Why Many Americans Might Be Increasingly Accepting Of Political Violence

For more coverage of the January 6th attack, check out our collection of essays and reflections examining where we are as a country a year later, including what has changed – and not – since a violent crowd of Trump- Supporters stormed the US Capitol.

For some researchers studying political violence, the events of January 6th were worryingly predictable. In a series of surveys conducted between 2017 and 2020, Political scientists Lilliana Mason and Nathan Kalmoe found that a small but significant proportion of Americans – around 15 percent – felt that violence against persons of the opposing party was at least somewhat justified. Also the political science project Bright Line Watch Conducted a survey on the eve of the 2020 election, noting that a shocking 40 percent of Americans thought violence would be at least somewhat justified if the other party used violence first.

Where are things a year later? “I think the threat is bigger than last year,” Kalmoe told me in an interview last December. In a poll in June 2021, Kalmoe and Mason found that 24 percent of Republicans and 19 percent of Democrats find violence against the other party at least a little okay. Support for violence was 10 percentage points higher among Republicans who mistakenly believe the Democrats cheated in the 2020 election. And a Washington Post / University of Maryland survey The study, conducted in mid-December, found that 34 percent of Americans said it was at least sometimes justified for citizens to take violent action against the government, up from 23 percent when the question was last asked in 2015.

These are alarming results – especially when our recent policies have not been peaceful. There was the moment when Republican MP Paul Gosar, who had allied himself with white nationalists in the past, circulated a violent anime video showing him killing Democratic MP Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and assaulting President Biden. Election officials were too inundated with violent threats, to the point where some have given up their jobs. Even the legislature was flooded with threats of violence and death. And although in Kalmoe and Mason’s research support for violence is largely bipartisan, the real threat comes from conservatives – addressed to Democrats and Republicans who break from ranks with personalities like Trump.

However, not all political scientists agree on the scope of the problem. In a working paper published last September argued a team of researchers that other political scientists may have dramatically overestimated Americans’ support for political violence. One problem, they said, was that previous surveys hadn’t made it clear what “violence” meant – respondents had to fill in the blanks themselves. Their research found that people who weren’t very attentive to the survey were more likely to overestimate their support for political violence. They also found that most respondents were in favor of legal consequences for those who commit serious political violence, such as murder. “Political acts of violence are very rare among voters,” said Sean Westwood, Professor of Government at Dartmouth College and one of the study’s authors. His results, he said, are consistent with this reality.

Westwood, however, carefully stressed that support for political violence is still an issue – it just may not be as widespread as previous research suggests. And for his part, Kalmoe said he cared less about determining the exact number of Americans who support different types of violence than realizing that a significant proportion of Americans fall into that category and figuring out who they are and what they belong to Could inspire action. In her upcoming book “Radical American Partaking: Mapping Violent Hostility, Its Causes, and its Consequences for Democracy”Kalmoe and Mason write that Republicans are more likely than Democrats to be in favor of political violence if they lose the 2024 election.

That, said Kalmoe, goes with it Many Republicans are unconcerned about the events of January 6th that made future violence acceptable. “You start from a norm where everyone agrees that violence is not okay, and if that is broken down it may shift the window of what is acceptable or even desirable,” he said. “This is an extremely dangerous place.”

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