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Variation in Extremist Political Violence on the Far-Left and Far-Right in the United States, 1980-2017


This dissertation is motivated by the question of why certain individuals engage in violence to accomplish their political goals while the vast majority of individuals do not. In three empirical studies, I examine a range of social movements from across the entire left-right political spectrum, considering variation not just across movements but also across individuals and organizations within the same movement. Taking an inductive, ethnographic approach, I develop a conceptualization of the process by which individuals and organizations become radicalized towards violence. The overarching insight offered by this dissertation is that political violence is not simply a product of more “extreme” individual grievances or certain political ideologies but a complex process through which individual experiences come to be aligned with elements from political ideologies in a way that legitimates violence.

Comparing movements from both the far-right and the far-left, I show that violence can become legitimated across a wide spectrum of different ideologies, just in different ways depending on the beliefs and values of a particular ideology. Then, comparing individuals and organizations within the same movement, I show that there are important commonalities across the political spectrum in terms of what differentiates violent and non-violent adherents who share the same ideology. At a fundamental level, rationales for violence from both the far-right and far-left tend to involve some logic of preemptive self-defense against anticipated violence. At a more nuanced level, my findings point towards several social processes, including the role of identity work and stigma, which appear to be common aspects of radicalization across the political spectrum.

Overall, by examining the range of ways in which violence can come to be rationalized at different ends of the political spectrum and by examining variation within as well as across movements, this dissertation contributes to the perspective that violence is the result of a general set of facilitating conditions, which can arise across the spectrum of political ideologies as opposed to being coupled to the beliefs and values of any particular ideology.

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