The Crane Brinton Effect — Why Revolutions Fail

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Newsletter #57 —October 11, 2022


In This Issue


From Beyond Intractability's Co-Directors

Heidi Burgess and Guy Burgess


The Crane Brinton Effect — Why Revolutions Fail

Amid today's pervasive political discontent, activists on both the left and the right are coming to the conclusion that the existing system is so corrupt, unjust, and dysfunctional that the only way to make things right is by overthrowing the existing order with some kind of political revolution (that will, hopefully, remain nonviolent).  Before fully embracing these revolutionary theories of social change, however, we ought to understand and make sure that we have some way of avoiding what we call "Crane Brinton Effect." While this idea was initially based on Brinton's 1965 Anatomy of Revolution, we have adapted it somewhat to current times. The Brinton Effect explains in simple, but we think quite compelling, terms how revolutions, that start by offering people a way to escape from oppressive authoritarian rule, wind up betraying their initial goals and ultimately produce (often after a period of terrible violence) just another oppressive tyranny.

In Brinton's formulation, the effect originates in societies that are suffering under an oppressive, authoritarian regime that is universally reviled and only maintains its hold on power through brute force and a fearful, subservient, and resentful population. Then something happens that leads people to believe that the regime will be powerless to stop a widespread revolt. This can quickly lead to an uprising that, if they are right about the weakness of the regime, can lead to the quick collapse of the system of government that almost everybody hates.

In the ensuing power vacuum, however, it quickly becomes apparent that the various revolutionary factions don't agree on what should come next and how the innumerable disputes associated with everyday governance should be resolved. This, then, leads to chaos and increasingly violent conflict as various factions fight for control. In the absence of broadly-supported, nonviolent dispute resolution mechanisms, these conflicts are usually resolved when the most ruthless and violent faction ultimately seizes power and returns society to a new, but equally oppressive, authoritarian regime. Brinton used the French Revolution (which led to Napoleon) and the Russian Revolution (which led to Lenin and Stalin. For more recent examples, look at the revolutions accompanying the fall of the Soviet Union or the Arab Spring

The same principle, unfortunately, applies to nonviolent political revolutions. As people increasingly decide that they don't trust society's existing dispute handling mechanisms (like elections and the courts) you can get widespread efforts to circumvent those institutions and the rule of law upon which they are based. This results in increasingly bitter struggles for political power in which democratic norms and taboos are abandoned in favor of increasingly dirty tricks and the increasing possibility of violence. 

In the U.S., both the left and the right are already a good way down this path. On the right, it has become politically untenable to assert that President Biden fairly won the 2020 election. In fact, lack of confidence in the fairness of the electoral process has led many Republicans to refuse to commit to accepting an unfavorable outcome in the 2022 election.  On the left, there is widespread alarm over actions being taken by Republicans that Democrats believe would make future elections unfair. In short, agreement on how to hold free and fair elections is collapsing rapidly. 

The politicalization of the judiciary is another area in which trust in democratic institutions Is collapsing. Increasingly extreme tactics are being used to seat judges who are selected because their judicial philosophies that are expected to yield politically favorable decisions for the appointing side. Also contributing to fear and distrust is the fact that both the left and the right are trying to limit free speech to speech that they approve. The right is trying to ban books that teach progressive views on race and gender, while the left is trying to repress any criticism of those views as disinformation or hate. 

These and related acts are combining to shatter people's faith in the ability of democratic institutions to make wise and equitable decisions. Few people believe that their votes count, nor do they believe that their interests and needs are being listened to or addressed. The result is a giant feedback loop drawing people down, not only into increased levels of hate, but also the increased use of extra-legal power strategies that are increasingly seen as the only viable way to protect their vital interests. 

As faith in democracy erodes, it is creating fertile ground for aspiring authoritarians who promise to use strong-arm tactics to protect their constituents from the increasingly dehumanized "enemy" on the other side of the political divide.  This is the point where hyper-polarization transforms relatively mild calls for political revolution into something closer to the horrors imagined by Crane Brinton.


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From the BI/CRQ Hyper-Polarization Discussion

Peter Adler: Slouching Toward Civil War and Defiance at Duck Springs

Peter has contributed two pieces to the BI blogs--the first one was in January and the second in August, 2022.  The first, entitled "COVID Consequences: Slouching Toward Civil War" was a response to multiple zoom conversations Peter had with colleagues during the COVID lockdown and subsequent meeting travel hiatus. He wrote: "When our Zoom meetings inevitably turn to bigger social and political matters (which they do more and more), we get alarmist and gloomy. Worries surface, angst takes over, our hair starts to ignite, and our idealism about the essential goodness of humanity begins to deflate. The daily cycle of news forces us to confront our aspirations."

After reporting on a poll of colleagues, Peter concludes that "The country is not yet fully on fire, but it is smoldering and there are plenty of hot spots. Maybe they cascade or amplify into something bigger like Blue and Gray, or maybe it’s all temporary and they fade. More likely, they will keep festering. 

His second piece, though, is much more dark. He reports that over the last several years he has written a novel illustrating how civil war could develop in the U.S. and what it might look like.  He shared some excerpts on our blog.  The beginnings of trouble are very recognizable, but then things get really out of control. Is this fiction or a fairly accurate image of where we are heading?  I encourage you to read it, and perhaps send us your thoughts.

James Adams: A Cautionary Tale for a Polarizing America and the World

James is a long-time peacebuilder with many decades of experience in conflict zones around the world. He is also a scholar, having recently earned a Ph.D. from the Carter School of Peace and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University.  He recently published a book, Analytic Reflections from Conflict Zones: A Cautionary Tale for a Polarizing America and the World. A quote from the premise tells his most important story as it relates to the theme we are exploring here:

“I have seen the consequences of caustic discourse, deep societal division, and the dehumanization of others that, when taken to their logical extreme, slice through families, societies, and nations, leaving destruction and decades of tragedy. Nationalistic and ethnic-racial passions are stirred to hatred and violence, and identities and circumstances are weaponized for political ends.

Such a path, if taken unrestrained, leads down the avenging-angel road to its logical extremes – civil strife, civil war, hundreds of thousands killed and maimed, and millions made internally displaced or refugees, plus the inevitable  perpetuation of cycles of violence. Rule by mob is not a circumstance you want to find yourself in.” (Adams, XIV)

He goes on to observe: "what I see happening now in America is the early-stage genesis of such a history in the making, if we continue on this course of increasing violence, broken discourse, extremism, and political and social polarization."

William Donohue on Polarizing Language

William Donohue concurs with that assessment in a piece he submitted (co-authored by Mark Hamilton) on polarizing language. Polarizing language, they explain, is language that overlooks the individuality of people in the outgroup, but rather only sees them as members of groups that share undesirable characteristics. It is language that 

...will inflict the maximum sting to the out-group members while also motivating the in-group members to take action. Often, the more outrageous the identity attack is, the better for the in-group to justify its actions. Under these circumstances it is easy to understand how conspiracy theories of the most heinous forms are created and propagated. They serve to inflict maximum pain on the out-group members while appealing to the core values of the in-group members.

Donahue and Hamilton define seven stages of polarizing language, where stage six is genocide and stage seven is justifying those actions, denying that a crime was even committed. Ominously, they point out that the U.S. is deep into stages one (classification of in and out-groups) and three (dehumanization), though we've largely skipped two (symbolization, in which the classifications are given institutionalized and material form, such as the yellow stars Nazis forced Jews to wear). But we've also enacted stage 4 (forming organizations to oppose the vilified group) and stage 5 (assassinating moderates) albeit in a nonviolent, cultural way. So we're only one step away from stage 6--genocide, according to their analysis.

Richard Rubenstein: Talking Sense about "the Next American Civil War"

Richard Rubenstein,,a long-time professor at the Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University, also contributed a piece along related lines. He asks:  "What are the most important causes of serious political violence in wealthy nations like the United States?  Can these conditions be altered so as to make civil war less likely?  If so, how do we go about preventing the violence? "

Among his answers to the first question is the "growth of 'all-or-nothing' consciousness:."

One reason that political conflicts usually remain peaceful even for those on the losing side is the perception that you can compromise with an opponent or even suffer defeat in particular battles and still avoid permanent harm or damage.  The idea that a movement can live to fight another day rests on two assumptions.  First, the fight is about negotiable interests, not core values or urgent needs that must be satisfied right now if they are not to be sacrificed permanently.  Second, the struggle takes place within a system that can be expected to survive more or less intact, whatever the outcome of the current struggle. 

On the contrary, if the conflict is all about core values, and if losing it would entail a permanent change in the political system, this tends to produce a win-or-lose-everything mentality that increases the likelihood of serious civil violence.

His second answer to the question about causes of political violence is the loss of confidence in "super-political institutions," the institutions, such as the judicial system and the electoral system, which are supposed to "mediate and soften partisan political conflicts." Few people on either side of the partisan divide have faith that our institutions will deliver "fair" decisions. And lastly, he points out that the notion that "the war has already begun" opens the door to even more violence. 

Rich's answer to how to prevent violence from escalating further is to "think critically and creatively about the underlying causes of polarization, especially about the gross economic and social inequalities that have generated strong populist currents on both the Right and the Left." He points out that the grievances on both the Left and the Right are very similar--they are left out of the benefits of the capitalist society, while a few super-rich, super-powerful take more and more in. "To avert a new American civil war, the urbanized, college-educated workers who tend to support the Blue tribe need to see themselves as pawns of the same profit-obsessed system that turns so many rural or deindustrialized workers into gun-toting, Bible-thumping Reds...."

It is this failure to think systemically, above all, that creates the threat of civil war between America’s Red and Blue tribes.  If only they would recognize that their common enemy is a soulless, predatory system that prioritizes profits over human needs, they could put their imaginations to work creating popularly controlled institutions designed to satisfy those needs. 



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Colleague Activities

Highlighting things that our conflict and peacebuilding colleagues are doing that contribute to efforts to address the hyper-polarization problem.



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Beyond Intractability in Context

From around the web, more insight into the nature of our conflict problems, limits of business-as-usual thinking, and things people are doing to try to make things better.

About the MBI Newsletters

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