Opinion | Americans Increasingly Believe Violence is Justified if the Other Side Wins

Our research detected an uptick in recent months in the share of Americans willing to condone political unrest.

10/1/2020 2:30:00 PM

New research shows an upswing in the past few months in the number of Americans — both Democrats and Republicans — who said they think violence would be justified if their side loses the upcoming presidential election

Our research detected an uptick in recent months in the share of Americans willing to condone political unrest.

Lee Drutman is a senior fellow at New America.Tod Lindberg is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.Nathan P. Kalmoe is an associate professor of political communication at Louisiana State University.Lilliana Mason is an associate professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland.

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At the presidential debate this week, the Republican candidate voiced his concern about political violence—left-wing political violence. And the Democratic candidate likewise voiced concern about political violence—right-wing political violence.They were both right.

AdvertisementLike a growing number of prominent American leaders and scholars, we are increasingly anxious that this country is headed toward the worst post-election crisis in a century and a half. Our biggest concern is that a disputed presidential election—especially if there are close contests in a few swing states, or if one candidate denounces the legitimacy of the process—could generate violence and bloodshed.

Unfortunately, we’re not being alarmist about the potential for violence; trends in public opinion that we’ve been tracking provide strong grounds for concern. Our research, which we’re reporting here for the first time, shows an upswing in the past few months in the number of Americans—both Democrats and Republicans—who said they think violence would be justified if their side loses the upcoming presidential election.

This growing acceptance of the possibility of violence is a bipartisan movement. Our data shows that the willingness of Democrats and Republicans alike to justify violence as a way to achieve political goals has essentially been rising in lockstep.All of us have been involved, separately and eventually together, in surveying and researching Americans’ political attitudes and engagement. Late last year, we noticed an uptick in the number of respondents saying they would condone violence by their own political party, and we decided to combine our data sets to get as much information as possible on this worrisome trend. We were also monitoring another question: Would you condone violence if the other party’s candidate wins the presidential election?

While the pool of respondents between our datasets is slightly different, our questions have had the same wording. Here’s what we’ve found:• Among Americans who identify as Democrat or Republican, 1 in 3 now believe that violence could be justified to advance their parties’ political goals—a substantial increase over the last three years.

• In September, 44 percent of Republicans and 41 percent of Democrats said there would be at least “a little” justification for violence if the other party’s nominee wins the election. Those figures are both up from June, when 35 percent of Republicans and 37 percent of Democrats expressed the same sentiment.

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• Similarly, 36 percent of Republicans and 33 percent of Democrats said it is at least “a little” justified for their side “to use violence in advancing political goals”—up from 30 percent of both Republicans and Democrats in June.• There has been an even larger increase in the share of both Democrats and Republicans who believe there would be either “a lot” or “a great deal” of justification for violence if their party were to lose in November. The share of Republicans seeing substantial justification for violence if their side loses jumped from 15 percent in June to 20 percent in September, while the share of Democrats jumped from 16 percent to 19 percent.

• These numbers are even higher among the most ideological partisans. Of Democrats who identify as “very liberal,” 26 percent said there would be “a great deal” of justification for violence if their candidate loses the presidency compared to 7 percent of those identifying as simply “liberal.” Of Republicans who identify as “very conservative,” 16 percent said they believe there would be “a great deal” of justification for violence if the GOP candidate loses compared to 7 percent of those identifying as simply “conservative.” This means the ideological extremes of each party are two to four times more apt to see violence as justified than their party’s mainstream members.

All together, about 1 in 5 Americans with a strong political affiliation says they are quite willing to endorse violence if the other party wins the presidency. (The surveys by YouGov and the Voter Study Group had margins of error ranging from 1.5 to 3 percentage points. The surveys by Nationscape had margins of error of 2 and 2.1 percentage points.)

How seriously should we take these expressions of violence? Both history and social psychology warn us to take them very seriously. In Europe in the 1920s and 1930s, a rising tide of armed street mobilization and of violent clashes between rival partisans ravaged fragile democratic cultures, bullied and marginalized moderate forces, and gave rising autocrats an excuse to seize emergency powers. Some of us who’ve studied the rise of authoritarians see strong parallels between that period of European history and factors at work in America today.

However, expressing approval of partisan violence does not mean someone is ready to pick up a gun. The steps from attitudes to actions are prohibitive for all but a tiny minority because of the legal, social, and physical risks of acting violently.But even a shift of 1 percent in these surveys would represent the views of over a million Americans. Furthermore, two of us

in our research that violent events tend toincreasepublic approval of political violence—potentially creating a vicious cycle even if violence is sparked in only a few spots.Viewed in this light, the events of this summer are especially worrying. Competing protesters from the right and left have clashed violently in Portland, Ore.; Kenosha, Wis.; and

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Louisville. Left-wing extremists have repeatedly laid siege to federal buildings in Portland, and on several occasions, armed right-wing protesters entered the State Capitol in Michigan.Democrats have interpreted Trump’s remarks and tweets as legitimizing or even encouraging violence by his supporters—fears only intensified by the president’s comments during this week’s debate urging the Proud Boys, a misogynistic white supremacist group that has been active in recent street protests, to “stand back and stand by.”

Republicans, for their part, interpreted Joe Biden’s rhetorical question in arecent speech, “Does anyone believe there will be less violence in America if Donald Trump is reelected?” as a veiled threat of violence should Biden lose.Moreover, the notable increase in violent views in the past year continues a worrisome trend. Between 2017 and 2019, our YouGov survey data showed a marked 9-point increase in the percentage of partisans who believe it would be at least “a little bit” justified for their own party to use violence to advance their political goals today.

What should leaders do? No lesson in the study of democratic breakdowns rings more clearly than that political leaders play the central role in fanning—or containing—political polarization and extremism. From Germany and Italy in interwar Europe to Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s, the rhetoric and tactics of leading politicians shaped the fate of democracies in crisis.

Recent research on the United States reaffirms this timeless truth: Leaders play an essential role in fueling the fire or extinguishing the flames of violence among their followers.Preliminary studiesshow that messages from Biden or Trump denouncing all violence can reduce mass approval of violence.

Everyone in a position of leadership in a democracy—whether in a neighborhood organization, a municipality, a political party, the Congress or the White House—has an obligation to renounce violence and explicitly dissuade their followers from turning to violent tactics or threats. Further, political leaders have a solemn responsibility to uphold and urge their followers to adhere to the essential norms of democracy, including the principles that the voters should freely decide who shall rule, and all valid votes should be counted toward that decision.

However, we fear we are now headed into such a severe downward spiral of partisan polarization that we cannot rely on the candidates and campaigns to pull us out of it.In this context, any one of several possible scenarios risks triggering unprecedented post-election violence. Biden could surge from behind on Election Night to win on the strength of mail-in ballots that President Trump has already dismissed as fraud-ridden, prompting Trump’s supporters to feel the election was stolen from him. Should some Republican-controlled legislatures seek to throw out mail-in ballots wholesale and give their states’ Electoral College votes to Trump regardless of the final vote count, Democrats (and others) would be outraged. There could also be intense anger on the left if Trump wins reelection by once again losing the popular vote but winning by narrow margins in states that give him an Electoral College victory. Congress—itself so polarized—could be hard-pressed to ensure a widely legitimate outcome on its own.

The best hope now to tamp down support for this potential political violence is to establish an independent, bipartisan third force—a broad commission of distinguished leaders and democratic elders of both parties and of civil society. Its mission would be to reaffirm and defend our democratic norms, especially the critical principles that every valid vote should be counted and that political violence is never justified in the United States. Congress should immediately appoint such a commission.

We do not pull this alarm lightly. The decisions we make over the next few months are hugely consequential. If we fall into a cycle of violence, the consequences for America’s future as a democracy will be dire. Read more: POLITICO »

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Progressives should be driven out of influence in the government You are actively promoting it. We've seen the playbook that you are following. Trump is fomenting insurrection with his incessant dog whistling to his right wing Terrorists groups composed of white Supremacy armed boys with guns just itching to be 'real men'.

Bull 💩. Violence is the Republican narrative. 🤥🤥🤥🤥 Dangerous If Trump wins you know it was rigged. Period. Then why is the president sabotaging the post office, and other places. And now using the governor of Texas. And then they said that America is not racist? No it’s not racist, it is Super Racist.

Let's just call it the next Ft. Sumter. It would suck to be the one that fired the first shots by using voter fraud to win an election. hughballou No it's not. I'm not sure who you guys are talking to, but violence is never ok. As a Trump supporter of course I'd be very upset, but we move on. I don’t believe that, the right can accept reality

Conservatives need to step up to the plate and meet the progressives in the trenches. Don’t back down. Drive them out. this tries so hard to present a 'balanced' view. It fails to emphasize how very dangerous Trump is. He is the IED that could destroy democracy. Failed country Violence is never reasonable if one side loses. This is just to scare people. Republicans can’t always be in power. We need all new senators. Ones who will condemn violence & uphold democracy.

Violence is not justified, its an excuse to act poorly and get arrested Your guys are disgusting. They will find out by police,FBI and US Military it’s not. False narrative, the vast majority of people can’t get far enough away from the fridge to commit acts of organized violence, please ,this is just not a happening thing.

The difference between the two party's is where the violence may occur, and who it targets. This is sad state of affairs for our country. How far we have fallen! When will the media make a distinction between damage to property and murder? They are not on the same level. Leftist protests almost invariably are peaceful toward other people. Right-wing 'protesters' are almost invariably heavily armed and frequently shoot (or drive) to kill.

Soros sponsored prosecutors are center of not charging people for crimes. If people were charged and dealt with by law. From the signs more white people would be in jail. 👈 except the violence that was pre- existing in Chicago. Their level of crime was already high. And yet, it's the WhiteWing doing the violence. Take your BothSides bullshit and GFY with it.

Then lay the blame justly at the feet of the MSM. If they were adamant about truth they would report the facts about Covid. Masks still leave you open to infection, avg death age same as for all Americans, under 60 99% recovery rate, etc. Society has made violence the way to be heard. Leaders in cities do nothing to prevent or stop violence & looting so this will escalate until something is done. I want a new Rolex watch so if others can just take and there are no consequences that’s the way things will be

Revolution is coming. The barbarians are inside the gates. The legion has crossed the Rubicon. Above the gate is inscribed: I am the way to the city of woe, I am the way to eternal sorrow, Abandon hope, all who enter here. Four horsemen gallop down the mall and angelic trumpets play the dirge. From the left Politico, and you know it!!!

No way! Stop spreading hate and violence Yes. In this generation, the only difference between a presidential candidate and an inmate housed in segregation is what type of poo gets flung. Peace is being taken, to prepare the world for HisRevelation Cheating will not tolerated Yes the white supremacy and militia groups are the same as the people who protest against them. one party is trying to gets votes the other is suppressing them. One party continually “jokes” about giving this president another 12 years in office.

That’s what the globalist corporate media is trying to foment... I guess Democrats just started a few years early? Democrats are the violent ones! Mostly Communist Democrats I pray that this does NOT happen 🙏 The Posse Comitatus Act is a United States federal law signed on June 18, 1878, by President Rutherford B. Hayes which limits the powers of the federal government in the use of federal military personnel to enforce domestic policies within the United States.

Violence is not the way. But our President told his most violent supporters to stand back and stand by. That being said don’t get caught sleeping and just be ready to protect your family. But not for a bullshit political ideology. These crosstabs need to be broken out fully in the poll, because I guarantee you one side is a lagging indicator.

The media is responsible for all the violence. Neoavatara Democrats have already been practicing. If we want to keep our lives we will have to stand up and fight the ones destroying everything now will be on our side when they realize how they have been played. We will not bow down to socialism communism or shari law we keep our American values or we die trying

Civil war is inevitable in America. The divisions and hatred run too deep to be resolved any other way. Ya right! Democrats ... yes as we've all seen for ourselves the past 3.75 years and especially the last 100+ days, but Republicans? No. I very seriously doubt your data there. We didn't riot when Obama was elected and you don't see us out there rioting now, do you?

This is what the Marxist media want us to believe to create chaos. Only Republicans carry around AR-15s to intimidate and shoot their political enemies. YAFOS When the media says 'both sides' it means Lefties are the real culprits. It's either 'right wing' or 'both sides'. It's never a negative story about the 'left' alone.

MaxBoot Good 🤨 People who think this way have never suffered violence, let alone been placed in the awful position to use it to protect themselves. Tragically naive...

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