Reconsidering Authority: The Pandemic and the Resurgence of Collectivism


Richard E. Rubenstein – TRANSCEND Media Service

Question Authority?

June 2021 – In a box of political buttons that I keep in my desk there is a small orange button that declares, “Question Authority!”  I picked it up in Chicago at some point between 1967 and 1973 when life seemed, more or less, a continuous political demonstration interrupted from time to time by the need to make a living and raise a family. At that time, of course, we assumed that the Authority to be questioned was that exercised by the racist, sexist, war-making capitalist state. The button’s accepted subtext was certainly not “Question Covid-19 Masks” or “Question Election Results.” Even so, our anti-authoritarian Impulses, aimed by New Left ideology at rule by soulless bureaucracies, were very strong.

Thanks to the coronavirus plague, the accelerating pace of environmental disasters, and the relative success of China, South Korea, and a few other nations in dealing with such crises, all this is now changing. Very quietly, under cover of the doctrine of necessity, a profound shift in people’s concepts of and attitudes toward authority is taking place in democratic societies. “National security,” formerly a goal used to justify military adventures and spying, is now invoked to demand effective action in defense of public health, environmental safety, and other requirements of human security. While some activists in the U.S. still adopt an ultra-individualistic “cowboy morality” stance dedicated to resisting government constraints on individual choice, most Americans yearn audibly for more efficient, responsive, even-handed public authority.

This shift has not been recognized as the sea-change in our political consciousness that it actually is. The demand for far more effective provision of public services has three implications of enormous importance in a federal republic like the United States:

  • The coronavirus pandemic, along with the storms, floods, droughts, and fires associated with climate change, has exposed the inefficacy of uncoordinated, unplanned responses to national disasters. Many people formerly inclined to fear the idea of planning and to insist on states’ rights now call for coordinated, more efficient government planning and action to protect the community from biological, climatological, and other avoidable threats.
  • Chaotic and ineffective responses to environmental threats have dramatized the superiority of other systems in which public authority is linked to a collective consciousness that emphasizes people’s political and moral responsibility for other members of the community. “Collectivism,” formerly one of the Cold War’s dirtiest words, now describes a state of mind and culture that permits the Chinese people, Koreans, and others to conquer the coronavirus, resuscitate their economies, and restore social life.
  • A longing for authority that works to solve social problems raises legitimate fears of government over-reaching and possible abuses of power. But the solution to this problem, incompletely realized in some collectivist societies, is to encourage active mass participation at all levels, thus creating a bottom-up energy capable of countering and modifying the top-down tendencies of bureaucrats in authority.

Stronger authority can be legitimized by broader participation.  Indeed, in the last collective disaster that compelled a reevaluation of democratic authority – the Great Depression of the 1930s – the key to avoiding dictatorship was the improvisation of new forms of bottom-up political pressure ranging from trade unions, farmer alliances, and new ideological groupings to popular organizations based on race, ethnicity, gender, and religion. In America’s New Deal and in Europe’s social democracies, local activism went hand in hand with an increase in centralized power.  Confronted by economic depression and then by world war, the industrial democracies discovered that popular initiatives and strong authority were not natural enemies but, at least in certain situations, potential allies.

Immediate Political Repercussions

Fast forward to our current age – the era of environmental transformation.  Understanding has grown that the current pandemic is only the latest in a series of environmental crises, and that further upheavals of an almost biblical sort can be expected to recur.[i]  Once again, under pressure of collective threats and disasters, people rediscovering the need for effective authority are redrawing the boundaries of collectivism and individualism. The immediate effect in the U.S. has been to increase tensions between libertarian and collectivist wings of both major political parties.

Among the Republicans, libertarian politicians and their allies are struggling to undo the national-corporatist policies introduced by Donald Trump – and they are not succeeding.  Unlike the party’s old base of small-government advocates, Trump supporters strongly favor certain types of federal interference in the economy, as well as in local politics, to advance their version of America’s national interests.  At the same time, they believe in making the rich richer via tax cuts and other forms of corporate welfare. The Trump agenda, marketed under the slogan “America First,” promised to maintain U.S. military supremacy abroad while abandoning international agreements, favored stay-at-home over globalizing industries, and played the tariff and economic sanctions cards to punish disfavored nations like China and Iran. In domestic terms, “America First” implicitly defined the nation in ethnic and racial terms and offered to protect white Christians against groups considered alien or threatening.  Combining economic nationalism with a defense of ethno-cultural tradition, the followers of Donald Trump became cultural collectivists similar in many ways to the followers of European leaders like Marine Le Pen and Viktor Orban.

The Democrats, meanwhile, moved a certain distance to the left, that is, in the direction of socioeconomic collectivism.  Under Joe Biden’s leadership, they have united in support of a two trillion dollar program to rebuild decaying infrastructure, increase taxes on the rich, and mitigate certain persistent socioeconomic and racial inequalities.  In some ways, these initiatives are reminiscent of policies adopted by Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, but Democratic leaders (including most progressives) have generally avoided advocating structural changes that big business would consider intolerable.  While hoping to effect some redistribution of wealth and income, they do not propose to nationalize industries, guarantee jobs or minimum incomes, defund the military-industrial complex, or redefine the relationship between business owners, workers, and consumers.  Capitalism is to be given a more human face, but there is no question, even among progressives, that the body politic is to remain capitalist.

Joe Biden’s economic program is immediately recognizable by Europeans as a form of right-wing social democracy.  In U.S. terms, this clearly represents a shift toward collectivism.  But, ironically, just as the Republicans define their collectivism in ethno-nationalist terms, Democrats have tended to emphasize the cultural content of their “Americanism.”  Of course, they do not define America in the same racially nostalgic terms that many right-wing Republicans do.  Their nation, they insist, is a multicultural mosaic of racial, ethic, and gender groups whose rights and interests, long disregarded, must be better defended and protected.  This pro-minority stance, long overdue, was a key to Biden’s victory in the 2020 presidential election.  But changing the colors of one’s clientele does not solve the collective problems confronting a nation.  The refusal of most Democrats to advocate significant changes in the ways that business operates, property is defined, and work is conducted means that, in practice, their party tends to represent the most successful strata of marginalized groups, as well as the most advanced, technologically equipped sectors of workers and managers.

The liberals’ collectivism, in other words, is limited by their determination to create a cross-class coalition representing people of color, hi-tech workers, and “woke” businesspeople.  The problem with this formula is that when such a coalition takes power, each class or interest group can be expected to exercise the power within the coalition that it already exercises in civil society.  The ownership class, which strongly supported Joe Biden against Donald Trump, therefore remains in the saddle.  Big business favors the more efficient and potent use of state authority, but always with the unspoken proviso that it not be used to challenge their authority over civil society.  Unwittingly, perhaps, most Democrats bow to this assertion of legitimacy by the same billionaires whose wealth they propose to tax.  The giveaway here is the absence from virtually all their proposals of new forms of mass participation either at the workplace, in economic development schemas, or in local communities.   The Democrats remain pro-union, but they fear sanctioning any forms of grassroots participation that might be considered post-capitalist.

Collectivism and Participation

          The trend toward collectivism now seems irreversible, if for no other reason than the high and increasing popular demand for protection against biomedical and environmental threats and the social consequences of natural and economic disasters (for example, the mass migration of peoples).  This demand requires that central authority be strengthened and made more efficient – but human security, it seems clear, cannot be guaranteed by authoritarian leaders giving orders to reluctant subjects. Only when there is willing and active cooperation by large numbers of people can authority approach this goal.

Public cooperation, in turn, depends upon two main factors: a common sense of mission based upon feelings of mutual kinship and responsibility, and a commitment to collective action stimulated by direct participation and the prospect of securing at least partial control of the outcome.  Consider China’s successful campaign against the coronavirus.  Contrary to what some Western critics maintain, safeguarding public health in the world’s most populous nation was not based simply on top-down commands, but also on the collective consciousness of the Chinese people and on a system reliant on a high degree of local activism and participation.[ii]  Those who believe that the West has little to learn from China’s response to the pandemic like to emphasize that nation’s authoritarian command structure and popular habits of obedience, but locally responsive bureaucrats and community organizations in China played key roles in mobilizing a willing public to participate in the campaign.

In countries like the U.S., we start with a different set of advantages and disadvantages. On the minus side, our bureaucratic system is federally fragmented and unaccustomed to mobilize citizens on a nationwide basis to solve social problems.  Another minus: lacking a strong spirit of collective responsibility, our people are disinclined to accept demands for social discipline in civic campaigns. One plus, however, is striking: Americans sometimes display a capacity for communal effort that astonishes those who considered them too hedonistic or individualistic to engage in successful collective action.  Mobilizing the nation for World War II is often cited as a primary example, but it was not just war that unleashes a potential for self-sacrifice, discipline, and community-building.  Civilian challenges can also provoke a powerful collective response.

In the 1930’s, the great challenge was to create a strong labor movement and a welfare state to combat the Great Depression.  In the 1960s, it was to empower a nationwide civil rights movement that could link up with other movements to fight racial and gender oppression and end an unjust war.  In both eras, the key factor that helped to overcome individualistic habits and unlock the potential for social mobilization was mass participation.  Americans demonstrated a capacity for collective action when active involvement in labor unions, grass roots political organizations, and ethnic or racial associations promised to give them some control over a system that formerly seemed as ineluctable as fate.  One can state this as a general rule: collective movements maintain their momentum to the extent that they continue to transform social, political, and legal systems in the direction of mass participation and control.  When these incentives falter, so does collective action.

Right-Wing Collectivism: Culture Uber Alles

Participation in modern societies has different connotations for right-wing and left-wing collectivist movements.  At the risk of oversimplifying, the collectivism of the right tends to focus on a common culture, while that of the left proposes to strengthen or create a socioeconomic commonwealth.  Conservative collectivism mobilizes citizens to act on the basis of their national identity, which is usually conflated with some ethnic or racialized cultural tradition.  In the U.S., the America that right-wing enthusiasts want to make “great again” is implicitly white and Christian.  In Europe, the conservatives’ favorite targets are the polyglot European Union and non-white, non-Christian immigrants.  On both sides of the Atlantic the systemic changes that right-wing nationalists advocate are primarily political, their goal being to restore a vanishing or threatened political and cultural order.  These changes include a return to older systems of governance and voting, a closer relationship between church and state, public support for threatened social formations like the traditional family, significant restrictions on immigration, and the abandonment of attempts to empower previously marginalized racial, ethnic, and status groups.  And, of course, “law and order.”

The forms of participation that this sort of program implies are various.  In addition to organizing or joining in rallies, demonstrations, and political action groups, right-wing militants have formed armed militias, joined border patrols and other vigilante associations, and relied on conservative NGOs and churches to advance their interests. They have also intervened strongly through the social media and in the schools.  To state these forms of participation, however, also suggests their limitations.  The Right’s economic program, such as it is, increases the power of the state’s executive branch to interfere in trade matters and to favor some enterprises over others, but it does not propose to alter the structure of capitalism in any significant respect.  As a result, the ambitions of right-wing collectivists to mitigate the impact of demographic changes and return to an earlier state of sociocultural development seem vain.

Conservative populists around the world rage against globalism, but political gestures like Brexit or high tariffs cannot stop the inexorable globalization of capital.  They oppose immigration, but the same corporations that fund their electoral campaigns rely on immigrants to provide certain forms of essential labor and to keep wage levels low.  They offer to protect the interests of favored identity groups, but their hostility to economic planning and social innovation renders them powerless to alter patterns of demographic change or to prevent the religious/moral values they advocate from falling into desuetude.

These limitations, furthermore, ensure that political polarization will continue.  As discontent grows among alienated groups, the limited range of opportunities for participation may well tempt more of their partisans to align with armed militias or white supremacist organizations like the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers in the U.S. and neo-Nazi groups in Europe.  An alarming possibility?  To be sure, but modern history suggests that unless existing systems of authority collapse, violent participation tends not to be nearly as popular or as effective as nonviolent action.[iii]  Right-populists in Europe have made a turn away from armed groups and toward nonviolence in hopes of cleansing themselves from the stigma of fascism.  It remains to be seen whether American conservatives will follow their lead.

Left-Wing Collectivism: Reform or Revolution?

The right-wing dilemma is worrisome, but fairly well understood.  Less familiar is the fact that a similar dynamic also threatens movements of the Left.  When moderate social collectivists fail to make the changes needed to solve systemic problems and generate effective forms of mass participation, they are soon challenged by more extreme forces on both the left and the right. The German Social Democratic Party faced this dilemma after World War I, inspiring the  revolutionary activist Rosa Luxemburg to declare that the real alternatives for Germany were “socialism or barbarism”.[iv]  In the honeymoon period of the Biden administration things seem far less dire, but a major challenge for progressives remains the same:  how to strengthen authority and galvanize mass participation in the socioeconomic realm (the realm abandoned, for all practical purpose, by right-wing forces).  Redistributing income and services from richer to poorer social strata is a fine idea, but it doesn’t come close to solving the structural problems that produce deindustrialization, trade wars, overproduction of useless goods and underproduction of necessities, climate-induced disasters, automation-induced joblessness, globalized recessions, and a host of other ills that modern capitalism is heir to.

One dispute – the struggle over immigration – may help to illustrate the difference between structural change and within-system reform.  When it comes to attempts by people fleeing violence abroad and seeking a better life for themselves and their families in the United States, Joe Biden would clearly prefer a fairer, more humane method of dealing with migrants than the policies of exclusion and denigration adopted by the Trump regime.  At the same time, he and the Democrats have been forced to recognize that an “open borders” policy is not politically feasible.  Despite arguments by some economists that immigration eventually benefits the economy as a whole, it is clear that the entry of large numbers of foreign workers does depress wage levels among certain strata of the existing workforce, as well as inflaming xenophobic sentiments among them.[v]  The chief advocates for increased immigration have long been key sectors of the business community, since many companies rely on low-wage migrant workers to do essential tasks.  A de facto alliance therefore exists between progressives favoring a liberal immigration policy on humanitarian or multi-cultural grounds and capitalists dependent on immigrant labor.  The effect of this has been to drive workers adversely impacted by immigration into the arms of those who preach “America First” and who consider the newcomers a threat to local culture as well as to law and order.

Many solutions to this problem have been offered, but one is seldom spoken of, since it involves a concept still taboo in American capitalist society . . . economic planning!  Suppose that the U.S. government were to say to potential immigrants, “We will accept you and your families as permanent residents and open up a path to citizenship for you IF your presence here fits into our economic plan, or if you qualify for admission under the rules for humanitarian asylum.”  The economic plan could be drawn up by a federal council with offices in each state representing business interests, workers, and local communities, and could be modified annually to reflect current economic and social trends.  Imagine a plan indicating the localities and industries requiring permanent or temporary workers, the job skills required, the terms of employment, and community services available for new arrivals.  It would include an “economic impact statement” describing the likely effects of immigrant labor on the wages and working conditions of existing workers and on community services. Legislation could provide that any negative impacts would be offset by federal aid obtained, in part, by taxing the companies that profit by hiring immigrant workers.

In fact, this sort of program would not differ that much from that adopted fifty years ago in Canada and still working well there.  Although Canadians accept a far greater number of immigrant workers per capita each year than Americans do, their attitudes toward the new arrivals are far more positive than those of their southern neighbors, perhaps because multi-culturalism is better rooted in Canada, or because a plan to protect existing workers exists. [vi]  In any case, serious economic planning in the United States, plus a strenuous effort to work with source regions to eliminate the causes of mass migration, could take the steam out of this conflict and permit us to move on to deal with other problems.  But . . . economic planning is taboo in the United States, and in many other parts of the world as well.

It is not just planning that is taboo, of course, but any serious attempt to alter the operations of “free markets” (actually, markets strongly shaped and administered both by government regulators and by the titans of private industry).  The collectivist surge has caused many people to ask whether the production of necessities such as coronavirus vaccines, or other forms of defense against medical and environmental threats, should be determined by the profitability of the product or by more humane criteria.  But the taboo is triggered by any suggestion that the people’s political representatives should make the sorts of socioeconomic decisions now made by stockholders and managers.  This resistance to any change that “feels” structural is why the pharmaceutical giants who manufacture the coronavirus vaccine will not consider giving up their patents even conditionally to the poor nations whose people need vaccines.

Once human needs are prioritized above property rights, the door is opened to changes that the current Masters of the Universe might not approve.  Defusing taboos, however, is not a simple or a short-term task.  To accomplish it, people interested in structural change must find ways of communicating and acting across the sectarian lines that now separate Americans (and other peoples) into neo-tribal political groupings.  Our most urgent task at the moment is to discover what to do about these ongoing “culture wars.”

The Culture Wars Redux

Commentators in both the United States and Europe have noted the extent to which political movements formerly defined by refence to common interests or interest-based ideologies have redefined themselves on the basis of cultural identity, values, and beliefs.[vii]  This movement toward culture-based sectarianism, which has realigned political parties and reshaped the ideological landscape in many nations, has fueled the rise of both right-wing populism and progressive multiculturalism.  For reasons still not well understood, these conflicts have become far more general and intense than they were in 1991, when James Davison Hunter wrote his pioneering book introducing the idea of culture wars to the American public. [viii]

Why this escalation?  Some commentators on the Left have attempted to write the phenomenon off as a manifestation of obsolescent racism – a form of false consciousness heightened by economic hardships and by demographic changes that increase the size and political weight of non-white populations. The implication is that economic and social reforms relieving some of the pressures on white workers and entrepreneurs will take the steam out of intolerant white nationalism. This approach is not unreasonable, since economic deprivation often produces a hunt for “out-group” scapegoats, but it runs into two problems: a Catch 22 with regard to political taboos, and a blind spot about the need for positive identity.

First problem: without systemic changes – for example, without enforceable guarantees of decent jobs, minimum incomes, and serious community development – the problems of those living in deindustrializing and semi-rural areas, not to mention city folk residing in poor, crime-ridden neighborhoods, remain unsolved.  As suggested earlier, mild reforms are unlikely to eliminate endemic underdevelopment.  So, the Catch 22 appears. Taboos that prevent people from imagining a much better system remain potent, non-structural reforms are the best that we can do, and underfunded individuals and communities are stuck in place.

Second problem: the cultural insecurities that generate white nationalism and other forms of right-wing collectivism are not just products of economic deprivation. They have independent sources that many progressive people are unable to recognize, partly because of their own partisan biases, and partly because satisfying the basic needs of relatively privileged groups poses difficult political and moral questions.  In the U.S., many people are relatively advantaged by white skin privilege or male gender privilege, but disadvantaged by job insecurity, declining living standards, and a loss of social status.  How can their needs be recognized and satisfied without playing some sort of “white power” or “male power” game?

To begin with, let’s agree that humans have imperative individual needs not only for material goods and services, but also for psychological “goods” such as identity, security, meaning, and self-respect. [ix]  This becomes obvious when the failure to satisfy one or more of these needs provokes a rebellion by members of a marginalized group.  Spokespeople for the Black Power movement in the U.S., for example, insisted that Black liberation depended upon African-Americans confronting and casting off the negative images and demeaning feelings about themselves and their culture originally imposed by whites, but internalized over time. [x] (Thus, their insistence that “Black is beautiful.”)  The same need for positive identity clearly motivates vast numbers of people regardless of their race, creed, or nationality.  The difficult question is how to satisfy the need to feel that one’s history is meaningful and one’s culture a source of pride when, in almost all cases, a group’s history and culture provide both sources of legitimate satisfaction and reasons for shame and repentance.

In many cases, the sources of satisfaction and shame are painfully intertwined.  Consider, for example, the white southerners who supported the Confederacy and the system of chattel slavery in the American Civil War.  After losing the military struggle at a horrific cost to both sides, die-hard racists with significant popular support conducted a terrorist campaign that overthrew the Reconstruction regime imposed by the victors and reimposed white supremacy upon “free” Black citizens. This history provides endless reasons for repentance, but it is mixed with elements that justify both sorrow and pride.  Pro-Confederate southerners bonded, sacrificed, and died for reasons that were often maleficent or misconceived.  That being said, their bravery can still be remembered and their sacrifices mourned without celebrating the slave system.  Was the culture that they defended corrupted by the enslavement of Blacks and oppression of poor whites?  Absolutely – but it also enshrined other values and practices that many people preferred to those of the industrialized North.  It is worth recalling that Black culture in the United States was strongly shaped by its southern origins and still retains hallmarks of that experience.[xi]

The fact that a people’s historical virtues and vices are closely related does not mean that everything they preach and practice is either essentially contaminated or essentially pure.

When it comes to acknowledging a people’s political sins and celebrating their contributions, there is no “either/or.”  After the most destructive war in history, both Germans and Japanese found it possible both to repent for unprecedented atrocities and to affirm key values of their national cultures.  Similarly, white people in systemically racist America can take pride in their ancestors’ genuine accomplishments while deploring their mistreatment of people of color.  For this reason, the debate currently raging in the United States between whether to teach “critical history” or “patriotic history” in America’s public schools seems misconceived.  One cannot deny that the American colonists and the republic that they created were structurally racist from the start.  They were also structurally sexist, violently expansionist, and exploitative of workers both free and unfree.  But recognizing these evils does not “cancel” the same people’s democratic innovations, technical inventiveness, intellectual creativity, or spiritual yearnings.

Collectivists on the Left, who call for creation of a socioeconomic commonwealth while celebrating ethnic and racial diversity, need to make it clear that their definition of diversity includes white working people.  If they do not, those excluded will conclude (as many Trump supporters have done) that progressive proposals for economic change are really meant to disfavor them, and that “white power” politics is their only recourse.

In a Nutshell…

I think that the key to resolving current struggles between right-wing and left-wing collectivisms is to combine economic democracy with cultural federalism.

Economic democracy recognizes universal needs for a decent job, a secure standard of living, and a decisive voice in making socioeconomic decisions.  It therefore advocates putting key industries – in particular, those that produce necessities whose equitable distribution should not depend on the owner’s profit or the consumer’s income – under popular control.  Exactly how to establish and maintain that control is not yet clear, since discussion of how to build a post-capitalist society is still largely taboo.  Clearly, one wants to avoid the mistakes made by regimes that called themselves socialist, but that put the control of industry under the control of a bureaucratic elite.  The key to avoiding authoritarian repression, however, is not to maintain old taboos, but to foster multiple forms of mass participation.  Working people in relatively wealthy nations like the U.S. are particularly well suited to take advantage of opportunities to exercise decision making power over broad matters of economic policy.

Cultural federalism recognizes everyone’s needs for collective identity, meaning, and dignity, and grants historical identity groups the maximum autonomy consistent with membership in an egalitarian nation and a global society.  This principle does not contradict economic democracy, but it recognizes a problem that many regimes calling themselves socialist did not manage to solve, in large part because they were attempting to govern impoverished and endangered nations.  Cultural consciousness does not annihilate class consciousness, as right-wingers maintain, nor does it disappear into class consciousness, as some leftists think.  Making progress means identifying oneself with larger, more inclusive social groupings – ultimately, with the entire human family – without abandoning the more local identities that remain a cherished part of one’s heritage.

Economic democracy and cultural federalism: both are much-needed features of a political system now confronting increasing demands for more effective authority, more active mass participation, and the satisfaction of basic human needs.  Defusing socioeconomic taboos makes it possible for people to freely consider what systems of production and consumption suit them best.  Respecting a group’s complex cultural traditions makes it possible for members to confront their own morally ambiguous history and to find inner peace, as well as a modus vivendi with other groups.  The growth of hardline sectarianism is certainly a matter of concern, especially since, at least for the moment, leftists and rightists remain trapped in their own communications silos.  But the conflict need not generate civil violence.  With luck, effort, and imagination, a productive dialogue between our neo-tribal sects could soon begin.


[i] See, e.g., Walter Brueggemann, Virus as a Summons to Faith (Cascade Books, 2020)

[ii] See Alex Jingwei Hei, et al., “Crisis governance, Chinese style: distinctive features of China’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic,” Policy Design and Practice, 3:3 (2020). (3/16/21). “Despite its large territory and population, China is a unitary state with highly fluid central-local relations. Strategic decisions are made by political principals at the top, but the role of local agents is not to merely execute policies. Local policy activism and experimentation are not only allowed but also largely encouraged so long as they are apolitical and able to generate innovative solutions for policy problems (Teets and Hasmath 2020; Heilmann 2008).”

[iii] See Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan, Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict (Columbia University Press, 2012).

[iv] See Paul Le Blanc and Helen Scott, Rosa Luxemburg: Socialism or Barbarism (Pluto Press, 2010).

[v] See Daniel Costa, “Employers increase their profits and put downward pressure on wages and labor standards by exploiting migrant workers,” Economic Policy Institute, August 27. 2019.

[vi] See Amelia Cheatham, “What Is Canada’s Immigration Policy?” Council on Foreign Relations, August 3, 2020.

[vii] See, for example, Brian Stelter, “Political Sectarianism Explains America’ s Divides,” CNN, May 2, 2021  –

[viii] James Davison Hunter, Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America (Basic Books, 1991, reissued 1992).

[ix] See, e.g., John Burton, Conflict: Human Needs Theory (St. Martin’s Press, 1991); Jay Rothman, Resolving Identity Based Conflict in Nations, Organizations and Communities (Jossey-Bass, 20009); Kevin Avruch and Christopher S. Mitchell, Conflict Resolution and Basic Human Needs: Linking Theory and Practice (Routledge, 2013).

[x] A classic view still worth reading is William H. Grier and Price M. Cobbs, Black Rage (Basic Books, 1968).

[xi] See James Baldwin’s essays, “Notes of a Native Son” and “Nobody Knows My Name,” in Collected Essays (Library of America, 1998).  See also James C. Cobb, Away Down South: A History of Southern Identity (Oxford University Press, 2007).


Richard E. Rubenstein is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment and a professor of conflict resolution and public affairs at George Mason University’s Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter Center for Peace and Conflict Resolution. A graduate of Harvard College, Oxford University (Rhodes Scholar), and Harvard Law School, Rubenstein is the author of nine books on analyzing and resolving violent social conflicts. His most recent book is Resolving Structural Conflicts: How Violent Systems Can Be Transformed (Routledge, 2017).  His book in progress, to be published in fall 2020, is Post-Corona Conflicts: New Sources of Struggle and Opportunities for Peace.

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