elections were stolen in 2020 is no bigger than the lie that Jews were responsible for the downfall of Germany in World War I. We know well where that latter led. Under close examination, Putnam’s social capital turns out to be a double-edged sword: in certain circumstances, it can lead to economic progress and democratic life in cities and countries; in others, however, it can lead to the opposite. What is happening in many regions of the country is an example of the second path.
A final point deserving attention is the competing and conflicting sources of political legitimacy highlighted by these schisms. As analyzed by Max Weber over a century ago, traditional beliefs and values have been largely replaced in the modern world by codified legal rationality as the source of legitimate authority. However, a third source, charisma, can unexpectedly enter the scene, negating other sources of legitimacy and turning the political order upside down. The disruptive potential of charisma is grounded on the belief among followers in the extraordinary, semi-divine qualities of the leader.
Followers of charismatic prophets or political leaders of the right or the left pay no heed to legal rules and constitutional precepts. Established institutions can be swept away and replaced by those the prophet deems convenient. This is what happened in Germany in the 1930s and in Cuba under Fidel Castro in the 1960s. Trump is undoubtedly a charismatic leader and a large proportion of his followers appear willing to deny reality itself in his defense. On the opposite side are those who believe in constitutional institutions and the rule of law. They will do well in using the breathing spell gained by the failure of the January 6th insurrection to strengthen those institutions and rally together against the threat of charismatic populism, whether on the right or left. There is still time, but the moment to erect the necessary barriers in defense of American institutional democracy is now.
Alejandro Portes is Howard Harrison and Gabrielle Snyder Beck Professor of (Emeritus) Sociology at Princeton University and Professor of Law and Distinguished Scholar of Arts and Sciences at the University of Miami. He is the founding director of the Center for Migration and Development at Princeton and is a former president of the American Sociological Association. Portes is the author of more than 250 articles and chapters on national development, international migration, Latin American and Caribbean urbanization, and economic sociology. He has published 40 books and special issues. His books include Immigrant America: A Portrait (University of California Press, 1990); Spanish Legacies: The Coming of Age of the Second Generation (University of California Press, 2016) and The Global Edge: Miami in the Twenty-First Century (University of California Press, 2018).
[i] Sheri Berman, “Civil Society and the Collapse of the Weimar Republic,” World Politics (April 1977); Hans-Joachim Voth, Nico Voigtländer, and Shanker Satyanath, “Bowling for Adolf: How Social Capital Helped Destroy Germany’s First Democracy,” VOXEU/CEPR, August 5, 2013; Shanker Satyanath, Nico Voigtländer, and Hans-Joachim Voth, “Bowling for Fascism: Social Capital and the Rise of the Nazi Party,” Journal of Political Economy 125:2 (2017).
[ii] Alejandro Portes and Patricia Landolt, “Social Capital: Promise and Pitfalls of its Role in Development,” Journal of Latin American Studies 32 (May 2000), 529-47; Alejandro Portes and Patricia Landolt, “The Downside of Social Capital,” The American Prospect 26 (1996), 18-23.
[iii] Robert Wuthnow, The Left Behind: Decline and Rage in Small Town America (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2018), 160.