Who Supports Political Violence in America?
A new political science study looks at the traits of people who support political violence in the United States. They develop a "political violence profile." And the key variables might surprise you.
Every so often, I’ll bring you important research from the world of social science that hasn’t been reported much outside the halls of academia (I am a political scientist in my day job, after all). In this edition, I’ll explore a fascinating new study that examines the traits and demographic profiles of those who support political violence in the United States.
But before I get to that, a quick bit of good news!
Yesterday was a good day for democracy
Yesterday, Thai voters resoundingly rejected military rule and voted for change. Whether true democracy will now take root in Thailand is uncertain, but the message was unequivocal: Thais want to live, as most of us do, in a genuinely democratic country.
On Saturday, I wrote this piece for The Atlantic about the geopolitical stakes of the Thai election—and how it fits in with the showdown between China and the United States.
But it also includes a few interesting bits of trivia, including the macabre fact that Thailand used to have a specific protocol for killing members of the royal family, which involved stuffing them into a man-sized velvet sack and beating them to death with a sandalwood club. It also includes this nice bit of American historical trivia:
Thailand’s King Mongkut tried in 1861 to send elephants to help establish a breeding population in the United States for the purposes of transporting goods (Abraham Lincoln graciously declined the offer, stating that steam power was working well and that “our political jurisdiction … does not reach a latitude so low as to favor the multiplication of the elephant”).
A few thousand miles away from Thailand, Turkish voters are on the cusp of rejecting authoritarian rule of their own, as Recep Tayyip Erdoğan narrowly avoided an electoral loss yesterday. The vote now goes to a second round. My fingers are crossed that he loses—and that Turkey can restore some of its badly broken democratic institutions.
Now that the good news is out of the way…onto political violence!
The normalization of political violence
Two years on from January 6th, 2021, Donald Trump recently pledged to pardon many of the extremists who attacked the US Capitol based on his lies. Worse, few in his party have condemned similar comments in the past, with virtually every elected Republican saying they would support Trump if he ends up as the GOP nominee, which is likely.
At worst, it’s an open embrace of political violence by one of America’s two main parties; at best, it’s a toleration of political leaders who promote violence.
At the same time, Republican governors have discovered that they can get significant political mileage out of championing people who have engaged in violence that dovetails with culture wars.
In Texas, Governor Abbott previously said that he was “looking forward” to pardoning a man who murdered a Black Lives Matter protester. The murderer, Daniel Perry, was just sentenced to 25 years in prison. He had previously texted a friend that he “might have to kill” some people on his way to work.
Over the weekend, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis tweeted his support for a similarly named killer, Daniel Penny, after Penny killed a homeless Black man, Jordan Neely, on New York City’s subway by placing him in a lethal chokehold. DeSantis didn’t hold back: “We stand with Good Samaritans like Daniel Penny. Let’s show this Marine... America’s got his back.”
This follows years of Trump’s normalization of political violence, not just with January 6th, but also with grotesque decisions, like his enthusiastic embrace of a Montana Republican candidate who violently assaulted a reporter, lied about it, and later pleaded guilty to assault. (That candidate, Greg Gianforte, is now the Republican governor of Montana). Similarly, Kyle Rittenhouse, a teenager who killed two men with an assault rifle, has become a rising star in America’s right-wing movement.
Clearly, Republican elites have normalized political violence—even championed it. But there’s an important question we need to grapple with: how has that shift transformed support for political violence among the wider public? And crucially, who supports political violence in the United States?
The “Political Violence Profile”
A recent study seeks to answer those questions, tracing which factors most correlate with a willingness to support the use of violence to achieve political goals. And while some of the factors are predictable, others provide unique insights into the nature—and scope—of this growing violent threat to American democracy.
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