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Why Many Americans Might Be Increasingly Accepting Of Political Violence

For more coverage of the Jan. 6 attack, read our collection of essays and reflections examining where we are as a country one year later, including what has — and hasn’t — changed since a violent mob of Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol.

To some researchers who study political violence, the events of Jan. 6 were disturbingly predictable. In a series of surveys conducted between 2017 and 2020, political scientists Lilliana Mason and Nathan Kalmoe found that a small but significant chunk of Americans — around 15 percent — believed that violence against people of the opposing party was at least a little bit justified. The political science project Bright Line Watch also conducted a survey on the eve of the 2020 election and found that a shocking 40 percent of Americans thought violence would be at least a little bit justified if the other party used violence first.

So where do things stand a year later? “I think the broader threat is greater than it was last year,” Kalmoe told me in an interview this past December. In a survey conducted in June 2021, Kalmoe and Mason found that 24 percent of Republicans and 19 percent of Democrats said that violence against the other party was at least a little okay. Among Republicans who falsely believe that Democrats cheated during the 2020 election, support for violence was 10 percentage points higher. And a Washington Post/University of Maryland poll 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 findings — particularly when our recent politics haven’t been exactly peaceful. There was the moment when Republican Rep. Paul Gosar, who’s aligned himself with white nationalists in the past, circulated a violent anime video that showed him killing Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and attacking President Biden. Election officials have also been deluged with violent threats, to the point where some have left their jobs. Lawmakers, too, have been flooded with threats of violence and death. And although in Kalmoe and Mason’s research, support for violence is largely bipartisan, the real-life menace is coming from conservatives — addressed toward Democrats as well as Republicans perceived as breaking ranks with figures like Trump.

Not all political scientists agree on the scope of the problem, though. In a working paper released last September, a team of researchers argued that other political scientists had overestimated Americans’ support for political violence, perhaps quite dramatically. One issue, they said, was that it wasn’t clear what “violence” meant in previous surveys — leaving respondents to fill in the blank themselves. Their research found that people who were not paying very close attention to the survey were more likely to overstate their support for political violence. They also found that most respondents supported legal consequences for people who commit acts of severe political violence, like murder. “Actions of political violence are very rare among the electorate,” said Sean Westwood, a professor of government at Dartmouth College and one of the study’s authors. His findings, he said, match that reality.

Westwood was, however, careful to stress that support for political violence is still a problem — it just might not be as widespread as previous research suggested. And Kalmoe, for his part, said that it’s less important to him to pin down the exact number of Americans who support different kinds of violence than to establish that a significant chunk of Americans do fall in this category, and try to figure out who they are and what might spur them into action. In their forthcoming book, “Radical American Partisanship: Mapping Violent Hostility, Its Causes, and the Consequences for Democracy,” Kalmoe and Mason write that Republicans are more likely than Democrats to endorse political violence if they lose the 2024 election.

That, Kalmoe said, dovetails with many Republicans’ lack of concern over the events of Jan. 6, which could make future violence seem acceptable. “​​You start from a norm where everyone agrees that violence is not okay, and as that gets broken down, it potentially starts to shift that window of what’s considered acceptable or even desirable,” he said. “That’s an extremely dangerous place to be.”

Scenes from Jan. 6, 2021

Related: A collection of essays and reflections on the Jan. 6 insurrection. Read more »

Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux is a senior editor and senior reporter for FiveThirtyEight.