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America's growing problem with political violence, explained

As the U.S. is racked by increasing levels of violent protests and threats, a political scientist explains what's driving it and whether civil war is a possibility.

From the streets of suburbia to the halls of Congress, violence is front and center in our national political life as of late.

The trials of teen vigilante Kyle Rittenhouse, who fatally shot two people protesting against a police shooting; the white supremacists who helped organize the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a counterprotester was killed; and the three men accused of killing Ahmaud Arbery in an act of vigilante violence have captivated the nation.

And Republican Arizona Rep. Paul Gosar’s unrepentant release of an animated video depicting himself killing Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. — an act that hardly bothered anyone in his party — has raised questions of whether the Republican Party establishment is amenable to encouraging even more of it.

Broader social trends suggest political violence is going more mainstream. Political violence and threats of violence are on the rise. Armed protests are surging, and far-right militia activity has been trending upward. Citizens are threatening violence against civil servants at what appear to be unprecedented rates. A national survey this year found that close to half of Americans believed a future civil war is likely.

To understand what’s behind these worrying trends, I called up Lilliana Mason, a political scientist at Johns Hopkins University who co-authored with Nathan Kalmoe of Louisiana State University a forthcoming book called “Radical American Partisanship,” which studies the traits and underlying drivers of some of this behavior.

Mason has found that Americans are increasingly accepting of violence as a way to pursue political goals across the spectrum — but that it has very different meanings and manifestations on the right and the left. And she traces much of the growing rancor and instability in our present moment to how out political parties are growing increasingly aligned with social and political identity, a trend that makes each election higher stakes and increasingly difficult to tolerate for the voters who see an unfavorable outcome. Combined with cues from some political leaders that violence is acceptable, Mason sees some ugly possible futures if we as a society don't find a way to cool things down.

Our conversation, edited for length and clarity, follows.

Zeeshan Aleem: We've been seeing right-wing vigilantes clashing with left-wing protesters in the streets, right-wing extremist attacks fueling a spike in domestic terrorism, violent messages sent out in Congress and riots at the U.S. Capitol. Is this really a trend, and what's causing it?

Lilliana Mason: What we know is that after Donald Trump's election, we did see a rise in hate crimes, and we saw a rise in right-wing political action. Right-wing protests tend to be armed, and armed protests tend to be most dangerous. So that's the macro level.

We tend to think about violence as things like militias taking over statehouses. But what we've also seen is on an individual voter level, there is an increasing acceptance of political violence.

The Civil War was preceded by a debate over racial issues, to say that in the most minimal way possible.

We were collecting data from 2017 until June of 2021, and when asking people whether it's OK to use violence to achieve political goals, we found the overwhelming majority of Americans think that it is never acceptable to use violence for political reasons. But the percentage of people saying that it's OK has been moving from 10 percent up to 20 percent. It kind of goes up and down: We saw a spike around the first impeachment of Trump, particularly among Republicans, but partisans of both Democrats and Republicans have actually been increasingly willing to say that it's OK to use violence to achieve political goals.

So what's causing it? One cause is this increasingly not just polarized but really kind of nasty politics where we have started to vilify people in the other party to dehumanize them, to think of them as evil rather than just politically wrong. The outcomes of elections become much more dire.

The other thing that's happened is that the parties have become much more socially distant from each other. So the racial and religious divide between the parties has increased substantially between the 1970s and today, with Republicans becoming increasingly white and Christian and rural and male. And Democrats are becoming not only diverse and urban and nonreligious, or non-Christian, but also, specifically among white Democrats, becoming much more progressive in their attitudes about racial policy and racial inequality.

One of the major divides between Democrats and Republicans right now is whether the traditional social hierarchy where white Christian rural men are at the top still exists, or whether it should exist, or whether we need to do more to dismantle it. And Democrats and activists have been pushing pretty successfully for getting the message out that there is still systemic racism and Black Americans are still affected by institutional racism that's existed in this country since the beginning. That debate is so difficult to have, and America hasn't been very good at having it in the past. The Civil War was preceded by a debate over racial issues, to say that in the most minimal way possible. And the civil rights legislation of the 1960s basically broke the Democratic Party and eradicated the Democratic Party in the South until now.

So Democrats and Republicans are not only culturally and racially and religiously moving away from each other, but they're also in deep disagreement about whether or not we need to make more progress in terms of becoming an egalitarian multiethnic democracy.

You've mentioned vilification earlier — how is violence connected to vilification?

Mason: So there's sort of one concept, which we call moral disengagement, which is generally a precursor to mass violence when we've seen it in other places. So by morally distancing yourself from people in the other party, people are saying, “They're not just wrong; they're evil. They're a threat to the United States, and they behave like animals, so we don't have to treat them like humans.”

Those attitudes are usually precursors to things like genocide in other countries, right; in order to harm another person and still consider yourself to be a moral person — which everyone wants to — you kind of have to morally distance yourself from the people that you're willing to harm. So yeah, it's not exactly violence, but it tends to be a precursor.

You described acceptance of violence across the political spectrum. Are there different trends in terms of how that manifests on different sides of the aisle?

Mason: There are similar overall levels of acceptance of political violence. But the reasons behind it are opposite. We measured in a lot of our studies racial resentment, which measures belief that systemic racism is still afflicting Black Americans, and a scale that measures hostile sexism. And for Republicans, those who are highest in racial resentment and hostile sexism are the most dehumanizing and vilifying of Democrats. And with Democrats, it's the opposite. So Democrats who were the least racially resentful are the most vilifying and dehumanizing of Republicans.

In terms of the manifestation of violence, one of the main differences is that the right is much more armed than the left, and increasingly so starting after the election of Barack Obama, when there was a run on gun purchases. An armed confrontation is, as I said earlier, much more dangerous than an unarmed political protest. And what we see in practice is that while Democrats and Republicans might approve of using violence to achieve political goals, they seem to be meaning different things. Democrats are thinking about things like property destruction, not harm to other human beings.

One piece of good news is that when we ask people — among the 10 to 20 percent who approve of violence as a way to achieve political goals — what kind of violence they would approve of, only 25 percent of them basically say that lethal violence would be acceptable. It's a pretty small number of Americans who believe that it's OK to kill other people for political means. But the rest of them are saying things like beating people up, yelling at them, harassing them, property damage, those types of things.

You and your co-author wrote in your forthcoming book, "Conflict between democratic movements and dominant groups is inherent and perpetual in American politics, but it rarely cleaves the parties so neatly. When it has, it has produced mass violence." You then go to note that the last time the two parties were so divided was around the Civil War. Is there a historical analogue for the moment we find ourselves in today?

Mason: Not exactly. It's not like our country has never seen political violence — we've seen plenty of it. But generally it's not linked to parties.

Our parties are engaged in regularly scheduled status competitions, which are elections. And as a democracy, we agree that those are nonviolent competitions. But one of the problems is that because our electorate has been sorted — in terms of social identities, like race and religion — into our parties, it means that when the election occurs, a bunch more of our identity is wrapped up in the electoral outcome and that status competition. This hasn’t always been the case. For most of American history, the parties weren’t divided on matters of race, religion, and equality. Each party had internal divisions on these matters, but the two parties didn’t systematically disagree with each other.

So we can generally never have status competitions between races, right — that would be a terrible idea. But because of the increasingly racial divide between the parties, that's effectively what's happening implicitly for some people. We don't want to have religious warfare, but we have elections that have now implicated religion.

Race seems to always be a factor in our party politics. What is different now versus when the parties rearranged themselves in response to the fight over civil rights and Black liberation in the middle of the 20th century?

Mason: One way to think about it is to look back at the post-Reconstruction era, when effectively what happened was the two parties agreed to just throw Black Americans under the bus and remove most of their rights, especially in the South. That ushered in decades of partisan compromise and functioning government and lack of polarization. But at the same time, it was resting upon the Jim Crow South.

We now have an entire political party that is pushing generally toward more equality, which is unprecedented in American history.

The civil rights legislation of the 1960s was bipartisan, and both parties were split by it. And it began rearrangement, which allowed white male identity politics to be moved entirely into the Republican Party, because the Democratic Party was taking the blame for all of the civil rights legislation, as Southern Democrats moved out of the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party became the party of civil rights legislation, and the Republican Party was increasingly opposed, systematically opposed, to that legislation.

And so then we had decades of the long Southern strategy, where Republicans were implicitly courting white supremacist voters, using coded language and gradually moving into that position. But during those decades — the '70s, '80s and even into the '90s — there was still a lot of intraparty conflict over racial issues. So inside each party, they were divided.

It’s really only been since the, you know, the late 1990s, early 2000s and certainly after the Obama presidency that it has become fully reorganized, where now the parties differ completely. That's good and bad. The good part is that we now have an entire political party that is pushing generally toward more equality, which is unprecedented in American history. But the bad part is that we have an entire political party that's resisting that. And that’s not unprecedented — except that it used to be the Democratic Party that resisted progress; now it's the Republican Party.

Paul Gosar released a Photoshopped anime video depicting himself killing AOC. You just had two Republicans join the Democrats in censuring him for his conduct, and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy downplayed the incident. How much does this matter?

Mason: It really, really, really matters. They can say it's a joke, but it's not taken as a joke by all of their partisans. Especially by people who might be generally more inclined toward violence, there are people who will not consider that to be a joke. Inciting those people is extraordinarily dangerous.

We have norms against violence in a democracy. And those norms are enforced by social sanctions. That's how we enforce norms in society: If someone breaks the norm, we sanction them — publicly.

The fact that almost the entire Republican Party is not upholding that anti-violence norm — and this isn't in the leadership of the party — sends a message to their constituents that this is not an important norm to follow.

And that's not going to make every one of them go out and be violent, but it might change the social dynamic in the social network of a person who is generally more inclined toward violence.

Are right-wing militias, white supremacy organizations and vigilante violence, like the kind Kyle Rittenhouse is associated with, fringe phenomena that receive outsize media attention, or are they social formations that we should be worried about?

Mason: So they're still relatively fringe phenomena. But because they are overtly white supremacist and overtly violent, and our politics have become more organized around race, that connects them to political violence in a way that they might not have otherwise been connected.

So we see militias show up at statehouses, for instance, protesting even vaccines or masks or something unrelated to race. We start seeing them engage in political ways that are not just about white supremacy.

What we saw on Jan. 6 was they could encourage regular people to engage in violence. Those militias were there to engage in violence, but a lot of people were just kind of swept along because there was so much incitement by the earlier speeches and the mob. So those groups can under the right circumstances inspire much more widespread violence.

Sometimes I hear concerns about whether we can be in a preamble period to civil war or sustained insurrection attempts — is that alarmist?

Mason: First of all, there's a pretty low likelihood that there would be something like America's civil war in that the geographic divide is very different now. It's largely urban vs. rural, rather than North vs. South. Armed conflict between areas like that looks different and is probably taking place in urban areas. We've seen that, right? Most of it's taking place in state capitals. And then people go back home to the rural areas and get ready to go fight again.

There is a potential future in which we can't stop the violence.

The second concern is what we're seeing in Republican state legislatures, where we see movements toward election suppression and election rejection. That's a crisis for democracy. And if there is an installation of a government that is not duly elected because the state legislatures disobeyed the actual counted votes, the potential for mass protests from the left, from Democrats, is huge and pretty likely. I think the way that this gets dangerous is if we have really massive protests from Democrats met with violent counterprotesters from rural areas or Republican protesters. The place we're in right now is super dangerous, because we have people like that guy at one of the town halls, saying, "When do we get to use the guns?" That means they're not shooting yet, but they're ready.

How do we turn down the temperature and reduce the likelihood of sliding further toward the possibility of mass violence?

Mason: I think there's two things. The first is to correct people's misperceptions about how violent their political opponents are, because most people's idea of the other side's violence is overblown.

The second is leadership rhetoric. It is extremely important for leaders to enforce norms of anti-violence, especially around democratic politics. And even online messages from regular people that are anti-violent do tend to suppress violent attitudes. So everybody who wants to avoid this type of scenario should be talking to the people around them, their friends, their family, making sure that those norms are enforced. The norm itself is holding people together and keeping people from being violent.

I think also we should make very clear what is at stake here. The first violent event can precipitate a bunch of other violent events; a violent event generally tends to increase support for violence, not decrease it. And so we can imagine a terrible cascade after an event, and then people's attitudes become more approving, and then there's another event, and it just sort of keeps going. And once that starts going, it will be very hard to stop. So understanding that there is a potential future in which we can't stop the violence. We're not there yet. But if we allow this to go too far, it will get away from us.