Why the US Is Primed for Radicalization

A confluence of factors is leading people in the nation to gravitate toward extremist views.

Wired/December 12, 2022

All across the country, there are signs of a more radicalized American populace. It’s become impossible to ignore over the past few years. The US has witnessed an insurrection, the rise of QAnon, increasing anti-Semitism, attacks on the LGBTQ community, and more. While radicalism has risen to some degree in many other Western nations, this trend has been exceptionally more pronounced in the United States. It is, therefore, necessary to determine the root causes of it and what makes America, well, exceptional. '

To better understand extremism in the US, it’s necessary to understand who is being radicalized. It’s primarily right-wing extremism, but right-wing extremism covers many different groups and types of people who engage with it. It’s not just the people who join militias like the Proud Boys or the Oath Keepers, it’s the seemingly ordinary people who latch onto QAnon or other conspiracy theories.

The January 6, 2021, attack in Washington is a good case study on what kind of people have become radicalized in the US. There were members of militia groups there, but research has shown roughly 90 percent of the people who stormed the Capitol were not affiliated with militias or other far-right groups. Many were business owners or regular working people who became convinced over time that the 2020 election had been stolen from Donald Trump.

Conspiracy theories like those under the QAnon umbrella have infiltrated many groups of people one might not expect. They’ve found their way into yoga and parenting groups. A neighbor you regularly encounter at the grocery store and don’t think twice about could be in the process of being radicalized. People from all walks of life can be influenced by these conspiracy theories.

All of that said, there are some notable psychological and social factors that could be causing Americans to become more prone to embrace extreme ideologies. One of the key factors appears to be a strong sense of uncertainty. The human brain doesn’t like uncertainty, and it can cause people to seek out a path to feeling more certain and assured by any means possible.

J. M. Berger, an author and researcher who focuses on extremism, says there have been many reasons for people to feel uncertain over the past decade or so. Rapid changes in technology, major shifts in the labor market and the economy, the Covid-19 pandemic, and more have caused many Americans to feel unanchored. This creates a situation where extremism can flourish.

“What you find is people are most vulnerable to authoritarianism and extremist impulses when they don’t know what they’re supposed to do,” Berger says. “They don’t know where they fit in the world.”

Arie Kruglanski, a professor of psychology at the University of Maryland, says that something that motivates people in uncertain times is a need to feel significant.

“These things increase the motivation to reassert your significance. Once you have that, you’re vulnerable to narratives that promise you a restoration of your significance,” Kruglanski says. “Many of these conspiracy theories—most of them, I would think—do that.”

Extremist movements can make people feel significant, give them a sense of purpose, and provide them a narrative that explains why everything seems so screwed up. They also give them a sense of community and support. Kruglanski says the more you feel embraced by a network of people, the more you feel motivated to embrace their narrative, even if it’s extreme. Oftentimes, he says, people don’t realize how extreme the group they’re joining actually is until they’ve become invested in it.

Berger says social media has ramped up feelings of uncertainty. He says that’s partly due to the fact that ideas can now almost instantly be spread far and wide with little effort, which can be destabilizing.

“In the past, when transmission of ideas was slower, the ideas had a chance to evolve as they were being transmitted. This would sometimes create a sort of moderating influence,” Berger says. “With social media, ideas move so fast that there’s really no prospect for moderation. Even the most extreme ideas can spread incredibly quickly.”

Social media has also made it easier for people to become radicalized because they can easily find people who share any extreme views they may have and who will happily invite them into a movement. Someone who wouldn’t have met people who share their views in the small town they lived in years ago can easily find a community online and become further radicalized.

“Social media has radically changed how people communicate,” Berger says. “It’s radically changed the kinds of ideas people are exposed to.”

Research has shown social media exacerbates political polarization, often pushes users to view more extreme content, and helps extremists organize and coordinate their efforts. Social media also has positive impacts in terms of helping organize activists and connecting people in beneficial ways, but its negative effects and uses are significant.

“The network support, the clandestine conspiracy narratives combined with the sense of uncertainty, sense of lost significance—these elements create a combustible mixture that can be lit and lead to radicalization and radical action,” Kruglanski says.

So, many people feel uncertain and insignificant, and social media is flooded with disinformation and groups of extremists who will invite them into a movement. That’s some of it. The more obvious aspect of this, but one that is important, is the role of political leaders in America and a Republican Party that has become more extreme itself.

“We have people who are the top leaders of a right-wing party who are really just willing to come out and express and endorse positions that are much more radical than what used to be the norm in American politics,” Berger says. “They’re creating a permission structure for people to talk about racism and violence in ways that previously would have been outside of the realm of civil discourse.”

Thomas Zeitzoff, an associate professor in the School of Public Affairs at American University, says the Republican Party has embraced—and is now largely controlled by—extreme figures who would have been sidelined in the past.

“The people who used to gatekeep and keep out people like Pat Buchanan or kick out the John Birchers are not running the party,” Zeitzoff says. “I’m a big believer that parties have to be strong gatekeepers. You have to push people like Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert out. They have no business being in a mainstream party.”

Bringing the US back to a more stable place and countering extremism isn’t an easy thing to do when extremism has become this rampant, but there may be some solutions. Kruglanski says those who oppose this extremism need to find positive ways to offer people significance, dignity, and a sense of certainty. Berger proposed a similar remedy.

“If there is a solution, I think it’s to pursue policies that give people some sense of security and understanding of where they are and how they’re supposed to interact with the world,” Berger says.

There will always be conspiracy theorists. Social media isn’t going anywhere. And political leaders will forever use fear and lies to influence people. But America will have to deal with these conditions that are making extremism more likely if it’s going to continue to function politically. A house built on dynamite is a dangerous place to live.

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