the language of the unheard: protest and protest violence after george floyd’s killing in minneapolis


The protests that followed the May 25 killing of George Floyd, a Black Minneapolis resident, by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin have returned matters of racism and police brutality to the fore of American public consciousness—to be more precise, to the fore of White-American public consciousness. The COVID-19 pandemic’s disproportionate health and economic effects on Black Americans deepen the tragedy of Floyd’s killing, the police killings of other Black individuals in recent weeks, and the ensuing repression of Black-led protests across the United States against police impunity.

My primary media source most days is a Minneapolis-based radio station called The Current, the rock-music and Prince fandom arm of Minneapolis Public Radio (MPR). A few times every day, The Current features news blurbs from MPR News, a statewide reporting outfit and National Public Radio (NPR) member station. As news of George Floyd’s killing and the ensuing protests has increased, I’ve paid more attention to the details and narrative structure of MPR’s coverage of local protest events.

MPR’s initial portrayal of the Minneapolis protests was a disappointing, if not surprising, brand of the law-and-order commentary that nominally liberal mayors, governors, and media accounts made respectable in the decades that followed the recurring wave of summer riots and mass protests in American cities during the 1960s. While paying lip-service to the general inequity of local race relations, this narrative privileges fear of property destruction, especially among White property owners, and plays up the dangerous shock-and-awe of the riotous street. These narratives imply that military-grade police crackdowns, repression, and surveillance are necessary tools for the maintenance of social order, even if they may regrettably require the occasional use of excessive force against civilians.

This coverage–which we might refer to as the “White-fear narrative”–papers over the social and political basis for Black protest, the extent of police repression, and the process by which protesters decide to employ violence against police forces, buildings, and other targets. An oft-quoted phrase from Black freedom activist Martin Luther King, Jr. summarizes an opposing view: far from pathological or menacing, violence during protests amounts to the “language of the unheard.” As with all of King’s most lyric quotes, “language of the unheard” captures only a fraction of King’s private and public opinions about the strategic, moral, and social consequences of riotous action. In his 1968 book Where Do We Go From Here, King introduces his account of the 1965 Watts riot by elaborating on the phrase: protest violence is “the desperate, suicidal cry of one who is so fed up with the powerlessness of his cave existence that he asserts that he would rather be dead than ignored.” The context for what King controversially describes as “self-defeating riots” is “the daily ugliness of slum life, educational castration and economic exploitation.” This “desperate cry” is an intentional act of self-sacrifice and resistance against the rioter’s impoverishment. Here, riotous violence is a purposeful act of Black revolt, rather than the random, viral, or group-targeted contagion that White-fear narratives imply.

I’m working on a research project to evaluate these two arguments. From a moral perspective, the validity of either argument rests on whether and to what extent one views political justice as sufficient grounds for violent action. In that vein, I believe as a matter of principle that riotous action is a defensible form of resistance against repression–including the forms of police repression that shape the daily lives of Black Americans. In empirical terms, however, both arguments also have what social scientists call “observable implications”–processes that we should expect to observe during a protest episode if either argument holds. Whatever my moral priors, my project aims to evaluate whether empirical evidence supports (1) White-fear theories, in which violence is random, viral, or White-targeted; or (2) “language of the unheard” theories, which imply that violence is a symbolic form of resistance to past political repression or economic marginalization.

The first part of this project is descriptive. The basic research question that these two narratives provoke–What explains why protests against the police killing of George Floyd resulted in violence in some areas of South Minneapolis, but not in others?–requires first that we understand where violence took place during the initial days of the Minneapolis protests, and where it did not. Sympathetic accounts of events in Minneapolis and other recent protests across the United States have emphasized that these are “mostly peaceful” protests, which deteriorate into violence only after police provocation. I think this is right, but there are also multiple, not-necessarily-consistent ways in which a protest can be “mostly peaceful.” Consider three: (1) a majority of protesters refrain from violence; (2) the protest involves only momentary instances of violent action; or (3) violence by protesters occurs in a small minority of locations in which it is most likely to occur. This project examines whether we observe the latter pattern during the early Minneapolis protests. Whether this spatial pattern also accounts for the former two is a separate empirical question.

Understanding within-case variation in violence requires a consistent theory of both violent action and the distinction between violent-protest episodes and other episodic forms of political violence. There are multiple ways to classify protest violence, or acts of harm against persons or property. These include the theory of violence (or nonviolence) that protest organizers articulate or–as discussed above–the behavior of some preponderance of individual protest participants. Many of these classification schemes, however, depend on difficult-to-defend analytic judgments on the basis of imprecise data, or conclusions about the relationship between strategic intent and patterns of collective action that are virtually impossible to test. These analytic challenges demand a more dichotomous measure: nonviolent protests are an episode in which protesters do not employ a single act of violence, whereas violent protests–also known as riots–occur when protesters initiate one or more acts of violence in the absence of significant police repression. The mere occurrence of a violent protest does not imply that the movement whose claims the protest channels authorized violence at its outset, nor that other actors beyond that movement organized violence to undermine the movement’s goals or incite escalation. Identifying the purposes of violence for its agents involves qualitative information about intra-movement and intra-protest dynamics that falls outside the scope of this study.

That both events in Minneapolis and the episodic forms of police violence and protest across the United States continue to evolve as I write makes understanding patterns of protest activity an analytic challenge. The dynamism of this “repression-dissent cycle” means that the act of classifying episodes of violence has high moral and analytic stakes. As the world witnessed in Washington, DC, in early June, state security forces use the trumped-up pretense of violent disorder to justify egregious repression during and after protest events. Especially in studying patterns in riotous action during protests, anything less than a precise and transparent concept of the interaction between protest activity and police violence risks providing a scholarly justification for state-directed abuses. Additionally, conceiving of an event as a “protest” results in a different process of analytic simplification than does “police repression.” Both protest organizers and police units design collective strategies and tactics using available information about their opponent’s likely countermoves. Because of this strategic interaction, modeling circumstances in which protest organizers confront a high likelihood of reactive police violence prior to taking to the streets necessarily differs from circumstances in which the extent of that repressive response is not apparent. The specific police practices that differentiate “protest without police repression” and “low-grade civil conflict between protesters and police forces” will vary from case to case. One plausible cut point during the Minneapolis case and other recent protest episodes in the United States is the imposition of a police curfew, an artificial time at which once-permissible forms of public gathering become subject to police repression. I use the imposition of a police curfew by Minneapolis police on the evening of Friday, May 29th to define the temporal bounds of the South Minneapolis violent protest episode.

I use municipal data on “structural fires” from the City of Minneapolis’s Open Minneapolis data project to understand the pattern of violent protests in Minneapolis after the killing of George Floyd on Monday, May 25. The structural-fires data capture only the most visible forms of violence–arson–in which protesters engage; they do not, for example, pick up instances of window-breaking that might occur during a violent protest episode. To identify the scope of the structural fires plausibly associated with the initial Minneapolis protests, I narrow the Minneapolis map to the South Minneapolis neighborhoods of Phillips West, East Phillips, Central, Powderhorn Park, Corcoran, and Bryant. The area’s southwestern section, southside Minneapolis, was home to a vibrant Black community before the construction of Interstate Highway 35W disrupted local residents and businesses. George Floyd lived in Powderhorn. I limit the structural-fires data to incidents between Monday, May 25 and Friday, May 29, when the Minneapolis police began to enforce its curfew.

The structural-fires data indicate that 7 buildings experienced structural fires in South Minneapolis from May 25 – 29: four retail stores, a convenience store, an auto shop, and a gas station. Given the spatial constraints of the South Minneapolis area, these structural-fires data exclude attacks on the Minneapolis 3rd Police Precinct and the adjacent Target store on Minnehaha Avenue, both of which drew national attention. To facilitate further analysis, I divide the South Minneapolis area into grid units that approximate the average size of a Midwestern city block (200m x 100m). I aggregate the georeferenced structural-fires reports by grid unit. The structural fires from May 25 – 29 spanned five grid units, out of 440. With apologies to PDF fans, I display the grid-unit map of structural fires in South Minneapolis from May 25 – 29 in the following JPEG:


These descriptive data tell a clear story: the initial Minneapolis protests against the killing of George Floyd were overwhelmingly peaceful. From May 25 – 29, structural fires occurred in 1.1 percent of all grid units.

These data raise two additional questions:

  1. To what extent do the structural-fires data represent the full extent of violence during the initial Minneapolis protests, prior to police escalation on May 29? To address this, I will turn to event data gathered via Twitter.
  2. Are there particular characteristics of the grid units in which violence did occur that explain spatial variations in violence? To address this question, I will conduct a multivariate regression analysis of the effects of distance from the protest site, distance from the nearest police precinct, recent police shootings of Black individuals, and White property ownership on violence.

Here’s my GitHub page for this project: I will update the page as I make additional progress on the data collection and analysis.

I’m writing about this project now, rather than at its conclusion, because of my ethical ambivalence about the project’s very nature. My nascent dissertation project explores the dynamics of pogrom violence, a type of public contention that scholars often erroneously associate with urban riots and other forms of violent protest. Empirically, I expect this dissertation project will involve some form of comparison between, among other cases, the antisemitic violence of the Holocaust and the multiple, overlapping regimes of racial-terror violence in the United States. The dynamics of protest and repression in American politics fascinate and motivate my research; where they concern anti-Black violence, however, the racial order that these dynamics have produced is one from which I have benefited since birth. I am a White PhD student writing from the Virginia suburbs of Washington, DC, in a condo complex that the federal government first subsidized to provide all-White housing to defense workers during World War II. The renewed public condemnation of White silence and willful ignorance that has followed George Floyd’s killing has underscored why scholarship that falls short of placing anti-Black violence at the center of our scholarship fails to grapple with the central animating process of American and global political life.

At the same time, this well-meaning process of examining the pervasive and durable effects of racist violence risks reinforcing the same patterns of racial injustice that White scholars aim to oppose. Without due care, discussions of “mainstreaming race” in the academic field of political science may generate an implicit process of intellectual and professional appropriation, whereby White scholars acquire all of the conventional markers of prestige–citations, publications, fellowships, research funding–for reproducing the intellectual work of their Black colleagues. This is a structural problem that results from a long legacy of White racial order in both American society and the American political science profession. But as scholars, colleagues, and friends, we can also choose to chip away at these structural problems through our everyday practices. These practices raise important ethical questions: How might a White scholar research and write about Black protest? What obligations does the White scholar owe to the community whom they research?

It’s not yet clear to me what those practices are. We arrive at our work with the professional and social networks we possess, the knowledge we’ve accumulated, and the experiences we’ve encountered, and not anything else. At an individual level, it takes a lifetime of slow and deliberate action to dismantle the extraordinary hold of White supremacy. These actions are about transforming those professional and social networks, those sources of knowledge, and those experiences on a daily basis. Because these things only exist in relationships with other people, the process of transforming them is messy, complicated, and ethically murky in a way that a scripted checklist of “20 things you can do to check your White privilege” can never be. Some things I’ve done in the course of developing this research project are attending a Black Lives Matter protest in Washington, DC; donating $100.00 to the Minnesota Freedom Fund; and contributing $50.00 to the work of a Black Minneapolis organizer, Lucina Kayee, whose request for funds the Minneapolis-based Reclaim the Block coalition retweeted. Are those things “doing the work”? I’m not sure, but I do know that they’re not–and can never be–enough.

I post these data, my analysis, and its outcomes as an invitation: to scholars who might find either the analytic process or the data itself informative, and to activists who might find the results of the analysis itself useful. I will keep working on this, and may later seek to publish my findings in an academic journal; regardless of the outcome, I commit to conducting the process with the transparency and accountability that ethical work requires. If you’re working on these or related issues and you’d like to collaborate or have found any of these materials useful, I’d love to hear from you:

For their conversation and comments, I thank participants in the Summer 2020 Comparative Government Working Group at Georgetown University.

mugabe’s long shadow in zimbabwe: some statistical evidence

One of the central questions of contemporary Zimbabwean politics is whether the current regime led by President Emmerson Mnangagwa represents a clean departure from the violent 37-year rule of Robert Mugabe. Mnangagwa, a close Mugabe adviser and former security chief, came to power in November 2017 via military coup. In the subsequent 15 months, Mnagagwa and his inner circle of now-civilian advisers have embarked on a public diplomacy campaign to loosen international sanctions against the Zimbabwean economy and its leaders. The government’s message, “Zimbabwe is open for business,” implies a sharp departure from the instability and uncertainty that of Mugabe’s time in power. In the following post, I use evidence from a statistical test of trends in violence against civilians to show that this sharp departure has not occurred. The evidence indicates that repression under Mnangagwa mirrors levels of violence under Mugabe.

There are multiple indications that change has not occurred as advertised. First, the twin sources of Mugabe’s autocratic rule, the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party and the Zimbabwean military, continue to support Mnangagwa’s claim to power. Second, the economic, humanitarian, and political crises that typified the Mugabe government have continued under Mnangagwa’s rule. Anti-government protests in response to a sharp increase in government-directed gas prices this January preceded a period of harassment and extrajudicial imprisonment, hallmarks of repression under Mugabe. Repression by security forces during this period resulted in the deaths of at least 17 people and injuries of dozens of others.

These factors are important, but they do not provide systematic evidence that Mnangagwa’s rule is similar to Mugabe’s. Sticky ruling parties and security forces are a common feature of autocratic transitions. However, they do not guarantee that the political dynamics of the pre-coup regime will persist. The contemporary case of Ethiopian President Abiy Ahmed, for example, demonstrates that individual leaders are able to make political reforms despite structural constraints that the institutional pillars of their regimes impose. Additionally, events like the violence in January might not be representative of the general pattern of violence under Mnangagwa. It is theoretically possible that the average level of violence or repression under Mnangagwa is less than under Mugabe, and that episodes of repression like the violence against protesters in January are simply exceptions to that rule.

To address these problems and test whether Mnangagwa’s repression differs from Mugabe’s, I use a method of statistical analysis called “regression discontinuity.” A regression discontinuity design tests whether some important event accounts for a meaningful difference in an observable trend. If the regression discontinuity model indicates a relationship between the cutoff–in this case, the coup–that is statistically distinguishable from zero, there is evidence of a meaningful difference between the periods before and after the discontinuity. If it does not, there is no evidence of a meaningful difference between the two periods.

In this case, my measure of repression in Zimbabwe is instances of violence against civilians. I use week-aggregated data about violent events from the Armed Conflict Location and Event (ACLED) Project, which compiles event data based on a combination of media sources and reports by non-governmental organizations. The dataset includes observations from the 68 weeks prior to the coup (beginning August 1, 2016) to 68 weeks after the coup (ending March 9, 2019). Others interested in replicating my findings can use ACLED’s Data Export Tool to download the same dataset.

Although I am confident that ACLED’s information on violence against civilians provides an accurate estimate of repression in Zimbabwe, it is important to be transparent about potential shortcomings of the measure and the data I use to observe it. First, observable instances of violence against civilians are not the only political or humanitarian consequence of repression. Not all repression results in observable violence, and observable violence is not the only form of physical nor psychological harm. Indeed, much of the Zimbabwean government’s violence takes the form of subterfuge and harassment that are visible to neither local nor international media observers. Second, some scholarship on media reporting about political violence suggests that datasets that rely on media reporting undercount violent events in locations where international media organizations are less present, like rural areas. For each of these factors, I expect that they will underestimate the scale and scope of repression over time. However, I expect these estimates to be constant during the period under study, as Mnangagwa and Mugabe have relied on “invisible” violence to a similar degree.

There are two important assumptions of a discontinuity design: (1) that the discontinuity is “exogenous,” or external to the trend; and (2) that other explanatory factors were constant through the period of discontinuity. I address each of these assumptions in turn. The primary cause of the coup, infighting within the ruling ZANU-PF party, was unrelated to the primary cause of violence against civilians for much of the period, regime repression of anti-government activity. The coup therefore fulfills the first assumption of the discontinuity design.

The following graphic displays the direct effect of Mnangagwa’s rise to power on violence against civilians. The solid blue line to the left of the dotted “November 2017 coup” cutoff represents the average level of violence against civilians under Mugabe. The dotted line to the right represents the pattern of violence that might have taken place under a post-November 2017 Mugabe regime had the coup not occurred. The red line represents the actual level of violence against civilians under Mnangagwa.


A simple model of violence against civilians in Zimbabwe over time probably fails the second assumption of a regression discontinuity, that other potential explanatory factors do not also change as a result of the change. Regime responses to protest activity might account for some of the new violence: a November 2016 report that I co-authored with Otto Saki and Lawrence Woocher found that regime repression of opposition protests was one of two scenarios under which violence against civilians in Zimbabwe could escalate. Indeed, a high level of protest activity has characterized Mnangagwa’s first 15 months in power, including protests after the coup, protests against the ZANU-PF party’s disputed victory in the July 2018 elections, and the gas-price protests. The larger number of protests might explain some of the varying patterns of violence that we observe in Mnangagwa-era Zimbabwe.

The following graphic displays the effect of the coup on violence against civilians, controlling for–or subtracting–the effect of protest and riot activity during the time period. The grey dots represent the number of observed instances of violence against civilians over time, as displayed in the first graph. The solid black dots represent the number of instances of violence over time, minus the number of protests and riots during the same week. The graphic suggests that the average level of violence against civilians in Zimbabwe persisted after the coup.


These graphics display how much violence against civilians changes as time moves farther from Mnangagwa’s rise–the slope of the relationship–but we should be also be interested in whether this relationship is statistically distinguishable from zero. The graphs suggest a consistent trend of violence against civilians before and after the coup, but a statistical test can describe the coup’s effect (or non-effect) with greater precision. In the “dot-and-whisker” plot below, I show the coefficients and the confidence intervals for the main variables in the discontinuity model. The effect of any variable for which the blue line crosses the dotted black line is not statistically distinguishable from zero. 


I also include the regression table for the discontinuity analysis, for quantitatively-minded readers.


As the “dot-and-whisker” graphic and the regression results demonstrate, the effect of the coup is not statistically distinguishable from zero. Repression under Mnangagwa is more of the same.

The continuation of violence against civilians in Mnangagwa’s Zimbabwe has important implications for both the study of Zimbabwean politics and international policy responses to events there. International donors are tip-toeing towards a policy of re-engagement with the Zimbabwean government, after multiple decades of sanctions. These potential policy changes rest on the premise that Mnangagwa represents a qualitatively different style of leadership from Mugabe. Where violence against civilians is concerned, the empirical record points in the other direction.

Thanks to Patrick McSweeney for his comments on an earlier version of this research design.

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the sources of progressive foreign policy

The principles and priorities of a progressive foreign policy have become a prominent subject of political debate during the past two years. The Trump administration’s incompetent foreign policy governance is the first major catalyst for this debate. Rex Tillerson’s “management reforms” during his year as Trump’s first Secretary of State resulted in the wholesale exodus of the post-Cold War civilian brain trust; Trump’s almost-total reliance on the wisdom of “his generals” has done much to undermine the last vestiges of civilian oversight over military affairs; and dramatic own-goals on trade, alliance politics, nuclear diplomacy with Iran, and immigration issues have jeopardized the trust of US allies and partners in Europe, East Asia, and North America.

The second spark for the current progressive foreign policy debate is the resurgence of the left wing of the Democratic Party following Bernie Sanders’ insurgent primary campaign in 2016. A group of charismatic, outspoken progressives–notably, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib–joined the freshman class of the new Congress in January, and each sees re-shaping the Washington consensus on a range of foreign policy issues as a core part of their mandate. Less public, but no less important, is staunch anti-war champion Barbara Lee’s new position in the Democratic leadership. The latest demonstration of the new progressives’ capacity to shape public discussion on foreign policy topics was the media controversy surrounding Rep. Omar’s biting questioning of Elliott Abrams, the current US special envoy for Venezuela and a longtime Republican foreign policy maven involved in some of the Reagan administration’s most disastrous and immoral policy decisions in Central America. This debate, both on public opinion pages and among campaign policy advisers, will only heighten as more than a dozen Democratic primary candidates jockey to distinguish themselves from both Trump and each other ahead of the 2020 elections.

What is a progressive US foreign policy? What can it be? There are three potential ways to approach these questions. The first and most common is in terms of goals and principles. Many advocates see the task of progressive foreign policy as a normative task: they begin by describing the world they would like to see, how it differs from our current world, and what it means for the content of progressive foreign policy. A set of common priorities has emerged from this first-principles discussion. These include: accountability and oversight, both in terms of some form of procedural justice for US officials responsible for egregious policy decisions like torture, and Congressional checks on executive power; restraint, both in US military adventurism and in “softer” attempts at nation-building; and democracy and global equity, or the use of tools of US statecraft to constrain the interests and power of global capital. A number of policy issues transcend these first principles, including mitigating the harm of global climate change, counterterrorism, and US responses to violent conflict abroad.

These principles distinguish the worldview of a progressive foreign policy from its antecedents; in effect, they make up a sort of “grand strategy” for a progressive regime. As with all grand strategies, however, there is a wide gap between the world that progressive foreign policy advocates envision and how those principles interact with the status quo. How, for example, might progressive principles of restraint make sense of the sprawling war-making bureaucracy of the Department of Defense? What institutions beyond our current justice system might be established to ensure accountability for US human rights abuses? Of course, the gap between first principles and the foreign-policy status quo is a feature of progressive critique. Incrementalism in foreign policy reform, progressives argue, has benefited neither the American people nor the world.

The second approach frames the progressive foreign policy debate as a matter of policy applications, rather than principles. These advocates debate the relative merits of specific tools of US statecraft and their potential uses for the major priorities of the progressive policy agenda. A recent exchange between Nicholas Mulder and Neil Bhatiya on the relative merits of US sanctions policy illustrates the policy-first approach. The strengths and pitfalls of US economic and financial sanctions are old hat. On the one hand, economic sanctions, which target entire sectors, and financial tools like asset freezes, which target specific leaders, allow US policymakers to exact material consequences against abusive leaders. On the other, sanctions often result in the same unintended consequences, especially collateral harm to civilian populations, that result from more aggressive policy tools like foreign military intervention. In broad terms, a recent Texas National Security Review roundtable on progressive diplomatic and defense policy relies on a similar policy-first approach.

If the principles-first approach is too imaginative, the policy approach is perhaps too accommodating of the status quo. There is no strictly progressive framework for economic sanctions, diplomacy, military intervention, or any other strategy in the so-called policy “toolbox,” any more than there is a neoconservative or Jacksonian framework for each. These are tools of statecraft that policymakers deploy to achieve specific policy outcomes. A debate centered on specific forms of policy action ensures that these tools, rather than goals surrounding their use, will remain the focus of the foreign policy debate. If the foreign policy status quo is truly broken, a debate overly mired in the details of specific policy instruments does a disservice to the policy agenda that those instruments should serve.

A third and final approach to progressive foreign policy, the sources of a progressive foreign policy, merits more attention than advocates have granted it. There are two ways to interpret the sources of foreign policy, one intellectual and one political. The importance of the intellectual sources of foreign policy is self-evident. As Elizabeth Saunders observes in her study of American presidents and military intervention abroad, the views that leaders hold about the world prior to assuming power are a useful predictor of the style and substance of their decisions. As in any institution, structural factors and contingent events will constrain progressive leaders’ ability to carry out their policy vision. But ideological frames can shape leaders’ cognitive interpretation of events, their emotional response to specific crises, and the range of decisions they view as feasible or advisable.

For their part, the political sources of foreign policy indicate the constituencies to which leaders respond. That there is no “constituency” for foreign policy in American politics is a misguided truism. As Dan Drezner notes in a recent column, the conventional constituency for American foreign policy is comprised of elites: the intelligentsia, business leaders, and a revolving professional community of former and current officials involved in the formal or informal process of US foreign policy decisions. This and all elite networks have a set of collective preferences that shape their expectations of US foreign policy. This network is not monolithic: opinions about the wisdom of specific policy tools or responses to specific crises differ. However, a shared worldview surrounding US national security and the US government’s role in the world broadly underpins these policy disagreements. This is the worldview to which most foreign policy decisionmakers respond.

The structural purpose of the progressive policy agenda is to make policy discourse and decisions more representative of non-elite networks. The exclusion of the broader American public from the constituency of US foreign policy is not accidental, nor the result of well-documented apathy nor lack of information about world events. As in other domains of American politics, politically active Americans outside the foreign policy elite have foreign policy preferences. They have thoughts about the wisdom of two decades of war, about US assistance to foreign governments, and about the various forms of violence that the US military and intelligence services exact on foreign populations. And certainly, they have opinions about immigration and trade–issues that have direct implications for their communities, lives, and livelihoods. Understanding the political sources of progressive foreign policy preferences helps create expectations about the groups and networks that give progressives their power.

What are the intellectual and political sources of a progressive foreign policy? Most commentators interpret this question in terms of intellectual paradigms. For example, many of Bush’s foreign policy advisers drew their ideas from a particular strand of post-Cold War neoconservatism; by contrast, Obama’s moral realism brushed up against the more interventionist outlook of many of his senior advisers and cabinet secretaries. As an explanatory framework, however, foreign-policy paradigms have limited use. They might explain responses to “big” foreign policy questions like US-China relations or the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but they generally do not explain the regular practice of US foreign policy beyond these cases. A paradigmatic interpretation also assumes a linear relationship between ideology and action. In reality, the effects of ideas on individual and collective behavior are more diffuse.

Movements and networks are a more convincing intellectual and political source of the progressive foreign policy agenda than a particular foreign-policy agenda. Social-movement scholarship indicates that activist networks shape the course of individuals’ political lives. For example, Doug McAdam shows that black freedom activists that participated in the 1964 Freedom Summer in Mississippi were the social foundation of later progressive movements. Foreign policy processes operate in a similar way. People involved in the US policy response to the genocide in Darfur, for example, were some of the most prominent advocates for later policy reforms aimed at preventing mass atrocities. Or, to cite a more contemporary illustration: the freshman class of progressive Congresswomen are outspoken champions of Palestinian rights because they emerge from movements that are outspoken champions of Palestinian rights.

Three intersecting networks make up the intellectual and political core of contemporary progressive foreign policy. The first is the anti-war movement. An obvious through-line runs from the organizations and networks formed in the late years of the Vietnam War to the core principles and constituencies of the contemporary American left. The anti-imperial critique of American power; the concern for accountability and democracy in foreign policy decisionmaking: each of these became politically salient features of progressive politics during the heyday of the anti-war effort. The mass mobilization against the war in Iraq reignited that anti-war effort, but it never achieved a fraction of the earlier peace movement’s political influence. There are multiple plausible explanations for this difference: the growing concentration of war powers in an unaccountable executive; the insufficiency of Obama’s commitment to anti-militarism; and the political urgency of the global financial crisis that enveloped his first two years in office. To some extent, the current progressive movement can be understood as its anti-war antecedents’ greatest chance at a day in court, two decades later than scheduled.

The second political and intellectual pillar of progressive foreign policy is the environmental justice movement. The unfathomable consequences of worst-case climate scenarios, especially when placed alongside the lackluster incrementalism of global climate diplomacy, make it easy to lose sight of the long and growing legacy of American environmental activism. The environmental movement’s political visibility will only grow as the contradictions of the community of states’ Nero-like foot-dragging heighten. In intellectual terms, environmental activism has reinforced the burden of global stewardship as a central tenet of America’s role in the world. Logically, there is no domestic solution to global climate change; any adequate reduction in global carbon emissions will require unprecedented international cooperation. For the world’s largest economies, climate change represents an archetypal commitment problem: no one country wants to sacrifice its global economic advantage without assurances that its counterparts will do the same. In a foreign policy context, the much-heralded Green New Deal framework can be understood as an initial solution to the commitment obstacles to global climate cooperation. If the United States binds it’s growth to an environmentally sustainable economy, it stands a better chance of convincing reluctant first-movers–China, in particular–to do the same. For the American environmental movement, this credible commitment is a moral responsibility of the world’s largest economy.

The last–and perhaps most underrated–source of the progressive foreign policy movement is a network that we can broadly describe as “freedom movements.” The conventional realm of foreign policy ideas rarely takes seriously the policy preferences of the Black, Latinx, Native, and other movements that make up much of the activist core of the contemporary progressive left. The absence of these ideas from the foreign policy debate stands in stark contrast to these movements’ discursive influence on domestic issues like police brutality, criminal justice reform, immigration justice, and Native rights. This is not the result of provincial organizing, nor a lack of ideas about the US government’s role in the world. To the contrary, American social movements have always been transnational in scope, dating back to the early transatlantic suffragist network that won women the vote. A growing historical literature on race and foreign policy in the Cold War period, for example, points to a robust interaction between the consolidation of American power abroad and the Black freedom struggle at home, both in the construction of the postwar order and Black activists’ attempts to critique it. Influential American leaders in the immediate aftermath of World War II, many of them avowed segregationists, saw the postwar order as a buttress of white supremacy in the United States. As a consequence, Black leaders from the integrationist NAACP to the radical young activists of SNCC saw international politics as a logical extension of their domestic struggle. International students joined the leadership corps of activist organizations; national and local leaders built international solidarity networks through quasi-diplomatic visits to the Non-Aligned states. To reference these transnational networks is not to romanticize them: in many instances, these organizations’ transnationalist outlook has led activists to embrace regimes whose abuses were no better than the US government’s, and often far worse. But they were intentional strategies of contention, reflective of an expansive view of international order and the policies that the US government uses to shape it.

All this is not simply an exercise in historical trivia. In the same way that intellectual historians look to the ideological networks that underpin the US foreign policy consensus, the political rise of left foreign policy demands similar attention to its origins. These movements and networks help explain why foreign policy cleavages emerge where they do, and why some progressive priorities are difficult to reconcile with the status-quo consensus. And most importantly, they define the scope of the foreign policy coalition that progressives might hope to assemble once in power.

the radical critique of the international liberal order

The international liberal order is in the news again. In late July, a group of eminent international relations scholars led by David A. Lake and Peter Gourevitch published an open letter in the New York Times defending the order and condemning Donald Trump for his sustained attacks on its institutions:

The international order formed after World War II provides important benefits to the United States as well as to other countries. The United Nations, NATO, the World Trade Organization, the European Union, and other postwar institutions all help to provide economic stability and international security, contributing to unprecedented levels of prosperity and the longest period in modern history without war between major powers.

The open letter capped off a summer of healthy academic and policy debate about the state of international power relations and the institutions that embody them. Criticisms of the statement’s main arguments have been an important part of this discussion. In a Lawfare forum on the future of a post-Trump foreign policy, Heather Hurlburt described “[t]he U.N. and Bretton Woods institutions”—the organizations responsible for international security and economic governance, respectively—as “a mixed bag of good function, poor function and near non-function.” In a separate Lawfare post in response to the Times statement, Paul Staniland criticized “[p]roponents of the order” for “a narrow and highly selective reading of history that ignores much of the coercion, violence, and instability that accompanied post-war history.” And so on.

As is common in these debates, a relatively narrow consensus limits the range of the most prominent objections to the international order and its institutions. In their Monkey Cage post defending the Times statement, Lake and Gourevitch sort their critics, perhaps over-simplistically, into three ideological categories: (1) nationalists, who broadly agree with Trump’s “America First” rhetoric on topics like international trade and NATO burden-sharing; (2) “anti-globalists”—not a term I’m especially fond of, as a Jew—who embrace the left-wing critique of globalization and its discontents; and (3) neo-realists, whose main quibble concerns the order’s limited benefits for US economic and security interests.

This circumscribed consensus in foreign policy theorizing about the international order is non-accidental. As Robert Vitalis convincingly documents in his book on the role of race in the early intellectual history of the academic international relations sub-field, the century-long project of achieving US hegemony in the international system gave way to a foundational body of foreign policy thinking that choked out radical critiques of that same system. Vitalis terms these critical scholars—whose principle target was the early 20th century system of imperial white supremacy—the “Howard school of international relations theory,” after the historically black university in Washington, DC, where many such scholars studied or taught. A combination of McCarthy-era attacks on academic freedom, Cold War funding incentives, and the institutional consequences of desegregation in American higher education diminished the Howard school’s academic influence in the postwar American field of international relations and, therefore, its contributions to postwar debates about the international order that the Allied powers were stitching together in San Francisco, Bretton Woods, and Washington, DC.

It’s not that the Howard school’s radical—that is, system-questioning—ideas about the new international order were nowhere to be found in the postwar United States. It’s just that they migrated outside the international relations discipline. The result is that, with few exceptions, these extra-disciplinary and social-movements critiques of international order are not taken seriously—studied, debated, or referenced in major newspaper op-eds or policy papers by prominent think tanks—by the order’s leading theorists.

As Vitalis observes, the problems of US hegemony, especially in the post-Cold War era, have been a central focus of American academic disciplines ranging from anthropology to sociology to all manner of race, ethnicity, and gender studies. Historians of the Cold War, for example, have pointed to the myriad intersections between the US black freedom movement, Cold War foreign policy dynamics, and decolonization movements of various stripes. Additionally, different types of US social movements—many of them led by or comprised of students and scholars from these disciplines—have engaged with and contested the institutions of the international order, including bodies tasked with governing international trade (the World Trade Organization), international finance (the World Bank and International Monetary Fund), and the protection of human rights (the Human Rights Council, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, regional human rights bodies, and various UN special rapporteurs). In fact, the international order has been a central battleground for transgressive social movements since before the postwar period: in a recent paper in International Studies Quarterly, J. Ann Tickner and Jacqui True argue that feminist activists like Jane Addams articulated the antecedents of latter-day feminist international relations as early as a series of peace conferences at The Hague in 1915.

I have a working paper on the US black freedom movement that focuses on one aspect of this historical question; I hope to be able to post it soon. The black freedom movement is among the most expansive manifestations of the radical critique of the international order, but it is far from the only one. Similar debates have animated protest, scholarship, and public debate about organized labor, the Chicanx rights movement, and the native rights movement, to name a few US / domestic examples; non-US / global movements have also posed important challenges to the concept and policies that define the order’s institutions. A new vision of the international order and its shortcomings requires that international relations scholarship re-integrates these critiques into the study of the order’s purpose and functions.

back to school

It’s been about three years since I last updated this site, so: hello! I’m glad to be back.

First, an update: I’m returning to Georgetown in the fall as a PhD candidate with the school’s Government department. I’ve spent the last three and a half years working as a research assistant at the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide, a policy think tank at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. At the Simon-Skjodt Center, I’ve worked on projects ranging from an assessment of indicators of potential mass atrocities in Zimbabwe to a research paper evaluating critical junctures and counterfactual policy actions in the US policy response to the crisis in Syria. I honed a variety of skills, including my writing, policy communication, and understanding of research methods. I also had the chance to work with a world-class community of scholars, activists, and policy officials who share my commitment to issues of global importance.

But I also found myself brushing up against the limits of my own research skills and methodological prowess. There are important questions that I want to answer, and work I’m interested in doing, that I decided I’m not able to accomplish without the intensive training that a PhD provides. I’m fortunate that my supportive family—my wife Lucy, and my siblings, parents, grandparents, and in-laws—has my back, and that my professional network will allow me to continue working on issues I care about. If I have any advice to aspiring PhD candidates, it’s to take both of those things seriously. My PhD experience will succeed because of that support, not in spite of it.

What will I study? Right now, my bio says, “My research focuses on three themes: (1) the dynamics of mass atrocities; (2) civilian mobilization during mass atrocities and other types of large-scale violence; and (3) international policy responses to mass atrocities and violent conflict. I’m also interested in how US social movements use international human rights norms as a strategy of contention.” However, the best indication of my interests—the things I’ve spent time reading about during the last three and a half years—is probably the list of research questions, odds, and ends that populate my running “Research projects” note on Google Keep:

  • Regime conflicts / “existential” civil wars and intervention outcomes
  • Do local patterns of violence in Weimar correspond to patterns of atrocities / violence in Nazi Germany?
  • Coalition building and counterterrorism?
  • Civilian responses to mass atrocities / large-scale repression
  • History of Leavenworth computer training programs during the 1970s (history paper)
  • What does “no-platforming” do for US social movements? Why do social movements use it as a tactic despite the obvious social costs? Group-year dataset of American social movements using no-platforming tactics. Test effects of the use of no-platforming on group cohesion, public support for their cause, political polarization.
  • Tony Judt biography
  • Paper based on We Charge Genocide case: how do radical movements contribute to lifecycle of international norms?
  • How have relationships between HBCUs and black mobilization changed since the civil rights era?
  • Unintended consequences of partial transparency regimes? Cf: global intelligence reform efforts.

And that’s only the tip of the iceberg. So really, your guess on the eventual focus of my dissertation is as good as mine.

The fundamental work of scholarship is writing; good, quick writing is as much a method of social science as any form of quantitative analysis. And writing, like any skill, demands constant practice. I read a post a couple of months ago by Katie Heaney, a writer at The Cut blog at New York mag, that recommended writing 500 words a day, 5 days a week, as a practice strategy. During college, I used Securing Rights—the previous title of this site’s blog page—as my main forum for informal commentary on international relations, contemporary mass atrocities, and issues of popular protest, pop culture, and movement-building. A few years of blogging resulted in some writing that I’m proud of, and other pieces that, in retrospect, I’d rather not have written. I expect I’ll use this site in much the same way as I used Securing Rights: as a platform for ideas in their incubation stage, but also–and perhaps more importantly–as a place for practicing my craft.

I’ll also post updates on my published research and writing at other outfits. As I post on the site, I’m eager for your thoughts, comments, and questions. Never hesitate to get in touch at daniel.solomon18(at)gmail(dot)com. Happy reading!