Consequences of drinking from a poisoned well: violence, right-wing populism, and the complexities of worldviews

Dr. Daniel Jaster, Texas Tech University

Published on: October 10, 2022

Photo credit: Purestock/Francisco Cruz/SuperStock

Violence is never the answer. Until it is. Careful study of activists’ communications show how specific contexts may lead some to utilize terror. Bubbles of violence have recently percolated from the far-right. A supporter of former President Trump attacked an FBI office in Cincinnati, seemingly in response to the FBI’s collection of records from Mar-a-Lago. Boston Children’s Hospital received repeated bomb threats from far-right anti-transgender activists; similar threats plague historically black colleges and universities. January 6th seems archetypal, despite its contested label. I’ve previously argued that this violence should be understood as part of a cultural worldview. This thinkpiece is more structural: what conditions might make these actions plausible? Culture alone cannot explain it. Importantly, what might this mean for how we discuss and engage with these events and actors?

Right-wing populism’s ascent in the US is key: these activists focus on talking points from prominent far-right conservatives like former President Trump or those who follow in his vein. Ori Swed, Bruno Frère, and I recently published a paper on populism at Society. We argued that populism is a result of complex abstract systems taking over lifeworlds, or understandings based on shared lived experiences, prompting a desire to preserve or reassert the lifeworld. This leads to a return to an experience which more closely resembles a society bound by mechanical solidarity, one held together via similarity, not pluralistic interdependence. The theoretical link between populism and violence manifests: threats to mechanical solidarity are existential and can merit violent retribution. Experts may not understand the populist activists’ appeals because they come from fundamentally different lifeworlds and experiences: one grounded in abstract theories that cut across experiences; the other deeply rooted in shared lived experiences. One key implication: this foundation makes violent actions among certain populist groups more possible.

American right-wing populism exhibits these trends in their reaction to increasing globalized conceptual complexity dominating our worlds. Republicans are more likely to avoid counterattitudinal information than other partisan affiliates. Older data suggests that consistent conservatives are more likely than liberals to get their news from the same sources (e.g. Fox News), perhaps because they trust fewer new sources, and are more likely than liberals to report having friends with the same views as them. The foundation for the construction of a common lifeworld is laid: more conservative or right-wing groups are more likely to follow the same news sources and surround themselves with like-minded people. They have a more unified shared experience that can act as a mechanical social bond. Right-wing rhetoric has recently been particularly apocalyptic, painting America as under attack; at an existential crossroads debating the soul of a nation composed of different understandings and experiences. Many fear replacement. These appeals aim at conscience collective in all but name. Politicians and media pundits claim that those who do not understand the American experience are imposing their complex, alien beliefs on the authentic community. Abstract logics about gender, race, and jurisprudence attack authentic community members’ understandings of reality. Right-wing populists’ news systems and social networks confirm a shared sense of threat. Fewer news sources, using similar rhetoric about similar topics, and homogeneous networks facilitate populist supporters’ rejection of discrepant information. It is beyond one’s lived experience and the lived experiences of everyone one knows. The structure of the shared lifeworld is key here. Threat to a shared mechanical worldview often necessitates violence: it is legitimate to defend one’s sacred community. These themes manifest from officials and the media. In short: this sense of solidarity makes violence a plausible solution; when it is intimated, it is consequently more likely to seem acceptable.

Right-wing populists are accused of poisoning the well of American discourse, but their supporters aren’t empty vessels to be filled with fears of liquid modernity. You can lead a horse to water but you cannot make it drink. People consume media and construct networks based on their experiences and understandings: experts’ complex, abstract arguments don’t resonate with populists’ experiences or those whom they regularly interact with. Once implicit in the conscience collective, increasing manifestations of violence make sense when understood from this lived experience. A shared sense of threat abounds. It helps explain why support for populist candidates like Trump, floating signifiers of communities united in anger against outsiders or elites, remains despite the investigations. Importantly, attacking symbols of the mechanical community is paralleled with attacking the community itself. Elites’ attempts to communicate, to explain, and to dissuade violence are hindered: their evidence is obvious to them, rooted in abstract logics or unfamiliar lived experiences; far removed from those submerged in different lifeworlds. If you cannot communicate your ideas in a way which resonates with their lived experiences, the schism will remain. Violence is never the answer. Until it seems like it is. Context is everything, and the structure of our networks and media make communicating across contexts difficult.