A week ago a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville protesting the taking down of Confederate Memorial statues turned fatally violent. Other protests were due to take place this weekend in multiple U.S. cities, including New York (now postponed). How should citizens and public authorities deal with this upsurge in violent neo-Nazi protest? I am with Tina Fey on this one: don’t show up, have some cake, and encourage the NYPD to prevent violence.
Some on the left have tried opportunistically and mistakenly to associate Virginian school public choice scholarship with the far-right. This is a sadly missed opportunity because James Buchanan’s theory of club goods helps explain how far-right street protests emerge and suggest how authorities might best subdue them. I draw on John Meadowcroft’s and Elizabeth Morrow’s analysis of the far-right English Defence League (EDL).
Meadowcroft and Morrow start with the puzzle of how collective actions like political protests can get off the ground when the rational tendency is to free ride. In other words, most people let others spend time, money and effort pursuing their political objectives in the knowledge that individual participation cannot realistically impact the outcome. In line with Buchanan and Olson, Meadowcroft and Morrow propose that successful protest movements supply selective incentives to more active participants: the opportunity to consume club goods. In their ethnographic fieldwork and historical analysis, they find that the club goods for far-right protestors seem to be violence, self-worth and group solidarity. In doing this, their research addresses a tendency for scholars to overestimate the role of ideology and underestimate the peculiarly personal benefits of participation in violent protests.
Although this is not a reason to be complacent, this analysis suggests some cause for optimism. Taking ideology as the primary motivation can give us the mistaken impression that the far-right is a scary, cohesive mass of intellectually dedicated (or perhaps brainwashed) supporters. In fact, they are typically isolated, inward-looking, socially excluded individuals (mostly men) using shallow slogans as a makeshift glue to hold together an association whose primary function is to facilitate violence in order to relieve boredom. As evidence, Meadowcroft and Morrow explain how the EDL originally emerged from informal groups of football (soccer) hooligans.
Groups that are constituted to engage in street violence face a major challenge with converting their power into policy influence. This is because violent supporters quickly tire of policy discussions. When asked to moderate their activity in order to attract a wider membership, they leave. The EDL didn’t have any supporters in the British parliament. They didn’t even have any realistic policies to implement. Their attempts to move into party politics failed abysmally.
The case with U.S. white supremacists is a bit different. They have an ally in the form of Donald Trump (or possibly Steve Bannon now he has departed the White House). Nevertheless, the problem with converting street protests and rallies into policy persists. Trump is isolated from the judiciary, congress, much of the executive, most state governments, and the majority of the Republican Party. Any move further to the right makes his position worse for getting any legislation passed. Meanwhile, state governments are reacting by removing the very statues the white supremacists want to keep in place.
What are the practical implications of this analysis? The first is that counter-protests can be counter-productive if the aim is to reduce street violence. Nazis enjoy fighting leftists. So counter-protestors unwittingly supply some of the very goods that attract far-right supporters to the streets. If both turn up to fight, that encourages more protestors to join future rallies.
Second, law enforcement can reduce demand for protests by managing them in such a way that they become as boring and tedious as possible for the participants. This has the additional benefit of making the protest safe for other pedestrians and road users. This approach was taken to a controversial conclusion with a policing strategy that has become known as ‘kettling’. This is where police establish a boundary around protestors that threaten public order, keeping them on predetermined protest paths and preventing people from joining or leaving the protest spontaneously. Without permitting aggression between political opponents, this leaves protestors annoyed rather than satisfied. Since the primary motivation of most far-right participation is action and enjoyment, and only secondarily political, many will be deterred from coming again.