We provide a counterpoint to recent political developments, including the storming of the US Capitol, using novel evidence on 95,314 extreme right-wing supporters and Nazi collaborators in France, which experienced intense polarization in the 1930s and 1940s. We show how democratic values can be undermined by exogenous networks of influential individuals, including heroes. Heroes are specially positioned to widen the `Overton Window’ and legitimize views previously considered deeply repugnant. Social networks of individuals sharing such an identity can transmit and reinforce this influence, leading to escalating commitments that entrench political positions and make debiasing more difficult. However, heroes can also use their legitimacy to strengthen democracy. A link to our Vox Column is here, and to the working paper is here.
Saumitra Jha is an associate professor of political economy at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, a senior fellow at the Freeman-Spogli Institute for International Affairs and convenes the Stanford Conflict and Polarization Lab.
Saum’s research focuses upon understanding the effectiveness of organizations and innovations that societies have developed to address the problems of violence and other political risks, and to seek new lessons for fostering peace and development. His research has been published in leading journals in economics and political science, including Econometrica, the Quarterly Journal of Economics, the American Political Science Review and the Journal of Development Economics, and he serves on a number of editorial boards. His research on ethnic tolerance has been recognized with the Michael Wallerstein Award for best published article in political economy from the American Political Science Association and his co-authored research on heroes was awarded the Oliver Williamson Award for best paper by the Society for Institutional and Organizational Economics in 2020. In 2020, Jha was also honored to receive the Teacher of the Year Award, voted by the students of the Stanford GSB Sloan Fellows Program.