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Political violence and the future of democracy: Take a look in the mirror, America

You’re not going to like what you see. 

Our research group just completed a nationwide survey measuring support for — and willingness to engage in — violence to advance political objectives. Initial results, which have not yet undergone peer review, were reported Tuesday. We were motivated by recent trends, detailed in the report, that include an unprecedented increase in fatal violence, an equally unprecedented increase in firearm purchasingwidespread acceptance of delusional beliefs about American society, and an increasing willingness to resort to violence for political purposes. 

Here’s some of what we learned from more than 8,600 respondents. More than 40 percent of Americans agree (19 percent strongly or very strongly) that “having a strong leader for America is more important than having a democracy.” More than 40 percent agree (16 percent strongly or very strongly) that “in America, native-born white people are being replaced by immigrants.” Half (50 percent) agree (27 percent strongly or very strongly) that “discrimination against whites is as big a problem as discrimination against Blacks and other minorities.” 

Delusion remains widespread. Nearly a quarter (23 percent) of Americans believe that the country is led “by a group of Satan-worshipping pedophiles who run a global child sex trafficking operation.” One-third (32 percent) agree (18 percent strongly or very strongly) that “the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump, and Joe Biden is an illegitimate president.” 

Perhaps the most concerning findings pertain to political violence (defined in the survey as “physical force strong enough that it could cause pain or injury to a person” in order to “advance an important political objective that you support”). One in five (22 percent) thought that political violence was at least sometimes justified “in general.” A far higher 78 percent thought violence was at least sometimes justified for one or more of 15 specific political objectives: “to return Donald Trump to the presidency this year” (12 percent), “to stop people who do not share my beliefs from voting” (7 percent), “to preserve an American way of life based on Western European traditions” (24 percent), among others. 

We asked respondents who endorsed political violence with a specific objective about their personal willingness to engage in that violence. Ten percent were at least somewhat willing “to threaten or intimidate a person” and 7 percent “to kill a person.” We asked about violence against specific types of people, because of who those people are. Nine percent were willing to use violence against “an elected federal or state government official,” 6 percent against “an election worker, such as a poll worker or vote counter” or “a person who does not share your race or ethnicity.” 

Finally, we asked everyone about the possibility that they might use a firearm in the future to advance a political objective. Nearly one in five (19 percent) considered it at least somewhat likely that “I will be armed with a gun” in such a situation, 10 percent that “I will carry a gun openly, so that people know I am armed, and 4 percent that “I will shoot someone.” 

What does all this portend? Our respondents have a possible answer. Half (50 percent) agree, though just 14 percent strongly or very strongly, that “in the next few years, there will be civil war in the United States.” 

Experts are very concerned about such possibilities. 

This is a grim image of our present and future, but it leaves room for hope. The majority of respondents rejected political violence altogether, generally (79 percent) or in support of any one of those 15 specific objectives (with two exceptions: 45 percent said “never justified” to violence to reinforce the police; 42 percent said “never justified” to violence to stop police violence). Those who endorsed violence in the abstract or were willing to engage in it most frequently gave tepid “somewhat/sometimes” responses, and most were unwilling to resort to violence themselves. 

The challenge now for the nation’s large “never” majorities is to recognize the threat posed by the relatively small number who go beyond “somewhat/sometimes” support — and respond adequately to that challenge. 

What to do? One immediate step is to understand all this better; our group will be reporting on factors potentially associated with political violence in this survey: political and social beliefs and behaviors, a prior history of or general support for violence, social media use, firearm ownership, and others. 

Experts such as Rachel Kleinfeld and Barbara Walter provide detailed recommendations for action. First is for elected officials and other thought leaders to stop espousing violence, recognizing that their rhetoric induces violence. Our deeper understanding of how close the United States came to a violent seizure of power on Jan. 6 should provide a teachable moment. Consider: What would have happened if Donald Trump had had his way in the SUV that day and had led the armed mob that coursed through the Capitol chanting, “Hang Mike Pence”? 

Professor Walter notes that “violence often springs from a sense of injustice, inequality, and insecurity.” Creating a society that manifests justice, equality and security will not be easy — a strong case can be made that we are headed rapidly in the wrong direction on all three counts — but it is essential.  

Both Kleinfeld and Walter argue that making elections more credible and reforming the electoral process are obvious steps. Other experts include reforming policing to build fairness and accountability and greatly improving the quality and fairness of public services. Promising evidence supports efforts to “inoculate” against recruitment to extreme ideology and redirecting those considering extremism to more productive responses to their grievances. 

There is much to love about the United States, its ideals, and our honest, inclusive efforts to attain them. That country is worth fighting for. I don’t mean with guns; one fights for that United States by renouncing violence, addressing its causes, saying something if one sees something, and making common cause with people who think about things differently.  

Midterm elections are less than four months away. What do you think will happen if we stay our current course, and armed voter suppression encounters armed voter support? There is no time to waste. 

Dr. Garen J. Wintemute, MD, MPH, is the Baker-Teret Chair in Violence Prevention and Distinguished Professor of Emergency Medicine at the University of California, Davis. He is a practicing emergency physician and director of the California Firearm Violence Research Center and the Violence Prevention Research Program, both at UC Davis. 

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