– Executive Summary –

The storming of the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, left many citizens and scholars questioning the democratic stability and health of the United States. While it is easy to assume that the majority of people who entered the Capitol that day were members of far-right extremist groups, Robert Pape found this assumption to be inaccurate.[1] Indeed, when examining the hundreds arrested, he found a concerning shift in the characteristics of people willing to take up violence due to significant feelings of disenfranchisement.[2] Most of those arrested had no affiliation with groups or organizations deemed domestic violent extremists, such as the alt-right, suggesting that extremism had been growing in unique ways within the United States.[3] With polarization also growing and contributing to problematic tensions within society, it is important to understand how these societal conditions relate to and facilitate the growth of extremism.[4] This thesis, thus, aims to examine the relationship between societal fragility—social norms, institutions, trust, and social cohesion—and extremism in democratic nations to explore solutions for improving democratic stability and prevent democratic backsliding.

The societal fragility framework was developed to examine democratic nations and their societies specifically. While other frameworks for fragility exist, they are biased toward democratizing countries or other forms of governing and, therefore, are limited in their application to more established democratic nations. By examining the current frameworks and important characteristics of a civil society, including social norms, institutions, trust, and social cohesion, the societal fragility framework provides the breadth and depth necessary to explore societal changes and challenges for established democratic nations, thereby overcoming the limitations of existing frameworks.

To examine the relationship between societal fragility and extremism, this thesis uses a comparative case study analysis of January 6 in the United States and the 2022 presidential election in Brazil. Each case presents high levels of extremism and severe divisions within society, which at times manifest in political violence. After a brief exploration of the history and events relevant to each nation’s current environment, the societal fragility framework is applied and a comparative analysis presented.

The comparative analysis shows that both the United States and Brazil are experiencing significant changes in social dynamics that suggest societal fragility. Given several commonalities between the cases, this thesis submits the following key findings about societal fragility and extremism:

  • Whether a threat is actual or perceived, societal fragility and extremism are still impacted.
  • Historical context is important for understanding societal fragility and extremism.
  • Fragile societies create an environment where extremism can easily gain traction.
  • The inability of a government to rectify systemic inequalities negatively impacts societal fragility and enables the acceptance of extremism as a solution.
  • Political leaders’ rhetoric significantly influences societal fragility and the acceptance of extremism.
  • Social norms have the greatest impact on societal fragility and extremism.

This research suggests that when societies are fragile, many of the social barriers that help societies self-regulate, especially social norms, are weakened, thus creating an environment where extremism can grow. Often drawing on a nation’s historical challenges, citizens can become emboldened to publicly display attitudes and behaviors not previously considered socially acceptable. Political leaders greatly contribute to societal fragility and the attitudes that influence the us-versus-them mentality of extremism through their rhetoric. Significantly concerning to the stability of democracies is that the impact of a perceived threat is just as powerful in societal fragility and extremism as an actual threat. This finding presents a noteworthy challenge for democracies due to their high levels of interconnectedness, thus providing several ways for people to connect socially and share information, including false narratives, conspiracy theories, misinformation, and disinformation. Fragile societies, thus, create an environment that enables the growth of extremism. To improve societal fragility, reduce the appeal of extremism as the main solution for conflicts, and ultimately prevent democratic backsliding, this thesis recommends the following:

  • Rebuild a culture of tolerance within society.
  • Rebuild institutional trust through transparency and accountability.
  • Implement methods to hold political leaders accountable for their undemocratic rhetoric.

[1] Robert A. Pape, “Understanding American Domestic Terrorism: Mobilization Potential and Risk Factors of a New Threat Trajectory” (presentation, Chicago Project on Security and Threats, University of Chicago, April 6, 2021), https://d3qi0qp55mx5f5.cloudfront.net/cpost/i/docs/americas_insurrectionists_‌online_2021_04_06.pdf?mtime=1617807009.

[2] Pape.

[3] Pape.

[4] Lori R. Hodges, “Systems Fragility: The Sociology of Chaos” (master’s thesis, Naval Postgraduate School, 2015), 25, https://calhoun.nps.edu/handle/10945/45197.

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