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date: 16 December 2017

Summary and Keywords

The symbolic politics theory of ethnic war starts from the insight that most political behavior is not rational but intuitive, driven by “symbolic predispositions” such as ideological beliefs, normative values, and prejudice. The way leaders lead is by using rhetoric not to appeal rationally to followers’ interests but to appeal emotionally to their symbolic predispositions.

According to symbolic politics theory, the path to ethnic conflict begins with group narratives that are hostile to another group. These narratives help to generate hostile and prejudiced symbolic predispositions. If group members perceive a social threat, such as to their group identity or status, they become more likely to join mass movements agitating for a politics of redistribution—discriminating in favor of their own group at the expense of rival groups. If people feel physically threatened, they become more likely to support a politics of protection leading to violent ethnic conflict. These popular attitudes and moods are turned into social movements or military mobilization if aggressive leaders emerge, framing political issues in terms of these threats, and if those leaders are both credible and supported by effective organizations. A series of case studies has demonstrated that this process—from narratives to prejudice and threat perceptions, harnessed by leadership and organization—is what occurred in ten ethnic civil wars, including the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Israel-Palestine, and the Philippines. The theory also explains less violent cases such as Gandhi’s nationalist movement in India.

This theory is hypothesized to apply to international war, as the politics of national identity is similar to the politics of ethnic identity. The theory also suggests a way of reconciling realist, liberal, and constructivist accounts of international relations through political psychology and a scientific realist ontology.

Keywords: symbolic politics, political psychology, ethnicity, ethnic conflict, nationalism, war, civil war, scientific realism, empirical international relations theory

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