This research explores the relations between the rise of political extremism in the US and the ongoing decline of community-based, face-to-face engagement in politics. To study these relations, I have been conducting for the past five years a multimethod study of three groups of American right-leaning libertarians: First, a migration movement of 5,000 libertarians who try to establish a libertarian community in New Hampshire; second, a collection of several interconnected groups of libertarian activists working in the Los Angeles area; and third, a highly active discussion group of geographically dispersed libertarians who congregate online to discuss political affairs and other issues. While sharing a general political creed, these groups differ in their attempts to translate this creed into a local and ongoing common way of living. Building on participant observation, ethnographic analysis of guided focus group discussions, and content and meta-data analysis of sampled digital conversations, this study highlights important differences in the way members’ efforts at establishing long-term relationships and a common way of living shape their understandings of their ideological and political commitments as well as their relations to nonpartisans. As my preliminary findings suggest, these differences matter for the way political groups develop collective action frames, and thus for their preferred modes of civic and political participation, opinion formation, and alliance-building. By that, this research highlights the way changes in the local context in which people become engaged with politics play a key role in the facilitation of political polarization and ideological extremism in America.
Doctoral Candidate, University of Southern California