DEVIN STEWART: Hi. I am Devin Stewart here at Carnegie Council in New York City, and today we are speaking with Rachel Kleinfeld, who is a member of the Carnegie family.
Rachel, great to have you back at Carnegie Council. You were one of our Thought Leaders a few years ago. Good to see you again.
RACHEL KLEINFELD: Fabulous to be here, Devin.
DEVIN STEWART: Rachel Kleinfeld is a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment in Washington, DC, and she is author of a brand-new book that just came out called A Savage Order: How the World's Deadliest Countries Can Forge a Path to Security. It's got a great cover with scratches like a lion scratched the cover of the book.
RACHEL KLEINFELD: Tore it up, yes.
DEVIN STEWART: Very striking cover. Congrats.
RACHEL KLEINFELD: Thank you. We had to work on that, actually. The book was funded by the British, the Department for International Development (DFID), which is the British aid agency, and they were amazing in letting me do basically really solid fundamental research. But the Brits are a little more calm and controlled, and I was worried about pushing the envelope with this flashy cover.
DEVIN STEWART: It was just edgy enough.
RACHEL KLEINFELD: Yes.
DEVIN STEWART: It just came out this week, am I correct?
RACHEL KLEINFELD: Yesterday.
DEVIN STEWART: Just yesterday, so congratulations. About how many years in the works is this project for you, this new book?
RACHEL KLEINFELD: This took about five years. I was really interested in: Can violent countries get better? And it led me down rabbit hole after rabbit hole and to writing this book, which is ultimately a happy book. It's ultimately optimistic that, yes, they can get better. Really violent places can get better, but it's not an easy path.
DEVIN STEWART: What did the project entail? This podcast is a special place where people can talk about not only ethics but also their methods and what the project involved.
Before we get to the book, by the way, why did you want to look at such a difficult topic?
RACHEL KLEINFELD: I work in a think tank at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and there is paper after paper that "admires the problem," as we say, that talks about how tough violence is to fight, which is true, and it gets a little bit depressing.
It also made me think: You know, if it's so tough, if we can't do anything about it, there's other things I could do with my life. I could run a cooking school. I love to cook. There's all sorts of things. So I wanted to know if there was something that was positive that could be done, because if so, I would stay in my chosen line of work, and it turned out there was. That was very useful because it's hard to start a new business.
DEVIN STEWART: You mention a lot of different cases in your book, a lot of different countries. What was the fieldwork that you conducted? What did the research entail?
RACHEL KLEINFELD: It started with me bringing together groups of experts to talk about what did we know about this problem and where should I focus my field research. It was interesting. In terms of what we knew about the problem, it turned out we knew a lot about technical solutions to fight violence, how police should array themselves, what ways and methods they should use.
But when I brought together a room full of global experts and said, "Okay, how do we get a corrupt police force to adopt these methods?" you could hear crickets in the room, and I realized that was the question. It wasn't how do we fight violence, it's how do we fight violence if the country itself doesn't want to fight, if the government doesn't want to fight?
So then, I started looking at what countries should I look at that got better, and that was an interesting process. I picked one place that got better and one place that didn't in basically every settled continent, and I say "place" and not "country" because I wanted to look sub-nationally as well. I wanted to look at difference.
My idea had been there's a lot of different paths to getting better. Let me look at a lot of different kinds of places, so I picked [places] like Sicily and Naples. I picked different states in India, and then I picked countries as well and regions to have the most difference possible, and surprisingly, I found that they all shared a common problem and a common path out.
DEVIN STEWART: Would you say that the police departments around the world want to be clean, they want to be virtuous?
RACHEL KLEINFELD: That's a great question. It's a tipping-point phenomenon. When you have a lot of great people who go in to be cops to protect the citizens of their country, then you have a lot of people who want to be clean, and you have a bad apple or two sometimes. But as a force changes—and I talk in the book about what creates these forces that are brutal and corrupt—your good cops get scared, literally scared. It can be very dangerous to be a good cop in a bad system because the bad ones are perfectly willing to make your death look like an accident or look like it happened at the hands of criminals, and that's the story of Serpico, for instance, here in the United States, if you've seen that movie. We've had this problem here, too.
DEVIN STEWART: We will get to your findings very soon, but you have lots of great charts in here, and one of the charts you depict is violent deaths in 2016 by cause. You make the point that something like 85 percent of violence around the world is non-war-related. Is that correct?
RACHEL KLEINFELD: That's right. That's a small arms survey, and it's 83 percent, but the data is fuzzy, so 85 is fine.
But basically we have this idea that war causes violent death. But the vast majority of violent death is not war. If you look at Brazil, for instance, in 2015 it had more deaths than Syria. Now in 2017, much more deaths than Syria, 64,000 to 40,000, I think.
DEVIN STEWART: Caused by—
RACHEL KLEINFELD: Caused by gangs, organized crime, the police themselves. When Rio was governed by the man who is now president of Brazil, he had a motto, "A good criminal is a dead criminal," and he enabled the police to kill criminals.
DEVIN STEWART: Sounds familiar.
RACHEL KLEINFELD: Yes. A fifth of all the killings in Rio were by police, and a lot of the people they killed might not have been criminals. We will never know.
DEVIN STEWART: You have this great list of five guiding ideas, Rachel. It seems like that's the meat of the findings of the book. If you are willing, maybe we could just go one by one and look at those five ideas.
RACHEL KLEINFELD: Absolutely. That was my guide to the book. When my editor saw the gigantic tome that I handed her, she said: "You know what? We need our hands held. We need a Virgil to guide Dante through this maze." So that was my Virgil, these five ideas.
DEVIN STEWART: Those five ideas were the result of your project? When did you come across them?
RACHEL KLEINFELD: I'm an inductive researcher, so basically I come up with a question and then I muck around in the facts and the countries and do lots of interviews and then try to come up with my findings. So these were the results of five years of the research and reading and findings and so on.
DEVIN STEWART: Just to repeat, what exactly was the question?
RACHEL KLEINFELD: The question was: How do really violent democracies get better? And that turned out to entail understanding why they were so violent in the first place and entail understanding the path out of that violence.
DEVIN STEWART: Great. The first idea is "Violence as a Governing Strategy." Can you elaborate on that?
RACHEL KLEINFELD: Absolutely. This was the core idea of the book, and I'd picked lots of modern examples, but then I picked the United States, the Wild West versus the South after the Civil War as a historical example to try to understand whether my findings fit.
It turned out that that was the key to the puzzle, that the Wild West had been enormously violent just like Medellín at the height of the drug violence, but as government came the Wild West tamed. There are more parts to the story. I tell the story in I think the third chapter, and it's a fun story about cowboys and barbed wire and all sorts of different things.
But basically government came in, and places got better. That's the dominant paradigm that our policymakers choose when they think about weak democracies. They say: "These states are overrun by violence because they're weak. We need to strengthen the government, strengthen the security services, train them, and these countries will get better." It's occasionally true, and it was true of the Wild West.
It was not true of the U.S. South, and that was the key to the puzzle in the other countries. In the U.S. South, you had the Dixiecrats who—
DEVIN STEWART: What time period?
RACHEL KLEINFELD: Right after the Civil War. Right after the Civil War your Dixiecratic politicians couldn't run for office. They were disenfranchised. The Northern government had put military commanders in charge, and the Confederates wanted back in power. You had all this violence, this night rider violence happening, the Ku Klux Klan, a whole bunch of different groups, the White Camellia; I list 20 different groups. That was not caused by the politicians, but the politicians saw a helping hand.
What they did was as they started to get back into power they would enable impunity for those violent groups. The violent groups would attack African Americans, but they also attacked Republicans, who were often the same groups who were challenging these Dixiecrats who were Democratic. As the Confederates gained more and more power, the Klan gained more and more impunity.
That was the key to the puzzle. What I found was that in these countries that had a huge amount of violence—they were democracies in name only. What they really were were oligarchies. They were small groups of powerful business and government interests that wanted to hold onto power and didn't really want to allow fair elections to oust them. So they would provide security for the middle class, their voters, but then they would politicize the security services so that the security services wouldn't arrest the violent groups that were working with them, either for campaign donations, personal bribes, attacking opposition voters, all sorts of things.
They would give those violent groups impunity, they would weaken the security services, and as the security services weakened and became more and more brutal the poor and the marginalized would have no security. So they would start welcoming in gangs, mafias, different organized criminals that would offer them protection in exchange for extortion. Then you would have this metastasization of violence throughout the governing order, but it wasn't an accident. It started with a government that was protecting certain violent groups.
DEVIN STEWART: This argument does sound familiar. Have you written this somewhere or published this, because I follow your work.
RACHEL KLEINFELD: I've written it in a number of different places, and it just came out [on the Carnegie Endowment website.]
DEVIN STEWART: I think that's where I saw it.
RACHEL KLEINFELD: Just to make it a little bit short and sweet.
DEVIN STEWART: So everyone go to the Carnegie Endowment website and check it out.
The second idea or finding is: "Societies Decivilize and Recivilize." What does that mean?
RACHEL KLEINFELD: This problem starts with the government. It starts with the government opening the door to various organized criminals and saying, "You're allowed to do your stuff as long as you help us." But as the violence gets worse and worse it becomes normal, and as it becomes more and more normalized and the state gives up its monopoly of force, people lose their inhibitions to violence, and you see a lot more violence from everyday people. So you get numbers—I trace the story in Medellín, where for various reasons there's a peace agreement, and all the organized crime and the paramilitaries stop.
But you still have 35 per 100,000 homicide rate. That's five times the rate of some of the most violent countries in the world. It's seven times the rate in the United States. They found that that was regular people. That was casinos on Friday and Saturday nights. It was the bus depot in the middle of the night. It was regular people killing people because inhibitions to violence had lowered, and impunity was 90 percent, 95 percent. You were going to get away with murder.
Once society has decivilized—and that can happen in any society; I talk about "Bloody Kansas" during the Civil War. It's not about the culture of a society, it's about a government that has given up the monopoly on force on purpose.
DEVIN STEWART: You have a chart you might present later on, and the chart is called, "The Road to Privileged Violence," where you talk about impunity for violent acts. What is the driver of this? Is it just people are unrestrained, or is there some norm or value behind this? What's driving impunity?
RACHEL KLEINFELD: What I found was that when countries transitioned from autocracies to democracies often the leaders didn't really want to transition. They didn't actually want to put their power to the vote of the people. So they would put on all the trappings of democracy. The emperor would put on some new clothes. But these weren't really democracies. They were oligarchies. The small governing elite wanted to hold onto power, and if they used just elections, and if they tried to compete fairly, even by restricting elections, they could lose. And if they lost in some of these polarized societies, they could end up in jail, they could end up dead. So losing had really big stakes.
To stay in power, it was worth it to them to take money, campaign contributions, occasionally use violence from these violent groups. And the effects on their society—eh. You see this in Venezuela right now.
DEVIN STEWART: It's power on one hand and greed on the other hand.
RACHEL KLEINFELD: Power and greed. Pretty strong driving force.
DEVIN STEWART: Is it really that primordial? I would agree. My research would confirm that.
RACHEL KLEINFELD: I think it's pretty deep for a lot of people. On the other hand, it is an optimistic blood. I follow Steve Pinker's research that the world is getting less and less violent, and I really see this book as a "last mile" problem. Violence is concentrating. We know that it's moving to a certain number of countries and a small number of places in those countries. So this is really, "Okay, what do we do about that last mile?" because we've actually done a huge amount about lots of other kinds of violence.
DEVIN STEWART: It's good to hear an optimistic view for a change.
Number three, Rachel, is: "The Middle Class is the Fulcrum of Change," which seems to be an extremely important recurring theme that we've seen in lots of books, including Josh Kurlantzick's book about the decline of democracy stemming from the middle class, which reminds me of my own studies of the French Revolution. That middle class is going to be so important whether you're going to just have complete chaos or buy-in on a new order. I'm also reminded of the midterm election that we've had in the United States.
RACHEL KLEINFELD: Yesterday.
DEVIN STEWART: Yes.
Tell us about that number three, the role of the middle class.
RACHEL KLEINFELD: Sure. First of all, we're all riffing off Aristotle. It was Aristotle that first said the middle class is really important to democracy. Since then, all sorts of researchers, all of us lesser souls, have been coming up with why that's the case because he didn't elaborate all that much. He just said they had norms and values.
DEVIN STEWART: Interesting. He just put it out there.
RACHEL KLEINFELD: It was all notes from his students.
What I found here was that when other countries try to help fight violence, when we try to help Mexico or Nigeria try to fight violence, we're looking at countering terrorism usually, so we try to fight the perpetrators of violence, and we try to help the victims of violence. So most of the effort goes to victims and perpetrators. But when the governing order is the problem, when the problem with violence rests within how the government is maintaining its power, the people that have the ability to oust that government are the middle class who vote. The more marginalized people often don't bother to vote because none of the options look good to them.
They're being given options none of which seem to them willing to change the dominant order or they're being actively repressed. Some of the thugs that the governments are hiring are keeping them from voting quite actively. That part of the population isn't important from a voting standpoint.
The middle class has the vote, and they're the sham democracy. They're the "beards," as it were that pretend to make this country a democratic country.
DEVIN STEWART: Beards as in disguise?
RACHEL KLEINFELD: Exactly. They're the disguise, thank you, that makes the democracy look as if it's real.
Influencing them is hard, though, because the easiest thing for the middle class to vote for is more repression. They can vote for—
DEVIN STEWART: Law and order.
RACHEL KLEINFELD: Law and order. Three strikes and you're out. Zero tolerance.
DEVIN STEWART: What about just buying them off?
RACHEL KLEINFELD: The governments all do that. The police that do get funded are in middle class neighborhoods. The middle class get to live in gated communities.
DEVIN STEWART: So it's both.
RACHEL KLEINFELD: It's both. I talk in the book about even the most violent countries in the world—I was the advisor to a team in Honduras, which was at that point the most violent country in the world. The U.S. government was trying to figure out what to do about all the violence. But everyone we interviewed was only worried about extortion. They actually weren't worried about murder. And it was because even in the most violent countries in the world murder, violence, hits the poor and the marginalized mostly. It hits people who look different, different caste, different class, different race, and the middle class tends to be able to get out of it.
DEVIN STEWART: Is it also because dead people can't really complain about it? You know what I mean?
RACHEL KLEINFELD: The poor and the marginalized can't complain as much, absolutely. Their voices don't matter as much.
DEVIN STEWART: Not only being poor, but when you're dead you can't really complain about being dead. You know what I mean? Is there some logic to that?
RACHEL KLEINFELD: Sure. You can't, but your relatives can.
DEVIN STEWART: Sure.
RACHEL KLEINFELD: So what happens with the middle class, actually, and the way the middle class starts to mobilize is when violence starts hitting them, and that usually happens because the violent groups themselves are having problems, that they're fighting within themselves, and they can't control their own violence.
When the violence starts spilling over and hitting the middle class, then the middle class wakes up. But do they wake up and vote for repression, or do they wake up and vote for a more fair governing order? That's the question, and it's really easy for them to vote for repression, and so it takes a lot to get them to vote the other way. The repression just makes it all worse. It just deepens the violence.
DEVIN STEWART: Why is that? Why does the repression—
RACHEL KLEINFELD: That's interesting. I actually went into that. I looked at the case of Tajikistan, which was very violent but became autocratic. I also looked at U.S. prison policies.
DEVIN STEWART: Mass incarceration.
RACHEL KLEINFELD: Yes, mass incarceration. What you see is that when you announce a zero-tolerance policy, rarely are there a whole lot of prisons just waiting around to be filled. So what happens is your existing prisons fill very quickly with a lot of people. The conditions in prison get really bad. And gangs tend to control prisons. Even in the United States we have gang-controlled prisons, by and large. So the gangs determine whether you're hit by violence as a prisoner, whether you get messages to your loved ones, whether you can get illicit goods into the prison or not.
Those gangs became really important. And because more and more young men are more and more sure that they'll get arrested whether they're gang members or not, their incentive is to get closer and closer to the gangs because they're going to control the fate of those people once they're in prison, and they can be more and more sure that they'll be in prison when there's a zero-tolerance policy.
What you see in the research is that whenever that's announced, prison populations skyrocket, the gangs get much stronger, they tend to learn from one another, they learn from more sophisticated organized crime, and they come out on steroids. So it makes the whole problem much worse. Not to mention that your police and your security services tend to become more brutal because they're incentivized that that's okay to do.
DEVIN STEWART: Before we get to four and five, that last section you were looking at made me think of a perennial question that I get from people. In fact, it came up during our trip to the Philippines recently, our delegation that was looking at climate change impact in Manila. As you know, Manila has become the poster child for climate change disasters.
The problems that you're talking about in your book, would you say—this is sort of a college, late-night dormitory kind of question, but do you think it's about human nature, or do you think it's about the systems? In other words, is it rooted in how individuals are and whether or not you think there is such as a thing as human nature? We talked about greed and power before, thirst for power. Or is it just a matter of engineering really good systems and institutions that deal with the flaws of human nature, or maybe we can do something academic and say it's both?
RACHEL KLEINFELD: I will say it's both, but hopefully it's not too academic. I think within any given population you have people with a will to power who are willing to use violence to get there. In the book I talked about a man named Elias, who wrote a famous book on inhibitions and violence. The book is brilliant. It's an amazing catalog of how violence dropped after the Middle Ages.
His thesis is that as people gained inhibitions in one field—in his case, he catalogs in excruciating detail that people used to defecate in the street, and they would piss in chimneys, and they would—
DEVIN STEWART: Chimneys? That seems so risky.
RACHEL KLEINFELD: You have to read the book. It's really quite something.
DEVIN STEWART: Inhibitions.
RACHEL KLEINFELD: He talks a lot about how people gain inhibition. They started using silverware. They stopped farting in public, all sorts of things like that. And as they gained inhibitions in one sphere—
DEVIN STEWART: Some people.
RACHEL KLEINFELD: Yes, some people. But no, that's an important point. When the state didn't have a monopoly on force in the early Middle Ages, when it was kind of a free-for-all, you had people who were pathological, really sociopaths, who would protect their village. They were strong enough to do that. So the village would forgive rapes and violence and pathological behavior within the village because they were getting so many attacks from outside that they needed these individuals.
As the state gained more of a monopoly on force and enforced it, people could afford to have more inhibitions, and they could afford to then ostracize these pathological individuals and say: "You know what? You're not a part of our society anymore. We don't need you anymore."
What I found was that it's the exact same process in reverse in these barrios and places in which you have a huge amount of violence. These pathological sociopaths that would usually be kept out of society, if you have a gang, turf-run world, and you're fighting another gang, you want your gang to be stronger. That gang might prey on you, but they might keep you from worse depredations from the other gang. So you welcome those people back in.
I do think there's human nature here, but the rules of the game, the rules of society determine who is part of your society and who's not. I found on a higher level the same thing happens in the United States. When we have strong laws that punish violence, the violence goes down.
For instance, in Florida where they had the stand-your-ground law and the other states where they have stand-your-ground laws, violence goes up. When the rules stop punishing people who use violence, more people do.
DEVIN STEWART: That's one of the most interesting explanations of the spread of violence I've ever heard. And it does remind me of the need to bring American politics into this discussion at some point.
RACHEL KLEINFELD: Sadly true, yes.
DEVIN STEWART: All these themes are sounding more and more familiar.
Let's do four and five here on your list, and then maybe we can talk about the implications for the United States because everyone wants to hear about what America has to do with this.
RACHEL KLEINFELD: It's a whole case study. I trace America from the Civil War up to the present.
DEVIN STEWART: As Americans we try not to be about us all the time, but it's inevitable.
Number four is: "Governments Need Dirty Deals, Centralization, and Surveillance." What is that about?
RACHEL KLEINFELD: The book is a both/and set of solutions. It's not left wing, it's not right wing. What I found was that once violence has lodged deep within society as well as within the government and the governing order, you need to get rid of it in both places. So you need to have a social movement that elects a reformist politician who is really willing to fight violence that is within the government and change that governing order. That politician needs to be more inclusive. They need to start enforcing order in poor and marginalized places. They need to make those people that they're part of the same society and really outreach.
But they also really need to fight the violence itself, and fighting the violence once it has been connected to government is very similar to fighting organized crime. I have a whole chapter where I talk about how America's Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) laws, which are our laws from the 1970s to fight organized crime, literally the same laws got translated into Italian by the Sicilians and then into Georgian by the Georgians to help all those countries fight this particular problem, and now they've gone global because once violence is rooted within the government, you need to use informants and intelligence and asset seizure and centralization to get rid of the violence in the government.
But that also helps society because if I'm in a very violent neighborhood and I see someone commit a crime, I'm not going to tell the police about that crime if I think that that gang or that mafia or drug cartel is going to hurt me.
DEVIN STEWART: Retaliate?
RACHEL KLEINFELD: Retaliate, exactly. It takes a lot of the state actually enforcing its rules and its laws for me to feel comfortable telling the police about crime.
Most of the crime fighting police are able to do is because of tips and informants. The fighting of the crime is really important also to get the society to be able to self-police, and ultimately social self-policing inhibitions that people have amongst themselves, that's what really deals with most crime in most communities.
DEVIN STEWART: Provocative question: Is this in favor of a surveillance state?
RACHEL KLEINFELD: No.
DEVIN STEWART: This seems to be one of our biggest paranoias here in the United States. We always think about, Oh, no, look at China, which has created a government-sponsored surveillance state. What's your response to that?
RACHEL KLEINFELD: Emphatically no. You need these tools—informants and wiretaps and so on are useful to fight this violence—but what you really need is trust. There's a man named Randolph Roth who did a book called American Homicide, and he traces American homicide from before the founding, from Jamestown all the way to the present, and what he finds is that spikes in violence in America correlate with two things primarily—he's got a slightly more robust theory—basically trust in government and trust in your fellow citizens, a sense that the social order itself is just. When that is robust you have very low violence. When that is out of whack, violence starts rising.
I asked him about the more recent period when trust in government has been falling but violence has not been rising. We're right now at the lowest period of violence since the 1950s in America. It's very, very safe here despite what you hear in the political sphere.
What he found was that trust in government had been falling among elderly and white people, your older white, over-50 contingent. But most violence is committed by young men. That group actually had increased trust in government under Obama.
DEVIN STEWART: Younger people had increased trust?
RACHEL KLEINFELD: Younger people and younger men, their trust was increasing or staying the same. It wasn't, they weren't losing.
DEVIN STEWART: In the government.
RACHEL KLEINFELD: In the government, under President Obama. So your most criminogenic part of the population, the people most likely to commit violence, they weren't losing trust in government. They were gaining trust in this more inclusive society that Obama was promulgating.
So while trust was falling among older white people, they weren't committing violent crimes.
DEVIN STEWART: What's going on there?
RACHEL KLEINFELD: What we have now is a problem in America. Now you've got trust in government falling among more criminogenic parts of the population, younger people and men. You also have a sense that the dominant social order isn't fair, and nobody thinks it's fair.
It's interesting that there is some research now that Trump voters don't think it's fair, and non-Trump voters don't. Everybody feels like it's unfair. That's a dangerous situation, and so I'm not surprised to see violence like Pittsburgh, violence like the pipe bombs. This kind of thing starts rising when people start feeling that those two indicators are out of whack.
DEVIN STEWART: Do you think that might have something to do with the label of "racist" hurled in America both from the left to the right and the right to the left?
RACHEL KLEINFELD: Polarization—I don't know exactly about the racist label per se—is what enables these violent countries to continue. In every single case I traced, the more polarized the population was, the less it was able to solve its problems, and the only ways they started getting better was by hitting such a rock bottom that they were able to overcome the polarization and change the frame of discussion.
DEVIN STEWART: What does rock bottom look like?
RACHEL KLEINFELD: Rock bottom looks a little bit like Medellín in Colombia, when you had a murder rate of 381 per 100,000. Ours in America is about 5 per 100,000 for comparison.
DEVIN STEWART: Before we get to number five, though, Rachel, so many questions. Are you worried about America headed toward a rock bottom of any sort? And if so, what would that even look like? From time to time you do hear some public figures in the United States and public thinkers warn about things possibly getting so polarized that violence could increase or instability increase.
RACHEL KLEINFELD: Absolutely. In the book I look at the 1960s. Right now we talk about that period as ersatz; it's a little kitsch when we talk about it. But if you actually look at the numbers, we had anarchist bombers, we had terrorist groups, we had vigilante groups like the Black Panthers, we had an enormous amount of state-sponsored violence, state-enabled violence like the Klan being allowed to kill civil rights activists in the South or Kent State. We had a lot of left-on-right violence as well as right-on-left violence. It was an incredibly violent period, and I talk about that as a period of decivilization on both sides of the political spectrum.
Do I think it could happen again? Absolutely. And I am worried about the United States.
But I'm worried from a very good position, I would say, in that we are in the lowest period of violence since the 1950s. Actually, if you took three cities out of the numbers—if you took, I think it's Chicago, St. Louis, and Baltimore—you would have numbers that were as low as the 1950s, which is the lowest since the 1900s, since we started keeping statistics on violence in America.
Do I think it's going to rise? I do. I think the dominant political order right now is not good for violence, but I think it's rising from a very low point and that we still have the ability to reverse it.
DEVIN STEWART: That brings us to number five, which is talking about cycles. Number five of your findings and the final finding is: "States and Societies Recivilize Together." I take that to mean that they can go together up and together down.
RACHEL KLEINFELD: Exactly. I think I have in there the metaphor that it's like the sand and the sea, that this is not a problem lodged solely in government. It's not a problem lodged solely in society. There is something about societies getting the governments they deserve and societies needing to take the upper hand and fight back when their government is marginalizing large parts of the population, is enabling this violence to happen, is allowing more and more repression, and the violence is skyrocketing, and the middle class is protecting itself with private security and gated communities, which is what you see all throughout Latin America and so on.
That middle class has a choice. They can continue to barricade themselves in and keep themselves safe at the cost of the rest of their society, or they can take the courageous but difficult action of changing their government and making it a government that is a real democracy for all its people. That's a harder path.
DEVIN STEWART: That's a fairer democracy.
RACHEL KLEINFELD: A fairer democracy, yes. In Colombia they had a constitutional moment in 1990. They decided that enough was enough. There were bombs going off in bookstores and all sorts of things, and people said: "Look, let's get out on the street. Let's have a new constitution. Let's create a constitutional court and human rights rules." They didn't have a Bill of Rights.
These different countries had different ways of having a new social contract between the government ad the people, and that's what it took to get the violence down in these really violent democracies.
DEVIN STEWART: This has been fascinating, Rachel. I've learned a lot today, but before we go there was one picture in your book that reminded me of The J Curve: A New Way to Understand Why Nations Rise and Fall, which is a book that Ian Bremmer wrote a few years ago. I think it's a similar finding.
On one axis you have low violence going up to high violence. On the other axis you have most democratic to most autocratic, so from most democratic to least democratic, essentially. If you turn it upside-down you basically get a J.
RACHEL KLEINFELD: For the listening audience, basically if you're—
DEVIN STEWART: It's a bad description.
RACHEL KLEINFELD: If you're a very consolidated democracy, violence tends to be really low. But if you're an autocracy, your violence is lower than the middle-of-the-road bad democracies, basically.
DEVIN STEWART: Is that a statement about transitions? What does that say?
RACHEL KLEINFELD: People have read a lot of things into this statistic. First of all I will say that I modify that chart because one thing that we know about autocracies is that they lie about their statistics, and they lie a lot.
DEVIN STEWART: Go figure.
RACHEL KLEINFELD: I look at Chinese statistics and Russian statistics and so on, and you just can't trust them. So I basically say, "Look, autocracies are still probably better than middling democracies but not nearly as much as they claim to be." So I modify it that way.
Then I looked at the actual numbers. And what I found was that it's a different kind of violence. Because I wanted to take the issues seriously that should you just move toward repression. People cite Rwanda all the time, and I have a little bit in the book about Rwanda, that they had a genocide, they had a civil war. Now they have an autocracy basically under Kagame.
DEVIN STEWART: Recently in The New York Times looking at that.
RACHEL KLEINFELD: But they haven't had another genocide. They haven't had another civil war.
But what they have had is funding to the rebels in their neighboring country, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which fueled a war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo that far outshadowed anything that happened in Rwanda. And they have political violence, and they have autocratic government-state violence.
What I saw in the autocracies was, yes, they tend to be able to have less violence internally. State violence increases a lot. And they often outsource their violence to other countries, either through wars or through rebel movements that they're funding, or what have you. Overall, it doesn't actually bring down violence to have autocratic governments. It just pushes the violence out like a balloon to other places.
I actually go so far as to count up, just literally counting the statistics of different wars, different kinds of violence, murders, and so on in autocracies versus these weak democracies to say overall would we be better. And it turns out, no. The autocracies are far, far more violent overall, but you just start looking not just within the nation-state but at what they're doing to their neighboring nations and how they're fueling violence outside.
DEVIN STEWART: What you've taught me today, Rachel, has kind of restored my belief in democracy, but I want to get your opinion, because this is not about me, it's about you. You're the author.
You probably get this as an American abroad when you go abroad. You're not abroad now. I recently got back from Asia, and I get this question all the time.
RACHEL KLEINFELD: I'll be in Canada next week, and I'm sure I'll get it then.
DEVIN STEWART: You get it all the time: Do you guys still believe in democracy and democracy promotion? Because you and I cut our teeth and grew up during a time in the United States when democracy promotion was actually a virtue—almost, it was something like that, right?—and that democracy was seen as an aspiration for all people. Now those two beliefs seem anachronistic a little bit these days. What's your answer? Is democracy the right way?
RACHEL KLEINFELD: Yes. I think that all the research that I've done still points to the fact that democracy is still better than autocracy from a violence standpoint, from a fairness standpoint, a justice standpoint. But you have to talk about real democracy.
In the book I say, "Look, a lot of countries that we"—the dominant global power in the 1990s—"said these countries are ‘transitioning' to democracy"; they're en route to democracy was the idea, and they just needed a little help. They were kind of half-baked, and we were going to stick them back in the oven and promote some democracy, and they would finish baking.
What I say in the book is: "That's hogwash. These countries have been 'transitioning' for 20, 30 years. They're not transitioning anywhere. They have a fully baked governing system, and it's an oligarchy," and we don't talk about oligarchy because it didn't fit into our -isms. In the 1990s it was who's governing who? Who has the rule? The idea of the oligarchs didn't really fit that way of thinking as the Soviet Union fell.
We didn't call it that. We called it transitioning. But they weren't transitioning. By calling them that, we actually made democracy itself look bad.
Democracy is a very good way to solve problems, and the reason that these countries can get out of their violence is because the middle class does get a vote, the middle class does have a way to change things, and that's a virtue. Autocracies don't have that path out.
DEVIN STEWART: Rachel Kleinfeld is author of the brand-new book A Savage Order, and we should not forget she is also the founder of the Truman National Security Project—I'm a Truman Fellow, great to list that in here—and senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, DC.
Rachel, so good to see you again.
RACHEL KLEINFELD: Great to see you, Devin. Thank you.