Book project

“Publicity and the de-legitimation of lynching”

Lynching in the United States was once a violent public ritual that was widely praised and implicitly justified in public, but by the late 1920s lynching was universally portrayed as an abhorrent and deeply shameful act. How did the lynching come to be seen for the atrocity that it is? How does the public reception of violence change from applause to opprobrium?

Read more... Political scientists that who study violence seek to explain its occurrence, the forms it takes, and its political consequences. While research about violence spans many disciplines and encompasses questions ranging from war to policing and incarceration, and from organized crime to riots and pogroms, types of violence often are treated separately. All of these disparate forms of violence share a key trait: they are subjected to societal evaluations as either acceptable or unacceptable. Max Weber defined politics as contestation over the state as the "sole source of the 'right' to use violence." But how is the "right" to violence determined? The question of how violence becomes legitimate or illegitimate is one of the most fundamental questions in politics, yet it is little understood. Literature on violence addresses this the question only in passing. Research on communications and public opinion examines questions of public legitimacy, but rarely addresses evaluations of violence. And finally, international relations theories of norms and norm transformation provide insight on how legitimation takes place, but have not yet been applied to violence per se. This book places the legitimation and de-legitimation of violence squarely at the center of a new research agenda. After laying out the scope of this new problem, I propose a theory of `publicity shocks' to explain how non-state violence becomes publicly unacceptable. I argue that between the late 19th century and the eve of Second World War, the expanding geographic reach of publicity about lynching---due to revolutions in transportation and communication---and growing inclusion of African American voices in public debate brought about a dramatic reversal in public support for lynching. To test this argument, I compile and analyze new data on press coverage of lynching in over eight million newspaper issues from 1880 to 1940, railroad and telegraph networks, and campaigns of anti-lynching activists.


“‘Let our Ballots secure what our bullets have won:’ Union Veterans and the Making of Radical Reconstruction” (paper here, forthcoming at American Political Science Review)

Abstract After the Civil War, Congressional Republicans used sweeping powers to expand and enforce civil rights for African Americans. Though the electoral benefits of African American suffrage were clear, Republicans had to overcome party divisions and racist voters. This paper argues that the war imbued Northern veterans with the belief that true victory required renewing the Union by abolishing slavery and establishing (imperfect) legal equality. This made veterans more receptive to Radical Reconstruction and ignited activism for it from below. Using difference-in-differences, I show that greater enlistment increased Republican vote-share, particularly in pivotal post-war elections. Moreover, "as-if"" random exposure to combat deaths increased Republican partisanship among soldiers after the war. Finally, I show that veterans became more likely to vote for African American suffrage. The paper concludes that Union veterans, through their votes and their activism, were a decisive part of the white coalition that backed America's "Second Revolution."

With Nicholas Kuipers and Gareth Nellis. “Does Electing Islamists Increase Religious Violence and Intolerance?” (2021, Volume 51, Issue 3, British Journal of Political Science)

Replication File

Abstract We estimate the effect of incumbency by Islamist parties on the incidence of religious violence and intolerance in Indonesia, exploiting discontinuities in the proportional representation system used to allocate seats in district legislative elections---the most local tier of parliamentary government. We find that the presence of additional Islamist (as opposed to secular nationalist) legislators exacerbates religious conflict according to certain measures. There is no evidence that Islamist rule affects average attitudes toward religious minorities among majority-group survey respondents, although it does increase expressions of extreme intolerance. Social emboldening may underlie these effects, as Islamist incumbency appears to boost the perceived acceptability of holding intolerant worldviews. The results shed light on the consequences of having extremist parties gain a share in local power.

‘Judge Lynch’ in the Court of Public Opinion: Publicity and De-legitimation of Lynching,” (2019, Volume 113, Issue 2, American Poliical Science Review)

Supplementary Appendix Replication File

Abstract How does violence become publicly unacceptable? I address this question in the context of lynching in United States. Between 1880 and the 1930s, public discourse about lynching moved from open or tacit endorsement to widespread condemnation. I argue this occurred because of increasing publicity for lynchings. While locals justified nearby lynchings, publicity exposed lynching to distant, un-supportive audiences and allowed African Americans to safely articulate counter-narratives and condemnations. I test this argument using data on lynchings, rail networks, and newspaper coverage of lynchings in millions of issues across thousands of newspapers. I find that lynchings in counties with greater access to publicity (via rail networks) saw more and geographically dispersed coverage, that distant coverage was more critical, and that increased risk of media exposure may have reduced the incidence of lynching. I discuss how publicity could be a mechanism for strengthening or weakening justifications of violence in other contexts.

Do parties matter for ethnic violence? Evidence from India,” (2016, Volume 11, Issue 3, Quarterly Journal of Political Science)

with Gareth Nellis and Steven Rosenzweig

Replication File

Abstract Ethnic-group conflict is among the most serious threats facing young democracies. In this paper, we investigate whether the partisanship of incumbent politicians affects the incidence and severity of local ethnic violence. We theorize that incumbents from multiethnic parties with long-standing attachments to victimized minority groups face uniquely strong incentives to quell ethnic unrest. To test our argument, we use a novel application of the regression-discontinuity design and show that as-if random victory by candidates representing India's Congress party in close state assembly elections between 1962 and 2000 reduced Hindu-Muslim rioting. The effects are large. Simulations suggest that had Congress lost all close elections in this period, India would have experienced 10 percent more riots. Additional analyses corroborate the mechanisms underlying our theory. Our findings shed new light on parties' connection to ethnic conflict, the relevance of party labels in developing states, and the puzzle of democratic consolidation in ethnically-divided societies.

Reported in the Economic Times, Hindustani Times (Live Mint),, quartz, Navbharat Times (in Hindi), Azhimukham (in Malayalam), and Ideas for India.

Working Papers

“A Two-Edged Sword: the risks and rewards of violence for ethnic parties”

“Protesting and Policing Boundaries: The role of protest in changing ethnic boundaries during the Civil Rights Movement”