In the wake of the beer-hall ambience of this week’s first presidential debate, it’s probably no surprise that a new study suggests a coarsening of political attitudes among Americans. But researchers want to make it clear that it’s not just crude talk or combative rhetoric that’s on the rise: it’s a bipartisan trend toward condoning potential violence after the election. It’s unclear whether, or how, the president’s COVID-19 infection will affect the atmosphere — it could be sobering, or it could increase tensions even more — but as a symbol of perpetually unsettling times, it’s just more of the new normal.
The violence study was authored by an unusually distinguished and bipartisan group of researchers whose work involves studying Americans’ political attitudes. As they explain in Politico, “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.” What they found was indeed disturbing:
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.
Perhaps more important, there’s a hard kernel of politically engaged Americans who might be the first in the streets if things go really bad:
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.
The numbers almost certainly reflect a steadily increasing bipartisan belief that the other side is preparing to seize the presidency by illegitimate means. Most of that is attributable to the president, who has been alleging over and over that Democrats plan to “rig” the election via manipulation of mail ballots. Trump’s subsequent refusal to say anything reassuring about his willingness to accept an election loss has produced a countervailing conviction among left-of-center observers that he is planning to contest the results if he loses, perhaps by a premature victory declaration on Election Night, or maybe by preventing the full counting of votes in the courts or even by force.
And even among those who don’t necessarily suspect the other side of plans to steal the election, there is a growing awareness that resolution of this election could drag on for an unprecedented length of time as the parties battle in court over a bumper crop of slowly counted mail ballots. If the presidential contest is as close as most expect, this period of post-election uncertainty could violently spill over into the streets. While the roughly one-in-five voters in the new study who think violence might well be justified may not themselves take to the barricades, there will clearly be a large enough pool of sympathizers to make large-scale conflicts possible. Even peaceful protests could turn ugly.
What can be done to turn down the temperature? The study’s authors clearly think it’s a leadership issue:
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 studies show that messages from Biden or Trump denouncing all violence can reduce mass approval of violence.
Biden has already done that, and it seems unlikely that after having spent months and months relentlessly undermining the legitimacy of the election Trump is going to say “Just kidding!” or even “Yes, the election is rigged, but nobody should get too upset over it!” Calming the waters really isn’t his style.
But while Trump is clearly the arsonist striking matches in a bone-dry forest, let’s not pretend that partisan and ideological polarization in this country is all artificial or cynically manufactured. Trump is a master of exploiting Americans’ existing divisions, which reflect significant disagreements on values and priorities. I won’t go through an exhaustive list, but a moment’s thought conjures up many. Many millions of Americans believe legalized abortion is an American holocaust, while many millions more view revocation of reproductive rights as a barbaric relic of ancient patriarchy that reduces women to brood mares under state supervision. There is a growing conviction on the left that climate change is an imminent threat to the survival of civilization, and a growing conviction on the right that the discussion of climate change is a ruse to justify the introduction of socialism. One large segment of the population thinks systemic racism against Blacks and other minority groups is a cancer eating at American society, breeding inequity and injustice. Another thinks that this is tantamount to the destruction of white people, aided by “political correctness” and “cancel culture” wiping out free speech.
And much more fundamentally, American conservatism is dominated by those who believe that the “inalienable rights” that make the country what it is include property rights, religious rights, gun rights, parental rights, and of course a fetal “right to life” — all based on divine will, natural law, and the wisdom of the Founders — that no majority, however large, should ever be allowed to traduce. And an increasingly alarmed and dominant faction of American progressives believe a coalition of economic and cultural reactionaries are successfully mastering the tools of institutional and economic power to frustrate the popular will and entrench their own power perpetually.
These are not beliefs and fears that you can talk away or resolve with a blue-ribbon commission. That is what, predictably, the authors of the violence report suggested:
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.
This is not the sort of thing that a deeply divided Congress is likely to do, and while harmless, the suggestion is based on the idea that there is general acceptance of what “democratic norms” mean at a time when the president and his party argue that “every valid vote” excludes many millions of mail ballots. But more basically, papering over partisan and ideological differences misses the essential point of why they exist.
Minimizing their significance is actually an insult to the very idea of principled activism. Conservatives are not wrong to recognize that massive demographic, technological, and cultural trends threaten a way of life they desperately want to preserve, and progressives are not wrong to recognize the old institutional arrangements that kept politics ostensibly “peaceful” were intended to maintain a deeply unjust status quo.
If the president has his way, we may find out this very year how rickety the old institutional arrangements for presidential elections are, and how violently large numbers of people care about the outcome. I pray we can avoid pitched battles in the streets, and if we are lucky, maintain a tradition of uncontested elections that goes back 20 years (that’s a joke). But let’s not pretend people are ready to take matters into their own hands because of a frivolous partisanship that has no place in America. If we’ve learned anything in this plague year, it should be that politics matter, and that (as Trump rightly said in the first debate) elections have consequences. Violence can indeed set our country on fire, but the kindling is all around us.