Researchers explain the rise of partisan violence: 'Extreme conspiratorial vilification gets mainstreamed among Republicans'

Researchers explain the rise of partisan violence: 'Extreme conspiratorial vilification gets mainstreamed among Republicans'
Fox News' Tucker Carlson speaking with attendees at the 2018 Student Action Summit, hosted by Turning Point USA at the Palm Beach County Convention Center in West Palm Beach, Florida, Gage Skidmore

A single incident can't prove anything in terms of social science, but it can certainly serve as a vivid illustration. That was the case with the Buffalo massacre that horrified the nation and the world last weekend, which seemed almost inevitable in light of the new book "Radical American Partisanship: Mapping Violent Hostility, Its Causes, and the Consequences for Democracy" by Nathan Kalmoe and Lilliana Mason.

The Buffalo shooter's so-called manifesto, Kalmoe told me, consists of "partisan Republican media talking points," especially those of Fox News' Tucker Carlson, "along with the most radical elected Republican leaders." I wrote about the history of the "great replacement" theory last year, but "Radical American Partisanship" provides a broader perspective. "Our book talks about the long history of racial-partisan violence and how those two things are linked," Kalmoe said. "We don't know the shooter's media exposure so we can't begin to judge cause and effect, but we can say this is the kind of action you'd expect more people to take as explicit white supremacy, antisemitism and other extreme conspiratorial vilification gets mainstreamed among Republicans."

That mainstreaming creates another causal pathway by way of "norm erosion," as co-author Mason noted in a Twitter conversation with other social scientists: "More people holding radical (in our case, violent) beliefs changes the social norm-enforcement mechanism, by reducing the number of people who will engage in norm-enforcing social sanctions."

Partisan violence is part of our history, as Kalmoe explored in his 2020 book "With Ballots and Bullets: Partisanship and Violence in the American Civil War" (Salon interview here), but when Kalmoe and Mason began their collaboration in 2017 they could hardly find any public-opinion research on the subject. They didn't quite have to invent a new field from scratch, but they did have to weave together a bunch of different strands of academic research that hadn't previously been integrated into how we think about partisan politics. The surveys reported in this book, which basically cover the period of the Trump presidency, from 2017 to early 2021 will reshape our understanding of this long-neglected aspect of American politics. But they're also important right now, for tragic and obvious reasons. I interviewed Kalmoe and Mason recently by email. Their responses have been edited for clarity and length.

The massacre in Buffalo immediately made me think of your book. The shooter's stated rationale wasn't "partisan," in the normal sense, but his worldview surely was. Your book begins by asking why it was so easy for Donald Trump to stoke the insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021. Beyond the immediate answer — his own incitements — you argue that "the bases of each party are divided into nearly warring factions with radically opposed visions for America," and that this is "a battle over the future — and the past — of the United States." So what consequences flow from that?

Mason: One of the main findings of the book is that Republicans who are high in racial resentment and hostile sexism are also the most likely to vilify and dehumanize Democrats. For Democrats, it's the people low in racial resentment who are the most likely to vilify and dehumanize Republicans. These vilifying and dehumanizing attitudes (what we call "moral disengagement") are common precursors to mass violence in other countries. For Republicans in particular, the most powerful predictor of moral disengagement is an opposition to racial and gender equality or a denial that any inequality exists.

This means that one of the biggest divides (and sources of conflict) between Democrats and Republicans is a fundamental disagreement about whether the U.S. has made enough progress toward racial and gender equality, or whether we have gone too far and need to roll back some of the progress we have made. Americans aren't very good at talking about racial and gender equality in a calm and composed way. These conversations often erupt into violence throughout American history.

So what's different right now?

Mason: It's already a volatile topic. But now that we've organized the discussion along partisan lines, it allows our electoral politics to become as violent as racial conflict. The "replacement" theory that Tucker Carlson, Rep. Elise Stefanik and others are pushing is, on its face, a political one. They say that Democrats are trying to replace white voters (who tend to vote for Republicans) with "immigrants" who are "more obedient" and will automatically vote for Democrats. This "sanitized" version of replacement theory allows racial animosity to be papered over with "political" animosity — which is generally more socially acceptable.

All of this comes out of the increasing trend of "social sorting" between the parties, with the Republican Party becoming the party of white Christian rural men, and the Democratic Party representing everyone else. The party divide mirrors the divide between those at the top of the traditional social hierarchy and those who are traditionally marginalized. The Buffalo shooting, however, made clear that even if Tucker Carlson is speaking about a political conflict, the racial message still comes through quite clearly.

Partisan violence is very understudied in political science, so much so that there were very few surveys you could use. But that's not the case with social psychology. Why is there a difference, and what tools does social psychology provide that you built upon?

Kalmoe: Political violence, including violence instigated by parties, is a big research area among political scientists studying other countries, but it has rarely been a focus for scholars of American politics, partly because of our bias toward studying the present and recent past. Many assumed that what's happening "over there" can't happen here, even though it already happened here in the more distant past.

The founding research on American partisanship focused narrowly on the national electoral politics of the 1950s. There was white supremacist political violence in the South targeting civil rights efforts at the time, but that conflict divided Northern and Southern Democrats rather than dividing the two parties. Thus, the account of partisan identities and motives among ordinary people is quite tame.

Social psychology was founded at the same time, but with a heavy focus on explaining the violence of the Holocaust, which followed empowerment of the Nazi Party in Germany and fascists elsewhere. What caused ordinary people to participate in atrocities on an unfathomable scale? They focused on the harms that can emerge from us-vs.-them identity categorization, and the extent to which people are susceptible to following leaders and peers — opinion leadership and social influence.

We identify strength of social identification with a political party as one vital factor distinguishing those who are more likely to endorse radical partisan views, and we test the role of messages for top party leaders in changing the views of their followers and opponents.

You focus on two major concepts: partisan moral disengagement and partisan violence. How are these defined as concepts? How are they related, and how do you measure them?

Kalmoe: Partisan moral disengagement builds on psychological research by Albert Bandura and others showing that people who hurt others tend to hold views that rationalize that harm. For example, we measure views that political opponents are a national threat, that they are evil and that they lack the traits to be fully human. We expected that people who endorse some of all of these views would be more likely to endorse physically harming opponents, and that is what we found in our surveys.

We measured support for partisan violence with more than two dozen different questions, ranging in specificity of the context and severity of harm. Our four most common questions asked about approval of threats against opposing leaders and voters. One question on whether violence by one's own party is justified, and there was a final question on support for violence if the opposing party wins the next presidential election. We also asked specific questions about assassinating opponents, about support for the January 2021 Capitol insurrection, and reactions to the shootings of Rep. Gabby Giffords (a Democrat) and Rep. Steve Scalise (a Republican), for example.

One important thing we found is that people have lots of different things in mind for the term "violence." While psychologists define it as resulting in severe maiming or death, many of the people who endorse partisan violence in our surveys told us in follow-up questions that they had lesser harms in mind, like fistfights, for example. So levels of support for "violence" include a broad range of behaviors, though they're all contentious and worrisome in their own ways.

Historically, you argue, "Americans seem to support political violence in some historical cases and under certain conditions." When do they support it, and when don't they? And what falls in between?

Kalmoe: One of the most important takeaways from our research is that there is no single level of support for political violence to find. Support depends entirely on the details. For example, we found modern support for the political violence of the American Revolution at 80% among partisans, which is about four times higher than our standard measures and orders of magnitude above some of our most severe and contextually specific questions.

We know from historical episodes of political violence in the past that millions of ordinary Americans can be organized into violent conflict, as during the Revolution and the Civil War, along with the organized racial-partisan violence during Reconstruction and Jim Crow.

We argue that the most important factors that shift public support for political violence, and participation in that violence, are the factors identified by social psychologists: influence from trusted leaders and from peer social networks. Both serve to set the norms for attitudes and behaviors regarding violence, and when the group says it's OK, people think and act accordingly. Of course, individual attributes like "trait aggression" still influence who is especially inclined to be an early adopter of those views and behaviors.

How is support for violence calibrated? In the extreme, some people involved in the Jan. 6 insurrection were ready or even eager for civil war. But how many people were willing to go that far?

Kalmoe: Our research speaks most to public attitudes about political violence, which certainly serves as a risk factor for the few who engage in violent acts. We began this project, however, thinking about the broader social environment for contentious partisanship. The prevalence of violent views could serve as a vital accelerant or brake on violent acts when neighbors and friends learn that someone in their social circle is planning violence. Their own views about violence could serve to encourage or discourage actions by others, and it will affect how they respond politically to violent political attacks in general. Our work doesn't directly analyze participation in political violence. That vital question is being answered by others.

How did the measures of partisan moral disengagement and partisan violence change over time? What did those changes reflect or reveal?

Kalmoe: We found steadily rising levels of support for partisan violence from our first survey in 2017 through our last reported in the book, in February 2021. Our vilifying questions for partisan moral disengagement also steadily rose over that time. Support for threats against leaders and citizens were a little more variable, rising at times of greatest contention and then dropping afterward. Those results tell us that, even within our current contentious period, those radical views are becoming more prevalent.

The trends in our survey work generally comport with rising levels of threats against leaders. For example, the Los Angeles Times cataloged steadily rising threats against Congress from 2016, when they numbered just under 1,000, to 2021, when they nearly reached 10,0000 — an order of magnitude more in just four years.

What's the role of "trait aggression," which you mentioned earlier? What role does it play in predicting partisan violence, and how does it interact with partisan moral disengagement?

Kalmoe: Trait aggression is an individual tendency to behave aggressively in everyday interactions with other people, including verbal and physical forms. We found that aggressive tendencies translate into greater support for partisan violence. In fact, trait aggression is the strongest predictor of violent partisan views among the many factors we tested.

But the political component of those views is important too. We found the strongest relationships between trait aggression and support for partisan violence among people who vilified partisan opponents, and likewise, we found that partisan moral disengagement predicted violent partisan views most among people who were interpersonally aggressive.

We can see a similar dynamic in violent political behavior. Those perpetrators almost always seem to have a history of aggressive criminal behavior and often a history of perpetrating domestic violence too.

You write that "the same things that predict conventional political actions like voting can also predict and explain aggressive behavior and violence." How so?

Kalmoe: Strength of social identification with the political party is one of the most important motivating forces for partisan action through voting, volunteering, donating and other nonviolent participatory acts. Our work shows that that same identity-based motivation also leads some partisans to endorse violence against their partisan opponents.

You write that one of your survey results "means [there are] roughly 20 million [Americans] who endorse assassinating U.S. leaders." That would surely be a shocking result to most people. What was the question that produced this result, and why is it so at odds with "common sense" political discourse?

Kalmoe: In one question, we asked "How much do you feel it is justified for [your own party] to kill opposing political leaders to advance their political goals these days?" Response options ranged from "not at all" to "a great deal." Nearly 90% of respondents chose "not at all," but 11% said assassination was at least "a little" justified.

Many people tend to censor their most extreme views in public for fear of social and legal sanctions, so the extreme rhetoric we hear often lacks that violent specificity. But we've also heard quite a lot of explicitly violent rhetoric stated publicly in recent years. Pundits and researchers have been too quick to dismiss those as merely expressive and fundamentally unserious. Of course, there are ranges of seriousness across people, but it is a mistake to dismiss these expressions as just blowing off steam. Given the rise in political violence and threats, alongside violent rhetoric and violent attitudes, some of the folks who set the conventional wisdom are beginning to wrestle with the degree and prevalence of that extreme hostility.

You report that "Political victimization is prevalent in the U.S.," ranging from insults to physical attacks. While far fewer people report aggression, you wrote that even the small percentages you found "potentially represent the behaviors of hundreds of thousands — even millions — of Americans engaged in extreme political behavior that goes unnoticed in news and scholarship."

Kalmoe: In addition to asking about extremely hostile and violent attitudes, we asked people to report their own aggressive political behavior, and whether they have been on the receiving end of aggression over politics. Nearly half of our respondents said they had been insulted, one in six said they'd been threatened, and 3% said they had been physically assaulted over politics. The numbers were substantially higher among those who said they regularly talk about politics, as you'd expect.

The portion admitting they themselves had behaved aggressively over politics was much lower: about one-quarter for insults, and only 1% for threats and physical altercations.

Both sets of results are novel, as far as we know. Few if any researchers are asking questions like these, even among those now asking about political violence. One reason that people might be so surprised by political violence like the 2021 Capitol attack is that no one has been systematically documenting the prevalence of milder aggressive behaviors that apparently are very common. And of course the people who engage in low-level political aggression are the likeliest to participate in more extreme actions.

After the 2020 election, you found that "about a fifth of American partisans were ready for a full-blown violent rebellion against the newly elected president and his government." What are the implications of that?

Kalmoe: Clearly, several thousand Americans went beyond support for violently overthrowing the newly-elected government to acting on that view in the 2021 Capitol attack. That episode, and the thousands of death threats targeting election administrators and others for upholding their civic duties after the 2020 election, are the clearest implications.

Most people who support political violence won't act on it. Of course, that's true in wars too. A majority of Americans initially supported the Iraq war, for example, even though a tiny fraction actually did the fighting. But their support for violence has important effects on the actions of those few, and helps determine whether the numbers of combatants will grow in spirals of provocation.

What did you find about the potential impact of anti-violence messages? How did this compare with what Donald Trump actually did?

Mason: A piece of good news from the book is that leaders seem to have a powerful ability to pacify violent attitudes among partisans. When we had survey respondents read a message from Biden or Trump denouncing political violence, we found that strong partisans responded by becoming less supportive of violence. We saw this effect even after reading a single sentence from a leader. It follows that sustained anti-violence rhetoric from leaders should be even more powerful. Importantly, Trump did the opposite in the lead-up to the Jan. 6 insurrection. He very likely could have prevented the violence that occurred if he had broadly discouraged it in the first place. But instead Trump stoked violent feelings and behaviors.

In our surveys, we observe similar levels of support for violence among Democrats and Republicans. But observed levels of real violence in the American public are almost entirely from right-wing actors. This is likely due to the difference in rhetoric between Democratic and Republican leaders. Condemning violence is extremely important, even if the original violent message is purported to be "only a joke."

What did your research show about the relative influence of Fox News and MSNBC?

Mason: Americans who consumed partisan media (Fox News and MSNBC) were significantly more radical in their partisan views than those who watched CNN. For Fox News in particular, their viewers were both more morally disengaged from Democrats and more willing to endorse sending threats to Democrats. Those who watched MSNBC were not more morally disengaged than those who watched CNN, but they were more likely to endorse sending threats to Republicans. Overall, Fox News viewers seem to be significantly more likely to dehumanize and vilify Democrats than consumers of any other news source.

The recent wave of attacks on Democrats who support LGBTQ+ rights as "groomers" — by implication, pedophiles — seems like another worrying example of dehumanization. Aren't media elites and politicians who take up such language grooming their followers for violence?

Kalmoe: The "groomer" and "pedo" conspiracy rhetoric accomplishes two things at once for Republicans. It ties into long-standing vilifying tropes of LGBTQ+ people that appeal to the most radical religious base, but it also serves a broader purpose of vilifying Democrats and liberals generally. It's hard to imagine anything more vile than sexually abusing children, so the attempt to invent that political reputation for their opponents is the horrifying logical conclusion of increasing vilification. By going to those vilifying extremes, they make political violence against all those groups more likely because it's easier for people to rationalize violence against people whose evil behaviors define them.

What did you find in terms of prospects for the future? How should we understand the stakes and the risks we face?

Mason: We're in a pivotal moment as a country. Every time we make progress on racial equality and civil rights, we tend to see a backlash. The current political clash is about whether we can continue to improve the country's progress toward a fully multiracial democracy, or whether we go back to a time when white Christian men had full control over society. It's an intense conversation, but also it's one that we need to have. When we can't talk about racism and sexism, that protects racism and sexism. There is no way to have this conversation about the country's past and future in a way that is without conflict, but there is also no guarantee that equality will always win and prejudice will always lose. So it's an intense moment, but it's also a very important one.

Any final thoughts you'd like to leave us with?

Kalmoe: We make very clear in the book that while levels of radical partisanship are sometimes similar between Democrats and Republicans, the roots of that radicalism are not morally equivalent. We also acknowledge that political violence is sometimes a last resort, and that viewing opponents as a threat may be an objective evaluation and not a view to be condemned.

We should also note that while our research focuses on partisan violence, the biggest threats to democracy in the U.S. are from legal channels, not civilians acting out violently — although those sometimes reinforce each other. Legislatures, governors, courts, administrators and presidents all have far more influence over whether the U.S. moves toward or away from democracy than any mob, militia, terror cell or assassin.

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