A large study confirms one in five Americans believes violence motivated by political reasons is—at least sometimes—justified. Nearly half expect a civil war, and many say they would trade democracy for a strong leader, a preprint posted today on medRxiv found.
“This is not a study that’s meant to shock,” says Rachel Kleinfeld, a political violence expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who was not involved in the research. “But it should be shocking.”
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Firearm deaths in the United States grew by nearly 43% between 2010 and 2020, and gun sales surged during the coronavirus pandemic. Garen Wintemute, an emergency medicine physician and longtime gun violence researcher at the University of California, Davis, wondered what those trends portend for civil unrest. “Sometimes being an ER [emergency room] doc is like being the bowman on the Titanic going, ‘Look at that iceberg!’” he says.
He and his colleagues surveyed more than 8600 adults in English and Spanish about their views on democracy in the United States, racial attitudes in U.S. society, and their own attitudes toward political violence. The respondents were part of the Ipsos KnowledgePanel—an online research panel that has been used widely, including by Wintemute for research on violence and firearm ownership. The team then applied statistical methods to extrapolate the survey results to the entire country.
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Although almost all respondents thought it’s important for the United States to remain a democracy, about 40% said having a strong leader is more important. Half expect a civil war in the United States in the next few years. (The survey didn’t specify when.)
“The fact that basically half the country is expecting a civil war is just chilling,” Wintemute says. And many expect to take part. If found in a situation where they think violence is justified to advance an important political objective, about one in five respondents thinks they will likely be armed with a gun. About 7% of participants—which would correspond to about 18 million U.S. adults—said they would be willing to kill a person in such a situation.
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Kleinfeld says the study’s findings are compelling because of the large number of participants and because it asked about specific scenarios in which participants think violence is justified—such as for self-defense or to stop people with different political beliefs from voting. The sample does slightly overrepresent older people, who are not known to commit much violence worldwide, she says. “So the fact that you’re [still] getting these high numbers … is really quite concerning.”
She is less alarmed by the shaky support for democracy, noting that political gridlock—as in U.S. politics today—can often distort attitudes. “What people mean by ‘democracy’ is pretty fuzzy,” she says. Political paralysis, she adds, can quickly lead people who think, “Yeah, I like democracy,” to also say, “Yeah, I want a strong man” in leadership.
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“The findings are scary, but not surprising,” Kurt Braddock, who studies the psychology of extremist communication at American University, wrote in an email to Science. In recent years, he says, the United States has seen an increase in individual willingness to engage in violence—homicides in cities increased 44% between 2019 and 2021, for instance—an attitude he says is likely to spill into the political sphere.
Researchers have criticized the sampling and survey methodology of previous studies that found increasing support for political violence. But the new study generally agrees with earlier efforts, Kleinfeld says. A small survey from 2021, for instance, found about 46% of voters thought the United States would have another civil war, and another showed more than one-third of Americans agree that “The traditional American way of life is disappearing so fast that we may have to use force to save it.”
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Barbara Walter, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego, who was also not involved in the study, agrees. But she suspects the survey responses overrepresent the number of Americans who would be willing to turn to violence because, she says, surveys tend to overstate what people actually think. “The numbers always tend to be shocking, but in essence, are probably not true.”
Conspiracy theories and racism
Wintemute and colleagues found that conspiracy theories, some rooted in racism, are helping shape views about political violence.
They found roughly two in five adults agreed with the white nationalist “great replacement theory,” or the idea that native-born white voters are being replaced by immigrants for electoral gains.
And one in five respondents believed the QAnon conspiracy theory that U.S. institutions are controlled by an elite group of Satan-worshipping pedophiles.
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Respondents’ belief in conspiracy theories might partially explain their views on democracy and political violence, Walter says, but she wishes the survey went deeper to explain the particular reasons why the participants would choose to engage in violence.
Both Braddock and Kleinfeld wish the new study responses were broken down by partisan affiliation because previous surveys show engaging in violence is much more prevalent in right-leaning individuals.
“That is a key oversight,” Braddock says. “If readiness for civil war is coming from one side [and not in both], we need to know that.” The study team did look at affiliation with certain extremist groups such as the Proud Boys, but Wintemute said his group is now working on follow-up analyses of the survey to look at other political affiliations and will also launch a follow-up survey with the same group of respondents by the end of the year to further examine the role of certain group identities and propensity for political violence.
To reduce the threat of political violence, Braddock says, the first step is to call out the disinformation online and in right-wing media, some of which is taken directly from extremist propaganda. “We need to call that out for what it is before we can begin to address the problems it is causing.”
Regulating social media to avoid “incendiary” misinformation from spreading could also help, Walter says. Kleinfeld adds that leaders—from politicians and media personalities to church pastors—can also make a difference. Experiments show courageous leaders can deter their communities from engaging in violence. “Now’s the time to take this seriously and not put our heads in the sand,” Kleinfeld says.
All politicians are lying. We, the people have to fight for our rights… [Medrxiv, Science]
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You can only push a person so far… patience wearing thin everywhere. I think the civil war will be disobedience on a massive scale. (I AM UNGOVERNABLE THINK SET)… meaning one decides our government is no longer for the people.. (WE ARE PAST THAT!!) and then people stop “following orders,” and willing to take their consequences.. even if it means jail time..(ie: stop paying taxes, school taxes, fed, registration, bills, etc.. ) As all these systems of tyranny are designed to keep us IN LINE and in the never ending LOOP of work to pay debt. A phone bill is debt.. I am not taking just about mortgages and loans. People will be willing to loose it all… to take a stand.. because what we have now.. sucks…..and is only gonna’ get worse.. Its only 2022… Diaper boy has another two years to go. Much damage done so far, much much more to come. So RESIST OR SERVE… ain’t much simpler than that.
Yep, the Deep State/Cabal/Satanists/Banksters would love to create a civil war. Then they could maneuver things in their favor. Not that we don’t have a right to start shooting, it’s just that they are masters at manipulating and dis-information. Good folks would find it impossible to know who the bad guys are. But all the evidence indicates that good guys, who have the power to see through the BS are fighting them and winning. Appears they now have the upper hand but not ready to reveal this to the people yet. The people will probably never get the true story, just a backing off of evil. We’ll know we’re there when they retire the Biden show. Interesting he’s been isolated due to Covid a couple days ago. Something is up??
Do agree with you….white hats are working hard and playing 5d chess.
I’m way ahead of the curve. I wrote the book “Surviving Civil War II” ten years ago and updated it last year. I nailed it, but publishers won’t touch it, they are afraid of the truth. Far from being a conspiracy theory, the Left is following in exactly the same footprints as Maos Cultural Revolution, or Venezuela’s Chavistas.
When you declare half the nation Racist Nazi White Supremacist Domestic Terrorists, why would you be surprised when these people decline to board your cattlecars for a shower?
What democracy? We are a constitutional republic. And each state is promised a republican form f government.
They divided us in every aspect of our lives. Abortion yes or not.
so they wanted us to have civil war2 but we are smarter than take
the bait that is put in front of us. We shall not go to civil war 2 because we are awaken masses. If we go shame on all of us.
The puppetmasters would love to provoke a civil war here. Their goals is to destroy America. Steal its wealth, and replace our population with more pliable 3rd world peons.
We would probably see a national divorce or secession before war in my opinion.
The uptick in mkultra hypno-zombie shooters is the same playbook the demonic left run consistently, when the want to push the anti-2nd crap before an election. It’s obvious to many people now. So, most people don’t want to be disarmed, especially when they have open borders, and all you see is military age drifter/grifters in caravans. It’s an invasion, ruins demographics, and screws over taxpayers. Seems worse than ever too.
Braddock says, the first step is to call out the disinformation online and in right-wing
It is the Progressives who are attacking and poking the Eagle.
Soon the ‘Talons’ will come out and they will not like the end result.
Old Fart here not afraid to die for America & America!!!
To paraphrase Patton….it is not about dying for one’s country…it is about making the enemy die for his beliefs and behavior.