Violence may seem to be everywhere in the United States, and political violence is in the spotlight, with the January 6, 2021, uprising as Exhibit A. Now, a large study confirms that one in five Americans believe that violence motivated for political reasons is – at least sometimes – justified. Nearly half expect a civil war, and many say they would trade democracy for a strong leader, according to a preprint published today on medRxiv.
“This is not a study intended to shock,” says Rachel Kleinfeld, an expert on political violence at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who was not involved in the research. “But it should be shocking.”
Gun deaths in the United States have increased nearly 43% between 2010 and 2020, and gun sales have surged during the coronavirus pandemic. Garen Wintemute, emergency physician and longtime gun violence researcher at the University of California, Davis, wondered what these trends portend for civil unrest. “Sometimes being an ER [emergency room] doc is like being the archer on the Titanic saying, ‘Look at that iceberg!’ he says.
He and his colleagues surveyed more than 8,600 adults in English and Spanish about their views on democracy in the United States, racial attitudes in American society, and their own attitudes toward political violence. Respondents were part of the Ipsos KnowledgePanel, a widely used online research panel, including by Wintemute for research on violence and gun ownership. The team then applied statistical methods to extrapolate the survey results to the whole country.
Although nearly all respondents thought it was important for the United States to remain a democracy, about 40% said it was more important to have a strong leader. Half expect a civil war in the United States within the next few years. (The survey didn’t say when.) “The fact that almost half the country is expecting a civil war is just chilling,” Wintemute says. And many expect to participate. If they find themselves in a situation where they believe violence is justified to advance an important political goal, around one in five respondents believe they are likely to be armed with a gun. About 7% of the participants – which would correspond to about 18 million American adults – said they would kill someone in such a situation.
Kleinfeld says the study’s findings are compelling because of the large number of participants and because they asked about specific scenarios in which participants believe violence is justified, such as for self-defense or to prevent people with different political beliefs to vote. The sample slightly overrepresents older people, who aren’t known to commit much violence around the world, she said. “So the fact that you are [still] getting those high numbers… is really very concerning.
She is less alarmed by the fragile support for democracy, noting that political stalemate — as in American politics today — can often distort attitudes. “What people mean by ‘democracy’ is quite vague,” she says. Political paralysis, she adds, can quickly lead people who think, “Yeah, I like democracy,” to also say, “Yeah, I want a strongman” in the head.
“The results are frightening, but not surprising,” Kurt Braddock, who studies the psychology of extremist communication at American University, wrote in an email to Science. In recent years, he says, the United States has seen an increase in individual willingness to engage in violence — homicides in cities rose 44% between 2019 and 2021, for example — an attitude that, according to him, is likely to spill over into the political sphere.
Researchers have criticized the sampling and survey methodology of previous studies that have found growing support for political violence. But the new study generally agrees with earlier efforts, Kleinfeld says. A small 2021 survey, for example, found that about 46% of voters thought the United States would have another Civil War, and another showed that more than a third of Americans agree that “the way of life American tradition is disappearing so fast that we may have to resort to force to save it. Barbara Walter, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego, who was also not involved in the study, agrees. But she suspects the poll responses overrepresent the number of Americans who would be willing to turn to violence because, she says, polls tend to exaggerate what people actually think. “Numbers always tend to be shocking, but in essence they’re probably not true.”
Wintemute and his colleagues have found that conspiracy theories, some rooted in racism, help shape opinions about political violence. They found that about two in five adults agreed with the white nationalist “great replacement theory” or the idea that native-born white voters are replaced by immigrants for electoral gains. And one in five respondents believed the false QAnon conspiracy theory that US institutions are controlled by an elite group of Satan-worshipping pedophiles. Respondents’ belief in conspiracy theories might partly explain their views on democracy and political violence, Walter says, but she wants the survey to go deeper to explain the particular reasons why participants would choose to s engage in violence.
Both Braddock and Kleinfeld want the new survey responses to be disaggregated by partisan affiliation, as previous surveys show that engagement in violence is far more prevalent among right-wingers. “That’s a key oversight,” Braddock says. “If preparation for civil war comes from one side [and not in both], we need to know. The study team looked at affiliation with some extremist groups such as the Proud Boys, but Wintemute said his group is currently working on follow-up analyzes to the survey to examine other political affiliations and will also launch a follow-up survey with the same group of respondents by the end of the year to further examine the role of certain group identities and the propensity for political violence.
To reduce the threat of political violence, Braddock says, the first step is to expose misinformation online and in right-wing media, some of which is drawn directly from extremist propaganda. “We need to call it what it is before we can start addressing the issues it is causing.” Regulating social media to prevent the spread of “inflammatory” misinformation could also help, says Walter. Kleinfeld adds that leaders — from politicians and media personalities to church pastors — can also make a difference. Experiences show that courageous leaders can deter their communities from engaging in violence. “Now is the time to take this seriously and not put your head in the sand,” Kleinfeld says.