How are borders made? State borders are the product of political conflict, nationalist discourse, unequal economic systems, and, as this essay shows, significant public financial investment. Public policy and political narratives naturalize state borders, often hiding how their origins are arbitrary and violent. State borders often mark space following war and conflict, but they also perform additional social functions like maintaining distinct political systems and differentiating between insiders and outsiders. Borders also construct economic difference by maintaining unequal trade relations, national currencies, and disparate value regimes across states and regional zones.

States create borders by dedicating public funds to construct and uphold them. In the post-9/11 United States, state officials juxtaposed the discourse of anti-terrorism with that of border regulation, contributing to the securitization of the US-Mexico border. President George W. Bush’s administration founded the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) through the Homeland Security Act of 2002. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) are two key agencies under DHS, responsible for apprehending, detaining, and deporting immigrants. CBP touts itself as “one of the world’s largest law enforcement organizations” (CBP, 2020) and states that its primary mission is “to detect and prevent the illegal entry of individuals into the United States” and “maintain borders that work” (CBP, 2021). ICE states that its “mission is to protect America from the cross-border crime and illegal immigration that threaten national security and public safety” (ICE, 2022).

Data visualization by the Author. Source: U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Budget in Brief Reports, FY2006 to FY2024, inclusive (Reports not adjusted for inflation).

The chart above illustrates trends in federal spending on immigration enforcement and border security in the image of a fenced border wall (these figures are not adjusted for inflation). The brick wall represents the annual budget of CBP. The fence above the brick wall represents the annual budget of ICE. Graffitied sections of the wall represent the six presidential terms since 2002, namely, Bush 1, Bush 2, Obama 1, Obama 2, Trump, and Biden. The red and blue barbed wire represents the sum of annual budgets for CBP and ICE. Red sections of the barbed wire indicate budgets approved by Republican presidents, while blue sections indicate budgets approved by Democratic presidents. Numeric labels above the barbed wire represent the combined budget for CBP and ICE at the beginning and end of each presidential term.

Democratic and Republican presidents have expressed rhetorical differences in immigration policy, with Democrats articulating a more pro-immigrant stance compared to their Republican counterparts. The chart above gives the lie to the political performativity of partisan differences on immigration policy. In practice, Democratic presidents appear no less enthusiastic than their Republican counterparts in funding the border policing. In a period of 21 years, Democratic and Republican governments have spent a staggering total of $409.4 billion of public funds on immigration enforcement. $178.9 billion has been spent by Republican Presidents, averaging to $17.9 billion annually. $230.5 billion has been spent by Democratic Presidents, averaging to $21.0 billion annually. In total, $275 billion has been spent on CBP and $134.4 has been spent on ICE. Overall, federal expenditures on immigration enforcement have nearly tripled from $9.6 billion (FY2004) to $28.7 billion (FY2024) in unadjusted dollars. Adjusting for inflation to 2024 dollars still suggests an increase from about $17.5 billion to $28.7 billion.

When it comes to immigration, Republicans put their money where their mouth is, while Democrats do not. What explains this? The contrast between the partisan difference in immigration rhetoric and partisan consensus on immigration policy is rooted in the fundamental contradictions of bourgeois liberal democracy. While elected representatives are supposed to represent the will of the working people, in actuality they represent the interests of the ruling economic, political, and racial elite. Substantive progress towards de-carcerating the United States and de-securitizing the US-Mexico border might have been possible if progressives exercised greater power in Congress and if, in turn, Congress exercised greater power over the budget and immigration enforcement. In the current context, however, this is unlikely. In October 2023, President Joe Biden’s administration waived no fewer than 26 federal regulations to construct a border wall between the US and Mexico in Texas (Gonzalez, 2023), seemingly mimicking his Republican predecessor Donald Trump in advance of the 2024 presidential election. In the gaping void left by the abandonment of any commitment to a progressive ideological agenda in the Democratic Party, anti-immigrant violence fills the void.

Sources and Additional Reading

  • Ackleson, J. (2005). Constructing security on the US–Mexico border. Political Geography24(2), 165-184.
  • CBP 2020. Customs and Border Protection. 2020. “About CBP.” Washington, DC: Customs and Border Protection. Retrieved November 17, 2021 (https://www.cbp.gov/about)
  • CBP 2021. Customs and Border Protection. 2021. “Border Patrol Overview.” Washington, DC: Customs and Border Protection. Retrieved November 17, 2021. (https://www.cbp.gov/border-security/along-us-borders/overview)
  • Gonzalez, V. (2023, October 6). The Biden Administration says it is using executive power to allow border wall construction in Texas. AP News. https://apnews.com/article/border-wall-biden-immigration-texas-rio-grande-147d7ab497e6991e9ea929242f21ceb2 
  • ICE 2022. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. 2022. “Keeping America Safe.” Washington, DC: Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Retrieved November 17, 2021. (https://www.ice.gov/#)
  • Reinke de Buitrago, S. (2017). The meaning of borders for national identity and state authority. Border politics: defining spaces of governance and forms of transgressions, 143-158.
  • U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Budget in Brief Reports, FY2006 to FY2024, inclusive.

Dr. Ghazah Abbasi is a Postdoctoral Associate in Public Engagement at the Cornell Brooks School of Public Policy

Lockdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic had a major impact on all kinds of social behaviors, from discrimination to civic engagement and protests. What effect has the pandemic had on more extreme behaviors, like terrorist attacks from groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)? Many armed actors, such as ISIS, threatened to use the pandemic to advance their goals. In its propaganda, ISIS even referred to COVID-19 as the “smallest soldier of Allah on the face of the earth.”

Empty streets in Kirkuk, Iraq in 2020. Photo Credit: Middle East Monitor licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, photo here 

In some ways, the pandemic presented an opportunity to armed groups like ISIS. The pandemic threatened to divert resources away from fighting extremism because it overwhelmed countries’ budgets and placed demands on some countries’ security forces to deliver public health care services.  

In our research, however, my colleagues and I found that the pandemic did not generally increase ISIS attacks. Instead, we found that lockdown measures adopted during the pandemic reduced attacks in Egypt, Iraq, and Syria. The effects were especially large in densely populated areas, where the population provided physical cover for ISIS’s activities, and in areas outside ISIS’s base of operations, which were harder to reach due to travel restrictions.

In taking people off the streets, the lockdowns removed the physical cover ISIS relies on for its operations, especially in urban areas, and eliminated many high-value civilian targets, such as markets. In shutting down businesses and reducing travel, the lockdowns also reduced ISIS’s revenue.  However, the lockdowns were not in place long enough to significantly deplete the group’s reserves.

Even though the impact of the lockdowns on ISIS was significant, the lockdowns posed less of a challenge to ISIS than most other armed groups. ISIS has large financial reserves, operates in largely rural areas, and does not extensively target civilian populations. Most other armed groups have much smaller financial reserves than ISIS, operate in urban areas, and target civilians much more heavily.  The effect of the lockdowns of these groups was likely even greater than it was on ISIS.

Our research shows us how much social context and opportunity matter to extremist violence. Despite the propaganda, even a terrorist group such as ISIS was locked down by the pandemic like everyone else.

Dr. Dawn Brancati is a senior lecturer in political science at Yale University who researches peacebuilding, especially as it relates to democracy and democratic institutions. 

Despite calls to physically distance, we are still seeing reports of racially motivated hate crimes in the media. Across the United States, anti-Asian discrimination is rearing its ugly head as people point fingers to blame the global pandemic on a distinct group rather than come to terms with underfunded healthcare systems and poorly-prepared governments.

Governments play a role in creating this rhetoric. Blaming racialized others for major societal problems is a feature of populist governments. One example is Donald Trump’s use of the phrase “Chinese virus” to describe COVID-19. Stirring up racialized resentment is a political tactic used to divert responsibility from the state by blaming racialized members of the community for a global virus. Anti-hate groups are increasingly concerned that the deliberate dehumanization of Asian populations by the President may also fuel hate as extremist groups take this opportunity to create social division.

Unfortunately, this is not new and it is not limited to the United States. During the SARS outbreak there were similar instances of institutional racism inherent in Canadian political and social structures as Chinese, Southeast and East Asian Canadians felt isolated at work, in hospitals, and even on public transportation. As of late May in Vancouver British Columbia Canada, there have been 29 cases of anti-Asian hate crimes.

In this crisis, it is easier for governments to use racialized people as scapegoats than to admit decisions to defund and underfund vital social and healthcare resources. By stoking racist sentiments already entrenched in the Global North, the Trump administration shifts the focus from the harm their policies will inevitably cause, such their willingness to cut funding for the CDC and NIH.

Sociological research shows how these tactics become more widespread as politicians use social media to communicate directly with citizens. creating instantaneous polarizing content. Research has also shown an association between hate crimes in the United States and anti-Muslim rhetoric expressed by Trump as early as 2015. Racist sentiments expressed by politicians have a major impact on the attitudes of the general population, because they excuse and even promote blame toward racialized people, while absolving blame from governments that have failed to act on social issues.     

Kayla Preston is an incoming PhD student in the department of sociology at the University of Toronto. Her research centers on right-wing extremism and deradicalization.

It is a strange sight to watch politicians working to go viral. Check out this video from the political nonprofit ACRONYM, where Alexis Magnan-Callaway — the Digital Mobilization Director of Kirsten Gillibrand’s presidential campaign — talks us through some key moments on social media. 

Social media content has changed the rules of the game for getting attention in the political world. An entire industry has sprung up around going viral professionally, and politicians are putting these new rules to use for everything from promoting the Affordable Care Act to breaking Twitter’s use policy

In a new paper out at Sociological Theory with Doug Hartmann, I (Evan) argue that part of the reason this is happening is due to new structural transformations in the public sphere. Recent changes in communication technology have created a situation where the social fields for media, politics, academia, and the economy are now much closer together. It is much easier for people who are skilled in any one of these fields to get more public attention by mixing up norms and behaviors from the other three. Thomas Medvetz called people who do this in the policy world “jugglers,” and we argue that many more people have started juggling as well. 

Arm-wrestling a constituent is a long way from the Nixon-Kennedy debates, but there are institutional reasons why this shouldn’t surprise us. Juggling social capital from many fields means that social changes start to accelerate, as people can suddenly be much more successful by breaking the norms in their home fields. Politicians can get electoral gains by going viral, podcasts take off by talking to academics, and ex-policy wonks suddenly land coveted academic positions.

Another good example of this new structural transformation in action is Ziad Ahmed, a Yale undergraduate, business leader, and activist. At the core of his public persona is an interesting mix of both norm-breaking behavior and carefully curated status markers for many different social fields. 

In 2017, Ahmed was accepted to Yale after writing “#BlackLivesMatter” 100 times; this was contemporaneously reported by outlets such as NBC NewsCNNTimeThe Washington PostBusiness InsiderHuffPost, and Mashable

A screenshot excerpt of Ahmed’s bio statement from his personal website

Since then, Ahmed has cultivated a long biography featuring many different meaningful status markers: his educational institution; work as the CEO of a consulting firm; founding of a diversity and inclusion organization; a Forbes “30 Under 30” recognition; Ted Talks; and more. The combination of these symbols paints a complex picture of an elite student, activist, business leader, and everyday person on social media. 

Critics have called this mixture “a super-engineered avatar of corporate progressivism that would make even Mayor Pete blush.” We would say that, for better or worse, this is a new way of doing activism and advocacy that comes out of different institutional conditions in the public sphere. As different media, political, and academic fields move closer together, activists like Ahmed and viral moments like those in the Gillibrand campaign show how a much more complicated set of social institutions and practices are shaping the way we wield public influence today.

Bob Rice is a PhD student in sociology at UMass Boston. They’re interested in perceptions of authority, social movements, culture, stratification, mental health, and digital methods. 

Evan Stewart is an assistant professor of sociology at University of Massachusetts Boston. You can follow his work at his website, on Twitter, or on BlueSky.

Since mid-March 2020, Gallup has been polling Americans about their degree of self-isolation during the pandemic. The percent who said they had “avoided small gatherings” rose from 50% in early-March to 81% in early April, dropping slightly to 75% in late April as pressures began rising to start loosening stay-at-home orders.

What makes this curve sociologically interesting is our leaders generally made the restrictions largely voluntary, hoping for social norms to do the job of control. Only a few state and local governments have issued citations for holding social gatherings. Mostly, social norms have been doing the job. But increasingly the partisan divide on self-isolation is widening and undermining pandemic precautions. The chart, which appeared in a Gallup report on May 11, 2020, vividly shows the partisan divide on beliefs in distancing as protection from the pandemic. The striking finding is the huge partisan gap with independents leaning slightly toward Democrats.  

Not only did the partisan divide remain wide, but the number of adults practicing “social distancing” dropped from 75% in early April to 58%. This drop in so called self-reported “social distancing” occurred in states both with and without stay-at-home orders. Elsewhere I argue that “social distancing” is a most unfortunate label for physical distancing.

Republicans have been advocating for opening up businesses early, but it is not a mere intellectual debate. Some held large protests while brandishing firearms; others appeared in public without masks and without observing 6-feet distances. Some business that re-opened in early May reported customers acting disrespectful to others, ignoring the store’s distancing rules. In another incident, an armed militia stood outside a barbershop to keep authorities from closing down the newly reopened shop.

Retail operations in particular are concerned about compliance
to social norms because without adequate compliance, other customers will not
return. Social norms rely on social trust. If retail operations cannot depend
upon customers to be respectful, they will not only lose additional customers
but employees as well.

The Sad Impact of Pandemic Partisanship    

American society was highly partisan before the pandemic, so it is not surprising that partisan signs remain. For a few weeks in March and April, partisanship took a back seat and signs of cooperation suggested societal solidarity.

We are only months away from the Presidential election, so we do not expect either side to let us forget the contest. However, we can only hope that partisans will not forget that politics cannot resolve the pandemic alone. Without relying heavily on scientists and health system experts, our society can only fail.

Unfortunately, lives hang in the balance if there is a partisan failure to reach consensus on distancing and related precautions. Economists at Stanford and Harvard, using distancing data from smartphones as well as local data on COVID cases and deaths, completed a sophisticated model of the first few months of the pandemic. Their report, “Polarization and Public Health: Partisan Differences in Social Distancing during the Coronavirus Pandemic,” found that (1) Republicans engage in less social distancing, and (2) if this partisanship difference continues, the US will end up with more COVIC-19 transmission at a higher economic cost. Assuming the researchers’ analytical model is accurate, the Republican ridicule of social distancing is such an ironic tragedy. Not only will lives be lost but what is done under the banner of promoting economic benefit, is actually producing greater economic hardship.

Ron Anderson, Professor Emeritus, University of Minnesota, taught sociology from 1968 to 2005. His early work centered around the social diffusion of technology. Since 2005, his work has focused on compassion and the social dimensions of suffering.

For a long time, political talk at the “moderate middle” has focused on a common theme that goes something like this: 

There is too much political polarization and conflict. It’s tearing us apart. People aren’t treating each other with compassion. We need to come together, set aside our differences, and really listen to each other.

I have heard countless versions of this argument in my personal life and in public forums. It is hard to disagree with them at first. Who can be against seeking common ground?

But as a political sociologist, I am also skeptical of this argument because we have good research showing how it keeps people and organizations from working through important disagreements. When we try to avoid conflict above all, we often end up avoiding politics altogether. It is easy to confuse common ground with occupied territory — social spaces where legitimate problems and grievances are ignored in the name of some kind of pleasant consensus. 

A really powerful sociological image popped up in my Twitter feed that makes the point beautifully. We actually did find some common ground this week through a trend that united the country across red states and blue states:

It is tempting to focus on protests as a story about conflict alone, and conflict certainly is there. But it is also important to realize that this week’s protests represent a historic level of social consensus. The science of cooperation and social movements reminds us that getting collective action started is hard. And yet, across the country, we see people not only stepping up, but self-organizing groups to handle everything from communication to community safety and cleanup. In this way, the protests also represent a remarkable amount of agreement that the current state of policing in this country is simply neither just nor tenable. 

I was struck by this image because I don’t think nationwide protests are the kind of thing people have in mind when they call for everyone to come together, but right now protesting itself seems like one of the most unifying trends we’ve got. That’s the funny thing about social cohesion and cultural consensus. It is very easy to call for setting aside our differences and working together when you assume everyone will be rallying around your particular way of life. But social cohesion is a group process, one that emerges out of many different interactions, and so none of us ever have that much control over when and where it actually happens.

Evan Stewart is an assistant professor of sociology at University of Massachusetts Boston. You can follow his work at his website, on Twitter, or on BlueSky.

Can political leaders put partisanship aside to govern in a crisis? The COVID-19 pandemic has proved to be a crucial test of politicians’ willingness to put state before party. Acting swiftly to slow the spread of a novel virus and cooperating with cross-partisans could mean the difference between life and death for many state residents.

The first confirmed case of the novel coronavirus in the United States was reported in Washington state in January 2020. New cases, including incidents of community spread, continued to be recorded across the country in February. However, federal-level efforts to “flatten the curve” did not begin in force until March. Michigan’s Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer was among the first governors to openly criticize the Trump administration’s slow response. Her criticism led to an open partisan feud on Twitter between the two leaders.

In the absence of a national
order to limit the virus’ spread within the country, state governors took
action. Leaders in states with some of the earliest-recorded cases – such as
Washington, Illinois, and California – put stay-at-home or shelter-in-place
orders into effect shortly after the US closed its northern and southern borders to non-essential travel. In a matter of weeks,
most states’ residents were under similar orders.

Did governors’ decisions to order their states’ residents to hunker down vary by party? In the figure below, I have plotted the date stay-at-home or shelter-in-place orders went into effect (as of April 15, according to the New York Times) by the date of the state’s first reported confirmed case of COVID-19 (according to US News & World Report). States with Democratic governors are labeled in blue and Republican governors are labeled in red. As of April 15, no statewide stay-home orders had been issued in the Republican-governed states labeled in grey on the plot.

Of the 50 states plus
Washington DC and Puerto Rico, a total of 44 governors have issued stay-at-home
or shelter-in-place orders. All Democratic-governed states were under similar
orders after Governor Janet Mills called for Maine’s residents to stay home
beginning April 2. By contrast, just over two-thirds of states led by
Republican executives have mandated residents stay home. Eight states – all led
by Republicans – had not issued such statewide orders as of April 15, 2020.
States without stay-at-home orders have had substantial outbreaks of COVID-19,
including in South Dakota where nearly 450 Smithfield Foods workers were infected in April
causing the plant to close indefinitely.

Republican governors have generally been slower to issue restrictions on residents’ non-essential movement. Democrats and Republicans govern an equal number of states and territories on the above plot (26 each). Fifteen Democratic governors had issued statewide stay-home orders by March 26. The fifteenth Republican governor to mandate state residents stay home did not put this order into effect until April 3. This move came after all states with Democratic governors had announced similar orders and over two weeks after COVID-19 cases had been confirmed in all states.

The median number of days Democratic governors took to mandate their residents to stay home after their state’s first confirmed case was 21 days. By contrast, the median Republican governor took four additional days (25) to restrict residents’ non-essential movement, not accounting for states without stay-home orders as of April 15.

In short, the timing of
governors’ decisions to mandate #stayhomesavelives appears to be partisan.
However, there are select cases of governors putting public health before party.
Ohio’s Republican Governor Mike DeWine has been heralded as one example. He was
the first governor to order all schools to close, an action for which CNN
described DeWine as the “anti-Trump on coronavirus.” These deviations from the norm suggest that
divisive partisanship is not inevitable when governing a crisis.

Morgan C. Matthews is a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She studies gender, partisanship, and U.S. political institutions.

Sociologists spend a lot of time thinking about lives in social context: how the relationships and communities we live in shape the way we understand ourselves and move through the world. It can be tricky to start thinking about this, but one easy way to do it is to start collecting social facts. Start by asking, what’s weird about where you’re from?

I grew up on the western side of the Lower Peninsula of Michigan, so my eye naturally drifts to the Great Lakes every time I look at a map of the US. Lately I’ve been picking up on some interesting things I never knew about my old home state. First off, I didn’t realize that, relative to the rest of the country, this region is a hotspot for air pollution from Chicago and surrounding industrial areas.

Second, I was looking at ProPublica’s reporting of a new database of Catholic clergy credibly accused of abuse, and noticed that the two dioceses covering western MI haven’t yet disclosed information about possible accusations. I didn’t grow up Catholic, but as a sociologist who studies religion it is weird to think about the institutional factors that might be keeping this information under wraps.

Third, there’s the general impact of this region on the political and cultural history of the moment. West Michigan happens to be the place that brought you some heavy hitters like Amway (which plays a role in one of my favorite sociological podcasts of last year), the founder of Academi (formally known as Blackwater), and our current Secretary of Education. In terms of elite political and economic networks, few regions have been as influential in current Republican party politics.

I think about these facts and wonder how much they shaped my own story. Would I have learned to like exercise more if I could have actually caught my breath during the mile run in gym class? Did I get into studying politics and religion because it was baked into all the institutions around me, even the business ventures? It’s hard to say for sure.

What’s weird about where YOU’RE from? Doing this exercise is great for two reasons. First, it helps to get students thinking in terms of the sociological imagination — connecting bigger social and historical factors to their individual experiences. Second, it also helps to highlight an important social research methods point about the ecological fallacy by getting us to think about all the ways that history and social context don’t necessarily force us to turn out a certain way. As more data become public and maps get easier to make, it is important to remember that population correlates with everything!

Evan Stewart is an assistant professor of sociology at University of Massachusetts Boston. You can follow his work at his website, on Twitter, or on BlueSky.