Over the past eight or so years, a process of political radicalization has occurred that is perhaps unique in the history of the nation in its speed, scale, and scope. This process has affected both the left and the right. Debate has raged over what is driving it; prime suspects include technology, economics, and racial resentment. All of these have some explanatory relevance, but none fully accounts for the parallel developments that have occurred in seemingly disparate settings.

Consider two examples, different in their scale and impact, but betraying a certain formal similarity.

Around 2014, one began to hear that the uniformly progressive inhabitants of the academic humanities—people who thought, wrote, and spoke as much about racial justice as perhaps anyone in human history—were insufficiently concerned with the problem of race. A little while later, the notion took hold that literary studies was not only insufficiently concerned with racial justice, but was actually white supremacist in its outlook and operations. Many of the things said by professors supposedly in favor of racial justice turned out, when examined closely, to mean the opposite. Perhaps, it followed, the real goal of literary studies should be to combat white supremacy; perhaps, for that matter, literary studies’ focus on the value of literature was itself a symptom of white supremacy, and the discipline needed to be abolished altogether, or at least reimagined entirely.

On the broad political right, around the same time, a different series of steps advanced “the conversation.” Many denizens of right-wing talk radio and internet culture, people who were about as suspicious of the government as anyone in history, began to think that they were actually insufficiently suspicious of the government. Many of the anti-government things said in that sphere began to seem naive. Before long, a substantial subset of people started to assert that the government, at its highest levels, was run by a cabal of Satanic pedophiles.

Most people have come in contact with at least something like the scenarios sketched above, and there’s obviously much to be said about the particular topics radicalizing groups fixate on, the groups they choose to vilify, the social or economic backgrounds of the individuals drawn into these “conversations,” the role of new technologies, and more. But the fundamental form of this radicalization process has received less attention. How do we get from the first step to the last? How do we get, that is, from a few people putting their toes just outside the line of consensus opinion in their community to a situation where majorities or large minorities hew to orthodoxies regarded by outsiders as entirely detached from reality?

The process, for starters, has a spontaneous, emergent character, with no need for top-down direction. While there might be individuals who at the start of the process of radicalization already believe the ideas characteristic of its later stages, typically such individuals aren’t recognized as leaders, and only are endowed with prophetic insight after the fact. No leader or institution knows the full truth about the extent and nature of racism in English departments or the extent and nature of government corruption. Powerful institutions and leaders are constantly playing catch-up to the latest discoveries. They constantly and pathetically assure their audiences that they are “listening” to the conversation, and that they are trying to “learn” from it.

“Becoming ‘woke’ is not a matter of simply adopting the correct positions.”

This contemporary process differs subtly from earlier phenomena that may seem at first to resemble it. Compare the 1990s notion of “political correctness” with its successor, “wokeness.” Both terms originated as left terms that were then adopted by their enemies, and one can often learn something about the state of a discourse by listening to how its enemies describe it. The idea of correctness imagines a relatively fixed standard to which one adheres. One could become correct by adopting a well-defined set of positions and altering one’s speech in certain ways.

Becoming “woke,” in contrast, isn’t a matter of simply adopting the correct positions. Rather, one must open oneself to a ceaseless process of transformation, an evolution in the direction of an all-seeing, impossible-to-deceive, never-to-sleep-again state of enlightenment. While “woke” is typically applied to progressive radicalization, the term could with equal justice and equal insight be applied to the opposite end of the political spectrum, which has similarly moved from a set of correct conservative positions, to constant movement in a rightward direction.

One explanatory model for decentralized radicalization was developed—counterintuitively—to account for the rise of Hitler. This is Ian Kershaw’s “working-toward-the-Fuhrer” theory. To be sure, conjuring up the specter of Hitler usually signals an end to rational discussion. However, Kershaw’s relevant insight is a formal one—applying it to the contemporary ideological panorama doesn’t entail comparing the content of either the left or right radicalization to anything the Nazis said or did.

It has been said that each generation is defined by its idea of Hitler. Scholars of Kershaw’s generation come to believe that the motive forces of history weren’t great individuals, but impersonal forces—economic trends, geopolitical movements, climate; vast tectonic shifts pushed some individuals up to prominence. Just as mountains are the effect of the subterranean movement of continents, so world historical figures are the effect of forces beyond their control or awareness. In the case of Hitler, study revealed that it was implausible to attribute all or even most of the actions of Nazi Germany to the erratic, idiosyncratic, contradictory and increasingly rare commands of the dictator, surrounded as he was by a chaotic bureaucracy fragmented into warring factions, and informed about the outside world only by sycophants who competed to tell him what he wanted to hear. Scholarship coalesced around the conclusion that Hitler was, in fact, a weak dictator with small influence over many of the actions carried out in his name.

Kershaw agreed that Hitler had little direct command over the rapid and escalating radicalization of German life under his reign. But he also grasped that while individuals may not always—or even ever—direct the course of events, the figure—the image—of an individual leader is indispensable to social transformation. One can argue, as scholars do, about whether there was a historical Moses or Buddha or Homer. But what is indisputable is that the Jewish or Buddhist or Homeric traditions depend so closely on the image, name, and idea of their possibly mythic founder, that their very coherence as traditions is unthinkable in the absence of that entity.

So how did the image of Hitler inspire or direct the millions of bureaucrats, police officers, newspaper writers, and soldiers who worked, wrote, imprisoned, and killed in his name? Kershaw took the phrase “working toward the Fuhrer” from a speech by a German civil servant. The basic idea is that Hitler didn’t have time to come into your life and tell you exactly how to deal with a given situation. Many times, there is no set of norms, guidelines, rules, or slogans you can use to guide you. But you know the direction Hitler represents. He hovers like a giant on the distant horizon. So you must simply ask yourself when in doubt: What action should I take at this moment so that I am moving in the direction of Hitler?—your path will be clear. The result of millions of individuals taking small steps in the direction of Hitler was a process of radicalization that soon outstripped Hitler’s own grandiose plans, pushing the Nazi movement further and faster in every sphere of German life than might have occurred in a top-down command structure.

Over the past eight years, in numerous situations, I’ve found myself thinking of Kershaw’s theory. When listening to some new strange idea generated by “the conversation,” and learning, to my shock, that this idea is being fervently embraced, I’ve asked myself: Where did this idea come from? How did it seem like a good idea? And in many cases, the best explanation I can come up with is that someone simply took the next step in the right (or left) direction, and then, many others instantly recognized the necessity of taking this step. The new strange idea was legitimated, in other words, not by any authority or institution, nor by its match with a fixed set of correct beliefs, but by each individual’s intuitive grasp of the direction to head in.

“Radicalizing communities generate the energy, decisions, and ideas themselves.”

The Kershaw model is a solution to the problem of coordinating the individual with the whole in the absence of top-down direction. What gets communicated from the whole movement to the individual isn’t a set of rules or a creed, but a direction. Far from being mindless drones, the individuals who make up radicalizing communities generate all the energy, decisions, and ideas themselves. They don’t see themselves as sheep, and they aren’t sheep. They are constantly moving things forward. All they need is a direction.

But how is this direction set? It is set by the image of a leader: a person felt to embody a true perspective on the world. The contents of this perspective are obscure and ever-changing. What is important is that each individual, by imaginatively placing himself in the position of the leader, can see the direction he needs to move in. Even if the leader never speaks, or only restates ideas that evolved independently, the leader directs the movement in this way.

The left and right diverge with respect to the form their leader figures take. The right is more conventional, in that its leader figures tend to be identifiable persons, or at least names. Donald Trump, obviously, has been since 2016 perhaps the most prominent of these figures.

A striking feature of his leadership is the frequency with which he expresses his views by saying, “I’ve heard,” or “People tell me,” or “A lot of people are saying.” While some have seen this habit of speech as his way of disavowing responsibility for his more extreme claims and propositions, it is better understood as an illustration of the style of radical leadership described by Kershaw. In other words, Trump learns the direction Trump is heading by listening to what other people say. In this sense, Trump is the “first follower” of his own leadership.

The author known only as “Q” represents a different kind of leader image. Rather than a mediatic presence like Trump, Q is a pseudonym attached to a collection of message-board posts.  The impossibility of authenticating Q’s pronouncements never stood in the way of the power of those pronouncements driving the conversation forward. Whether they actually came from a single “leader” or not, Q’s statements moved in the direction that Q represented to the movement inspired by Q; anyone aware of that direction can make a valid “Q” statement. This is why after Q ceased posting in late 2020, the QAnon movement continued propelling itself forward.

If the right has largely maintained leader images in the shape of individuals, the left has attained a more complex form of leader image, typically moving in the direction set by the image of the most oppressed person. Countless documents of left radicalism enjoin us to imagine what it is like from the perspective of the oppressed, to listen to the voice of the oppressed. We are told that the key to any situation, the truest insight, is to be found in the perspective of this person. It is this perspective that people imaginatively adopt in divining the direction of radical evolution.

But no actual victim can fully embody the perspective of the oppressed due to the corrupting power of oppressive ideologies, which oppressed people often internalize. The oppressed perspective can only be approximated. In the elite spaces that tend to shape the left’s “conversation,” the most oppressed persons are, by definition, never actually admitted. The “most oppressed person in the room” is often felt to represent, rather than to embody, the true face of oppression—the face of the invisible leader that sets our direction. Therefore, we discover a distance between the direction that motivates the community and the language and likeness of any actual person.

“The left’s radicalization is not constrained by the language of any individual leader.”

The left’s radicalization isn’t constrained, as is the right’s, by the language of any individual leader. The voice of the oppressed always remains, to some extent, virtual. Because of this, the direction indicated by the leader image is subject to greater mediation by community norms and by powerful individuals than is the case on the right.

The virtual or absent quality of the voice of the oppressed requires the translation and reconstruction of that voice by powerful individuals in the community. Whereas anyone can see the direction represented by a Trump or a Q, individuals may feel less confident in discerning the direction indicated by the perspective of the oppressed. This imposes a slight but in aggregate crucial brake on the pace of radicalization, as various interpreters of the voice of the oppressed gain prominence. Often, these interpreters have or gain a secure institutional position, and are thus disinclined to encourage the most disruptive and anarchic pace of radicalization.

This feature of the left’s leader image renders it especially suitable to hegemonic institutions, from universities to corporations. But it comes at a cost in that the layer of mediation is always vulnerable to a Martin Luther moment. One might always say to any interpreter: You are not the most oppressed person! Who gave you the right to speak for that person?

When we consider this potential problem, we are brought to see a more immediate and pressing cost imposed by the left’s virtual leader image. This is the distance between that virtual leader, the one who actually sets the direction of the movement, and the left’s human political leaders. Both the Clintons and President Biden have come to seem absurdly far from the authentic source of left leadership. Any conceivable Democratic presidential candidate is made to seem ridiculously small through the theatrical inability of anyone capable of becoming a presidential candidate to approximate the figure of the most oppressed. The distance between the left’s leader image and its actual leaders seems to grow wider with each election cycle. That gap, indeed, presents a possible crisis for the movement distinct—although perhaps not dissimilar in its ultimate effects—from the crisis engendered by the repeated failures of the right’s human leader images.

Michael W. Clune is Knight Professor of the Humanities at Case Western Reserve University.

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