Justin Lindsay is a US National Correspondent for JURIST, and a 3L at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. He previously served 10 years as an Officer in the United States Army.
January 6th forced many Americans to confront domestic political violence for the first time. Visceral images on social media, cable, and broadcast television riveted the country in a way not seen since September 11th. The nation watched thousands of ordinary men and women storm the US Capitol, erect a gallows, and chant for the execution of the vice president. It became impossible for Americans to write off the perpetrators as lone actors who deserved execution. For the first time, Americans needed to know who in their world might do these things.
Several institutions have since taken a critical look at political violence in America and have now begun publishing their findings. These findings and more were discussed recently at the University of Pittsburgh’s recent summit on Preserving Democracy, hosted by Chancellor Mark Nordenberg and featuring Professor Lisa Nelson.
The discussion initially focused on concerns about political violence from veterans. Professor Nelson’s recent study for Pitt/Carnegie Mellon University’s Collaboratory Against Hate returned some surprising results. The study revealed that veteran support for political violence was only half that of the general population. Moreover, it was rising at the same rate as the general population. This is in step with another survey published by the RAND Corporation this September. This is despite the fact that extremist groups cater to veterans, seeing them as a valuable source of legitimacy and skills.
The discussion also turned legalistic, addressing disparate definitions of what constitutes “political violence.” The question, always pertinent, has been brought to the front of public consciousness by the Israeli-Palestine war, with an attack against three Palestinian students in Vermont being just the latest example. However, as Chancellor Nordenberg stated, “Not every act of hateful violence is an act of political violence.” While the FBI identified over 11,000 incidents of “hate crimes” in 2022 alone, a review by Reuters only identified 213 instances of political violence since January 6th.
This disparity should be surprising. Dr. Rachel Kleinfeld, a Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, testified before the January 6th Select Committee in March, 2022. Her research found that 20% of Republicans and 13% of Democrats believed that political violence was justified “these days.” In context, 50 years ago in 1973, the most violent period of the Northern Ireland Conflict, 25% of Catholics and 16% of Protestants in the Republic of Ireland agreed that “violence is a legitimate way to achieve one’s goals.”
If political violence is achieving historical levels of acceptance, then why has it not manifested in Belfastian form? Professor Nelson offered an explanation gleaned from the interviews that accompanied her survey: political violence is the final manifestation of a desire to “express dissatisfaction.” If the need to be heard is fulfilled and the individual feels participation in the political process will result in change, then violence as a tool for change is unnecessary.
But if anyone can feel silenced, how does one answer the critical question: who is responsible for the current political violence? Professor Nelson suggests the real question is really what is the cause? A problem that crosses the political spectrum must have bipartisan roots. She posits that the acceptance of political violence begins with dissatisfaction with institutions, both political and societal. A University of Chicago study appears to back this position; about 40% of Americans distrust American democratic institutions. At the same time, the rate of support for violent coercion of Congress nearly doubled (from 9% to 17%) just between January and June 2023.
Ultimately, the event and these studies provide few easy answers. The surveys seem to back the notion that the country is experiencing a true political crisis. The same institutions Americans distrust will be the ones managing the increasingly fraught 2024 election, and elected officials are increasingly turning to personal violence. But there is solace to be found that, despite the growing distrust in democracy, accepting violence has not meant embracing it. Those who plan and execute violent attacks are still routinely arrested. But the problem is real and it is growing.
Academia has provided the proper question and answer: what is causing a rise in political violence in the United States? An increasing distrust in democracy as the tool for change, and the loss of confidence in the vote as a person’s voice in politics. Now Americans have to provide solutions
Opinions expressed in JURIST Dispatches are solely those of our correspondents in the field and do not necessarily reflect the views of JURIST's editors, staff, donors or the University of Pittsburgh.