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We Need to Stop Fueling Partisan Violence. Here’s How.

Millions of Americans say they could justify violence in the wake of an electoral defeat. To stop a post-election nightmare, we need to act now.

Does anyone else wake up at 3 a.m. worrying about the future of democracy in America, or is it just me?

As I lay there in the dark listening to the snoring of our asthmatic dog, I find myself wondering what will happen in the aftermath of the November elections. This being the middle of the night, the doom-and-gloom side of my imagination has free reign, serving up nightmare scenarios like these:

  1. The Democrats win, but many Republicans don’t accept the result as legitimate because they are convinced the vote was “rigged.” Some of the more extreme partisans turn out for armed protests at state capitols and in Washington, D.C., where speakers warn of the imminent imposition of socialism and the loss of personal liberties. Talk of resisting an illegitimate government and defending the Constitution breeds pockets of passive armed resistance to state and federal authority; tense confrontations with counter-protestors and/or law enforcement explode, and off we go.
  2. The Republicans win, but many Democrats don’t accept the result as legitimate because of charges of voter suppression and foreign interference. Some of the more extreme partisans engage in property destruction, rioting, and confrontations with law enforcement. Federal forces get involved, with armed militias and self-appointed vigilantes showing up to “help,” and off we go.
  3. Or maybe the losing side grudgingly concedes the legitimacy of the election, but simply finds the result intolerable. Seeing their cause as the just resistance of an evil regime, the losing side’s protests become more and more aggressive, sparking counter-protests and retaliation. The isolated partisan violence that we’ve seen in recent weeks becomes more common as the extremists on both sides drag the country into a “slow civil war.”

Are these scenarios realistic, or the product of a sleep-deprived imagination? And if they are even slightly possible, what can we do to prevent them from unfolding?

To find out, I did some digging around in recent scientific research on extreme partisan animosity — which, unsurprisingly, has seen a lot of interest in the past five years. What I found wasn’t exactly reassuring, although I also found reason for hope, and some practical strategies for steering the nation away from these worst-case scenarios.

The Bad News: Many Americans Support Partisan Violence

Itprobably doesn’t take a social scientist to figure out that political polarization is worse than it’s been in generations; a simple stroll through Twitterland serves up plenty of anecdotal evidence. Still, it’s hard to know whether you’re seeing a truly representative sample of the American electorate, or how seriously to take the more inflammatory content.

Both Republicans and Democrats “are willing to explicitly state that members of the opposing party are like animals.”

But what social and political scientists have been finding in the past three years or so confirms that, in the words of an October 2019 Pew Research Center report, “the level of division and animosity — including negative sentiments among partisans toward the members of the opposing party — has only deepened” since 2016 ( “Partisan Antipathy: More Intense, More Personal”). According to one team of researchers, we’re witnessing “a new form of partisan polarization” in which both Republicans and Democrats “are willing to explicitly state that members of the opposing party are like animals, that they lack essential human traits, and that they are less evolved than members of their own party” (James L. Martherus et al, “Party Animals? Extreme Party Polarization and Dehumanization,”). Another prominent researcher puts it this way: “We now know that modern partisans dislike each other, try to avoid each other, see each other as threats to the nation, and even discriminate against each other” (Nathan Kalmoe, With Ballots and Bullets, page 215).

These widespread attitudes and behaviors are characteristic of partisan “moral disengagement,” a term social psychologist use to describe the strategies by which people justify their own harmful behavior. Moral disengagement “gives people the moral leeway to harm others in ways they would not otherwise find acceptable without that psychological distancing, thereby protecting one’s self-image as a good person even as one harms other people,” according to political scientists Nathan Kalmoe and Lilliana Mason (“Lethal Mass Partisanship,” page 7).

How widespread is this kind of partisan animosity? Depending on where you draw the line, recent research suggests that it’s prevalent in as much as 70 percent of partisans in both parties.

In two surveys conducted in the fall of 2017 and the spring of 2018, for example, Kalmoe and Mason found that between 60 and 70 percent of partisans agreed that members of the opposing party “are a serious threat to the United States and its people.” About 40 percent agreed that members of the other party “are not just worse for politics-they are downright evil.” And nearly 20 percent agreed that many members of the other party “lack the traits to be considered fully human-they behave like animals” ( “Lethal Mass Partisanship,” pages 18–20).

Other studies support these results. The Pew Research Center, for example, conducted a survey of 9,895 Americans in September 2019 that found 55 percent of Republicans believe Democrats are “more immoral” compared to other Americans, while 47% of Democrats say the same about Republicans-an increase of 8 percent and 12 percent, respectively, from three years prior.

Okay, so lots of people feel deep animosity toward their political opponents. But are they willing to translate those feelings into violent action?

Clear majorities of Americans reject the legitimacy of partisan violence, but the number who don’t is a little alarming. In a survey conducted late last year, Kalmoe and Mason asked 5,948 Americans how justified it would be for their party to use violence to advance its goals. Sixteen percent said it was at least “a little” justified; 6 percent said violence would be justified “a lot” or “a great deal.” Asked how justified violence would be if their party lost the presidential election, those numbers went up: 21 percent of the respondents said violence would be at least “a little justified,” and 9 percent believed it would be justified “a lot” or “a great deal.” The extent of support for partisan violence was nearly identical in both parties ( “Most Americans Reject Partisan Violence, But There Is Still Cause for Concern”).

Let’s just pause for a moment and consider those numbers. Even if only 9 percent of partisans see violence as a justifiable response to losing the election, we’re still talking about millions of people.

It would be nice to think that most of them aren’t quite serious-some people talk like that to blow off steam, right?-but when Kalmoe and Mason asked about that in their previous study, 82 percent of the violence-endorsing respondents claimed their views were sincere. “We’re confident that most partisans who have extreme views are serious about those views, even though few will act on them without some additional impetus,” the researchers said.

Americans’ widespread tolerance of toxic partisan rhetoric absolutely sends the wrong signal to the extremists in both parties.

What that additional impetus might be is anyone’s guess. It seems clear, though, that Americans’ widespread tolerance of toxic partisan rhetoric (which is the language of moral disengagement) absolutely sends the wrong signal to the extremists in both parties. If you’re someone who could rationalize using violence to achieve a political outcome, how would you interpret your more moderate allies calling the other party “morons,” “deplorable,” “not really human,” or worse? What would you hear if your more moderate allies claimed that only your party had good ideas, or that your party was morally superior to the other party-that, indeed, the other party posed “a threat to the nation”?

I suspect such a person might just hear a call to arms.

Is Post-Election Violence a Realistic Possibility?

All of which brings us back to the question of whether my post-election nightmare scenarios are worth worrying about (and therefore trying to prevent)-or whether I should just take a melatonin and go back to sleep.

In my review of the literature, the few researchers who directly addressed that question downplayed the possibility of widespread partisan violence.

“Clearly, most partisans will not engage in this type of violence,” the research team led by Martherus concluded in their July 2019 paper. But they also offered this caution: “As norms of civility deteriorate and some groups increasingly see members of the outparty as dangerous rather than simply misguided, we may see more violent clashes between partisans.”

In his just-released book, With Ballots and Bullets, Nathan Kalmoe examines the role of partisan identity in fueling the U.S. Civil War, and concludes that it would be a mistake to think that such widespread partisan violence can’t happen again today: “Under extreme legitimizing circumstances, ordinary Americans willingly enact political violence. It’s not just a few radical extremists” (page 216). However, he believes that such a scenario would require an explicit call to arms by political leaders, both to organize the action and to legitimize it. He says that “low-level, relatively disorganized partisan violence by individuals and small groups is far likelier than systematically organized mass violence” (page 223).

Are these political experts right to downplay the threat? Keep in mind that all of the research cited above was conducted before President Trump was impeached, before the coronavirus pandemic, before the worst economic collapse in generations, before armed protests at state capitol buildings, before George Floyd and Jacob Blake, before the riots and looting, before toppled Confederate statues, before talk of voter suppression and rigged elections.

We’ve entered uncharted territory. But it seems to me that the events of this past spring and summer have already introduced many of the necessary ingredients for a larger conflagration sparked by one side or the other’s dissatisfaction with the election result. As for the idea that such large-scale violence would require an explicit call to action from political leaders-well, the grass-roots protests of the past few months seem to prove otherwise. In the age of social media, who needs party leaders to mobilize large numbers of ordinary partisans to take extreme action, much less legitimize it?

The Good News: If We Quit Using Toxic Rhetoric, Partisan Violence Is Less Likely

Let’s turn to the good news, starting with this: The vast majority of Americans ( at least 79 percent, according to Kalmoe and Mason) reject partisan violence, and many Americans (between 20 and 40 percent, depending on your measure) also reject toxic partisan rhetoric and attitudes of moral disengagement. The researchers found, for example, that some 30 percent of partisans agree that members of the opposing party “have their heart in the right place but just come to different conclusions about what is best” ( “Lethal Mass Partisanship,” page 20).

Without the tacit approval of their political tribe, the vast majority of extreme partisans will stand down — even after an election loss.

This is good news because we know that tribes exert enormous influence over their members. (See Amy Chua’s excellent book Political Tribes, especially chapter 5.) If someone strongly identifies with a particular tribe, she’s much less likely to violate the tribe’s rules and norms. So just as toxic partisan rhetoric pushes partisans toward aggressive action on behalf of their tribe, putting the brakes on such rhetoric — or, better yet, actually engaging with opponents as valued human beings and citizens — sends the opposite signal. Without the tacit approval of their political tribe, the vast majority of extreme partisans will stand down — even after an election loss.

Is it enough that 30 percent of partisans refuse to villainize their opponents? Maybe. But who wants to rely on “maybe” when the stakes are so high?

Wouldn’t it be better if more of us dispensed with partisan name-calling and chest thumping altogether? Like…now?

How to Curb Partisan Animosity

Bythis point, I hope it’s obvious what we need to do to reduce the chances of violent mass partisan conflict in the coming months.

Each of us needs to start disciplining our tongues and texts. No more partisan name-calling. No more angry screeds that reduce our ideological opponents to their most obnoxious beliefs and actions. No more ad hominem attacks — they’re no good at persuading anyone to come to your side, anyway. And no more childish self-righteous claims that our own party is morally superior — that “the other party started it,” or that our party’s sins can be excused because the other party’s are worse.

No more scrolling past the toxic rhetoric of our political allies, either. Instead, we need to actively disrupt those patterns of moral disengagement by pointing them out to friends and allies.

To temper partisan conflict, we need to take a deep breath, channel our inner grown up, and engage with people on the other side.

Finally, we need to get to know people from the other party — not through superficial encounters, but substantial interactions. Researchers tell us that Americans are intentionally avoiding members of the other party more than ever before. Sticking with our own tribe is way more comfortable, but to temper partisan conflict, we need to take a deep breath, channel our inner grown up, and engage with people on the other side.

Image: Karen Roach. Licensed from Adobe Stock.

I can hear a chorus of objections already — heck, I have my own. We see people in the other party saying and doing outrageous things. And the issues at stake in this election go to our most primal values: safety, personal liberty, human dignity. How can we “stand down” when the stakes are so high?

Over the past few years, I’ve read many good books about how we might bridge the partisan divide. But perhaps the most powerful guide I’ve encountered in this quest is the writer and educator Megan Phelps-Roper.

She’s the young woman who grew up picketing military funerals, synagogues, and other venues with hateful slogans because of her family’s involvement with the extremist Westboro Baptist Church. As a young adult, she and her sister bravely walked away from that lifestyle (and her family) thanks to the generous and patient persistence of a handful of people on Twitter.

“My friends on Twitter didn’t abandon their beliefs or their principles — only their scorn,” she said in a 2017 TED talk describing her experience. “They channeled their infinitely justifiable offense and came to me with pointed questions tempered with kindness and humor. They approached me as a human being, and that was more transformative than two full decades of outrage, disdain and violence.”

After recounting her remarkable story, she offered a warning that is even more relevant today: “I can’t help but see in our public discourse so many of the same destructive impulses that ruled my former church,” she said. “This path has brought us cruel, sniping, deepening polarization, and even outbreaks of violence. I remember this path. It will not take us where we want to go.”

Her TED talk is well worth viewing in its entirety (or you can read the transcript). Here, though, I’d like to summarize the four strategies she offers for having difficult conversations with people whose views you find repugnant.

First, assume your opponent has good (or at least neutral) intentions. It’s easy to ride that initial wave of anger, Phelps-Roper says, but assuming ill motives pretty much kills any possibility of a constructive conversation. We get stuck imagining our opponent in the one-dimensional role of evil villain. Instead, we need to imagine them as complex human beings with a lifetime of experiences that led to the beliefs you’re contending. Perhaps, too, we need to try to imagine them as their best potential selves — the way Phelps-Roper’s friends were able to imagine her in a better light.

Second, ask questions. Asking questions opens the way to constructive dialogue because it lets your opponent know she is being heard; most likely, she will reciprocate by asking question of you, too. “When we engage people across ideological divides, asking questions helps us map the disconnect between our differing points of view,” Phelps-Roper says. “That’s important because we can’t present effective arguments if we don’t understand where the other side is actually coming from.”

Third, stay calm. This is difficult when our opponent’s rhetoric sends us into fight-or-flight mode, but it’s important — and powerful. Phelps-Roper recalls how one of her Twitter friends — a religious Jew who eventually became her husband — handled the tensest moments of their conversation by making a joke, changing the subject, or excusing himself from the conversation for a while.

Fourth, make the argument. Phelps-Roper says that when we have strong beliefs, we can be tempted to assume “that we shouldn’t have to defend our positions because they’re so clearly right and good that if someone doesn’t get it, it’s their problem — that it’s not my job to educate them.” Uh-uh. If we want to change people’s minds, we need to do the work of showing them a different way of thinking. It’s not easy, because people’s strongest beliefs have usually evolved over a lifetime, and are tied up with their tribal allegiances. But Phelps-Roper isn’t the only person who has been persuaded to change her way of viewing the world. And who knows? We might change some of our own views, too.

Itall boils down to this: There is always more to people than their worst ideas, beliefs, or behavior. And our allegiance to the American ideal of unity amid diversity must trump our allegiance to party and ideology. We should continue debating the best course for the nation as vigorously as we always have, but we should do so as fellow human beings, and fellow Americans. Because if we don’t, our 3 a.m. nightmares about the future of democracy in America may end up being worse than we ever imagined.

Postscript: Here’s a link to another relevant TED Talk: Jochen Wegner: What happened when we paired up thousands of strangers to talk politics. H/t Ed Blosch.

This essay originally appeared in Medium in August 2020.

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