Last year, Tom Gjelten of NPR asked me what I made of the fact that our poll showed nearly four in ten Republicans appeared to endorse the use of force in politics. I said it was “pretty scary”. A year later, I still feel that way. That 29 percent of Americans, and 39 percent of Republicans, appear ready to justify the use of violent actions is deeply troubling. More recent polling is no less worrisome.
A slate of polls released over the past month paints a disturbing picture of the public confidence in American elections and democracy.
An NPR/Ipsos poll finds that nearly two-thirds of Americans believe U.S. democracy is "in crisis and at risk of failing."
A YahooNews!/YouGov poll found that three-quarters of Trump voters believe the 2020 presidential election was “rigged and stolen” and that the next election will be as well.
A CBS News poll reveals that nearly seven in ten Americans believe that the January 6 attack on the Capitol was a “harbinger of increasing political violence, not an isolated incident.”
But if I’m honest, these are not the numbers that keep me up at night. Statistics showing a rising tide of threats and intimidation directed at public officials are far more concerning.
Threats against members of Congress have soared over the past few years. Capitol Police identified roughly 9,600 threats against elected representatives in 2021, compared to less than 4,000 in 2017.
After the 2020 election, Reuters documented more than 100 death threats or threats of violence directed at over 40 different election officials, workers, and their relatives across eight battleground states.
It’s true that most Americans do not support these actions, and some are now arguing that polls have exaggerated the extent to which Americans endorse the use of political violence. A new paper by a team of researchers suggests that polls have overstated support for political violence. They note that actual incidents of politically motivated violence are rare, “amounting to a little more than 1% of violent hate crimes in the United States.”
It’s an important counterpoint, but I’m not entirely convinced by their argument. For one, I don’t believe survey respondents are confused by “ambiguous survey questions” about political violence as the authors suggest. We were so startled by the initial results that we re-contacted respondents so they could share, in their own words, what they meant when they agreed that violence in politics could be justified. The answers suggest that people understood the question. For instance, a 69-year-old female respondent suggested that violence is the proper recourse for people who feel their beliefs or values are threatened: “the people have the right to defend themselves." But more than that, the polling responses are not troubling because they predict a surge of politically-charged violence, but rather that many Americans seem increasingly comfortable with the idea.
For the moment, I’m not immediately worried that were teetering on the edge of violent political protests. With the Republican Party poised to make considerable gains in the 2022 midterm elections, it’s unlikely we’ll hear much about rigged elections or faulty voting machines. It may help instill greater electoral confidence among those who believe Trump’s election loss was the result of fraud. Research has shown that when our side wins elections, we feel much more confident that the result was fairly decided. MIT’s Election Data & Science Lab finds that Democratic confidence in the election system surged after the 2008 and 2020 elections, while Republicans were much more certain their votes were counted in 2004 and 2016. Nothing boosts confidence in a process like a positive result.
However, there are growing signs of institutional dysfunction in our election system. The Associated Press reports that many local election officials are being pushed out. “About a third of Pennsylvania’s county election officials have left in the last year and a half, according to a spokesman for the state’s county commissioners association, who cited heavy workloads and rampant misinformation related to voting among the reasons.”
Mona Charen at the Bulwark argues that the GOP is engaged in “systematic purging of officials who did the right thing in the 2020 election.” The full piece is worth reading, but here are the highlights: “Remember Aaron Van Langevelde, a GOP member on the Michigan board of canvassers who refused to lie about the vote count? He’s out, and his family needs police protection. Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger has been removed from the board overseeing election certification, and is being primaried, as is Georgia Governor Brian Kemp.”
And NPR now reports that at least 15 Republican candidates running in secretary of state races this year who question the legitimacy of Joe Biden’s win.
Our election system is only as good as the people serving it. If current election officials are coerced or threatened into leaving and are replaced by Trump loyalists willing to disregard the rule of law, we’re in real trouble. You don’t have to incite a violent uprising if you rig the game ahead of time.
What’s so concerning about the fact that nearly four in ten Republicans believe using force in politics is necessary is not that it portends a violent uprising. Rather, it’s that a large number of GOP voters believe that things in the country have gotten so bad, the election system so corrupt, and their opponents so dangerous that almost any action can be justified.
That’s a scary place to be.
American Life: Facts and Figures
Trump’s Party: In the aftermath of the January 6th attack at the Capitol many argued that Trump’s political career was over. Trump’s behavior would finally get Republicans to turn on him. But in an essay for FiveThirtyEight, Michael Tesler finds that rank and file Republicans remained steadfast in their commitment to Trump throughout. His favorability rating during and after the attacks barely budged.
Trump 2024? Three years out from the next presidential election, few Americans are yearning for Trump to return to the White House. A CBS poll finds that 62 percent of Americans say Trump should not run for president in 2024. However, most Republicans would like to see Trump mount another campaign. Fifty-six percent of Republicans say he should run again in 2024, and 20 percent say continue fighting to be installed president before the next election.
Losing Confidence in Each Other: So much research and commentary has focused on the decline of public trust in various institutions—the media, government, police, the justice system. But over the last decade, we have also seen an erosion of the confidence that Americans have in each other. According to the Pew Research Center, only 38 percent of Americans report they are confident that the “American people” will make wise political decisions. This represents a dramatic reversal from the past. In 1964, Gallup found that over three-quarters (77 percent) of Americans had trust and confidence in the wisdom of the American public when it came to making political decisions. (H/T @pollsandvotes)