• 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.
• Similarly, 36 percent of Republicans and 33 percent of Democrats said it is at least “a little” justified for their side “to use violence in advancing political goals”—up from 30 percent of both Republicans and Democrats in June.
• 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.
• These numbers are even higher among the most ideological partisans. Of Democrats who identify as “very liberal,” 26 percent said there would be “a great deal” of justification for violence if their candidate loses the presidency compared to 7 percent of those identifying as simply “liberal.” Of Republicans who identify as “very conservative,” 16 percent said they believe there would be “a great deal” of justification for violence if the GOP candidate loses compared to 7 percent of those identifying as simply “conservative.” This means the ideological extremes of each party are two to four times more apt to see violence as justified than their party’s mainstream members.
All together, about 1 in 5 Americans with a strong political affiliation says they are quite willing to endorse violence if the other party wins the presidency. (The surveys by YouGov and the Voter Study Group had margins of error ranging from 1.5 to 3 percentage points. The surveys by Nationscape had margins of error of 2 and 2.1 percentage points.)
How seriously should we take these expressions of violence? Both history and social psychology warn us to take them very seriously. In Europe in the 1920s and 1930s, a rising tide of armed street mobilization and of violent clashes between rival partisans ravaged fragile democratic cultures, bullied and marginalized moderate forces, and gave rising autocrats an excuse to seize emergency powers. Some of us who’ve studied the rise of authoritarians see strong parallels between that period of European history and factors at work in America today.
However, expressing approval of partisan violence does not mean someone is ready to pick up a gun. The steps from attitudes to actions are prohibitive for all but a tiny minority because of the legal, social, and physical risks of acting violently.
But even a shift of 1 percent in these surveys would represent the views of over a million Americans. Furthermore, two of us have found in our research that violent events tend to increase public approval of political violence—potentially creating a vicious cycle even if violence is sparked in only a few spots.
Viewed in this light, the events of this summer are especially worrying. Competing protesters from the right and left have clashed violently in Portland, Ore.; Kenosha, Wis.; and Louisville. Left-wing extremists have repeatedly laid siege to federal buildings in Portland, and on several occasions, armed right-wing protesters entered the State Capitol in Michigan.
Democrats have interpreted Trump’s remarks and tweets as legitimizing or even encouraging violence by his supporters—fears only intensified by the president’s comments during this week’s debate urging the Proud Boys, a misogynistic white supremacist group that has been active in recent street protests, to “stand back and stand by.”
Republicans, for their part, interpreted Joe Biden’s rhetorical question in a recent speech, “Does anyone believe there will be less violence in America if Donald Trump is reelected?” as a veiled threat of violence should Biden lose.
Moreover, the notable increase in violent views in the past year continues a worrisome trend. Between 2017 and 2019, our YouGov survey data showed a marked 9-point increase in the percentage of partisans who believe it would be at least “a little bit” justified for their own party to use violence to advance their political goals today.
What should leaders do? No lesson in the study of democratic breakdowns rings more clearly than that political leaders play the central role in fanning—or containing—political polarization and extremism. From Germany and Italy in interwar Europe to Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s, the rhetoric and tactics of leading politicians shaped the fate of democracies in crisis.
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.
Everyone in a position of leadership in a democracy—whether in a neighborhood organization, a municipality, a political party, the Congress or the White House—has an obligation to renounce violence and explicitly dissuade their followers from turning to violent tactics or threats. Further, political leaders have a solemn responsibility to uphold and urge their followers to adhere to the essential norms of democracy, including the principles that the voters should freely decide who shall rule, and all valid votes should be counted toward that decision.
However, we fear we are now headed into such a severe downward spiral of partisan polarization that we cannot rely on the candidates and campaigns to pull us out of it.
In this context, any one of several possible scenarios risks triggering unprecedented post-election violence. Biden could surge from behind on Election Night to win on the strength of mail-in ballots that President Trump has already dismissed as fraud-ridden, prompting Trump’s supporters to feel the election was stolen from him. Should some Republican-controlled legislatures seek to throw out mail-in ballots wholesale and give their states’ Electoral College votes to Trump regardless of the final vote count, Democrats (and others) would be outraged. There could also be intense anger on the left if Trump wins reelection by once again losing the popular vote but winning by narrow margins in states that give him an Electoral College victory. Congress—itself so polarized—could be hard-pressed to ensure a widely legitimate outcome on its own.
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.
We do not pull this alarm lightly. The decisions we make over the next few months are hugely consequential. If we fall into a cycle of violence, the consequences for America’s future as a democracy will be dire.