Three years ago, the polling firm YouGov asked Americans whether they thought it could ever be justified for their political party to use violence to advance its goals. The overwhelming response was no. Only 8 percent of people said anything other than “never.”
This year, YouGov asked the same question — and the share saying that political violence could be somewhat justified roughly doubled. The increase spanned both Democratic and Republican respondents.
I thought of that alarming finding yesterday, after law enforcement officials charged 13 men with a violent plot that included storming the Michigan State Capitol and kidnapping Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. Conservative groups have criticized Whitmer for her attempts to control the coronavirus by restricting normal activities. In April, President Trump tweeted, “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!”
Yesterday’s arrests are the latest evidence that a small but meaningful number of Americans believe that violence is the only answer to the country’s political divisions. “We’re seeing more and more citizens expressing openness to violence as more and more partisan leaders engage in the kinds of dehumanizing rhetoric that paves the way for taking violent action,” Lee Drutman, one of the political scientists who oversaw the YouGov poll, told me.
Since May, more than 50 people have driven vehicles into peaceful protesters. Armed protesters shut down the Michigan legislature in May. Armed groups on the left and right have done battle in Oregon and Wisconsin. Extremists have attacked journalists, including an instance in Brooklyn on Wednesday night.
“Political violence in democracies often seems spontaneous: an angry mob launching a pogrom, a lone shooter assassinating a president,” Rachel Kleinfeld of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace recently wrote in The Washington Post. “But in fact, the crisis has usually been building for years.” She added, “This is where America is now.”
It’s important to note that the problem is bipartisan — and also that it is not equally bad on both sides: The American right today has a bigger violence problem than the American left. Of the 42 killings by political extremists last year, right-wing extremists committed 38, according to the Anti-Defamation League.
And top Republican politicians have encouraged violence in ways no prominent Democrat has. Greg Gianforte, a Republican congressman now running to be Montana’s governor, pleaded guilty to assaulting a reporter who asked a question he didn’t like in 2017.
Trump, for his part, has encouraged violence against protesters at his rallies and has often refused to condemn violent white-supremacist groups, including during last week’s debate. Whitmer, speaking after the arrests yesterday, cited that debate: “Hate groups heard the president’s words not as a rebuke, but as a rallying cry, a call to action,” she said.
Political scientists emphasize that the drift toward violence is not inevitable. When political leaders denounce violence, it often influences public opinion, research suggests. These denouncements are especially effective when leaders — or individuals — criticize their own side for engaging in violence. Condemning the other side is easy.
“Outbreaks of political violence are a real threat,” Brendan Nyhan, a government professor at Dartmouth, has written. “Every person of good faith in either party must speak up.”
For more on Michigan: The Detroit News reported that some of the plot’s conspirators met during a Second Amendment rally at the Michigan State Capitol in June. And one expert told The Detroit Free Press that Michigan “has always been a hotbed for militia activity.”