What They Learned: Jonah Benjamini ’21

For his thesis, the sociology major and psychology minor analyzed the United States’ structure of power under Donald Trump, comparing it to others around the world.

Sociology major Jonah Benjamini ‘21 was always interested in exploring the ideas of political power for his senior thesis. He intended to compare the American structure of power under Donald Trump to Turkey’s Tayyip Erdogan and Hungary’s Viktor Orban. But then, American citizens stormed the seat of their own democracy on Jan. 6, and Benjamini redirected his focus. His thesis, “The King’s Revolution: A Prolegomenon on De-Democratization at the Dawn of the 21st Century,” delves into the essence of power and the dangers of tyrannical leaders. It was inspired by a paper he wrote in the fall of his junior year in which he connected the idea of internal disorder and the king’s revolution to contemporary United States prior to the 2016 presidential election of Donald Trump. 

“The king’s revolution was originally characterized as the first stage in a major revolution, where a monarch engages in activities that abrogate their bounds of authority, creating a country-court split in the general population that motivates a profound overturning of extant authority structures,” Benjamini explained. “I expand upon this concept, and contend that each stage in a total revolution may be affected by actors within a democratic state towards anti-democratic ends.”

The storming of the Capitol on January 6th shifted his thesis topic to a stage-sequential analysis of the United States. He contextualized the United States in the 21st-century global resurgence of right-wing populist movements, noting the significant erosion to democratic institutions.

“Descriptive accounts of democratic decline produce important data for analysis, but only by comparing cases through a single framework can a meaningful causal explanation be derived to arrive at effective policy decisions that deter anti-democratic movements before they can grow to uncontrollable limits within the state,” he said. “The theoretical framework conceptualized in my thesis may be further applied, falsified, and amended as an introduction to a proper systematization of such movements.”

Benjamini was advised by Professor of Sociology Mark Gould, who created the theory of internal disorder that was recontextualized in his thesis. 

This fall, Benjamini will be attending University of Chicago for a master’s degree in the social sciences. He hopes his work there will be an extension of his thesis. “Potential cases [for research], other than Turkey and Hungary, include Duda’s Poland, Bolsonaro’s Brazil, Modi’s India, Duterte’s Philippines, and the historical cases of Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia,” he said. 

What did you learn from working on your thesis? 
Theodor Adorno and a team of psychologists were among the first who attempted to explain the popular rise of fascism in the 1930s, proposing that certain individuals had a predisposed tendency for susceptibility to anti-democratic attitudes, an “authoritarian personality” that generated coherent patterns of political and social orientations. In my thesis, the constellation of attitudes Adorno et al. described are not treated as indicators of difference, but instead as manifesting symptoms of an underlying syndrome generated by social conditions. It is a sociological orientation similar to Merton’s explanation of deviance, where he uses the situations of such individuals to explain their deviant behavior, rather than focusing on their individual attributes. Effective policy necessitates targeting variables in the social system that constitute the source of popular support in the general population for a fascist revolutionary, and this more often than not requires policy to be guided by equitable values that alleviate the structural positions of those adversely affected by macro-economic processes that have generated strain for significant portions of the population.

“What They Learned” is a blog series exploring the thesis work of recent graduates.