Political violence in the United States is increasing and has become a key concern for experts, policymakers, and the public in the wake of the January 6, 2021, assault on the U.S. Capitol. Surveys show that most Americans express concern that widespread violent civil conflict is a real possibility in the future. What explains the growing acceptability of political violence in U.S. political life?
The four drivers that contribute to political violence in America
A researcher from The Pennsylvania State University proposes that there are four potential social phenomena, or “drivers,” that contribute to political violence in America today.
Toxic political polarization
The first is “toxic” political polarization. The supporters of the two U.S. political parties have become hostile, warring camps that have strong aversion toward one another. Politicians no longer work together but rather, attack each other’s ideologies to promote their own agenda. Scholars have found this level of extreme political polarization to increase both support for political violence and the actual occurrence of political violence in the United States and in other democracies globally.
Toxic identity-based ideologies
The second, “toxic” identity-based ideologies, involves the mainstreaming of formerly extremist political ideologies such as white nationalism and Christian far-right nationalism. These ideologies are associated with increased acceptance of the use of political violence.
Liberal democratic norms
Third, democratic norms, such as the willingness of politicians to abide by the outcome of free and fair elections, are being eroded in the United States. To strengthen their agenda, politicians refuse to disavow others in their own ranks, even when they are blatantly wrong. Norms and institutions are crucial for channeling grievances into legal, nonviolent democratic behaviors. As they weaken, political violence moves into the mainstream.
Disinformation and conspiracy theories
Finally, the U.S. information ecosystem, particularly social media, facilitates the dissemination of disinformation and conspiracy theories. Researchers have found that both disinformation and conspiratorial mindsets contribute to increased political violence and tolerance of political violence in democratic societies.
What can be done to stifle political violence in the United States?
These drivers are deeply imbedded in U.S. politics and will be difficult to uproot. However, they are not new and have been long present in U.S. political life. What is new is that they have entered the political mainstream and are being used by politicians to garner attention, galvanize, and mobilize supporters, attract donors and capture the attention of media viewers. What we may hope to achieve, then, is to mitigate their impact by moving them out of the mainstream.
Several proposals for political and public policy reforms in the United States could help address political violence. For example, initiatives to reduce political gerrymandering, experiment with new election systems such as ranked-choice voting, and reform campaign finance may help usher in a more moderate and consensus-seeking politics and a brand of political leaders who will refrain from divisive and extreme political rhetoric and policy positions.
The media also contributes to drivers of political violence by highlighting extremist content or disseminating disinformation or conspiracy-oriented information. Reinstituting appropriate equal time rules for media companies, passing legislation that requires better policing of extremist or misleading online and social media content, and finding ways to reinvigorate local media that eschew national, polarizing news reporting could address the problems in our media ecosystem.