Closing 2021: Summary Reports on Partisanship and Violence in the United States

Basak Gemici, University of Pittsburgh

Published on: January 24, 2022


As the year 2021 came to an end, research centers published their yearly highlights. Here I summarize some of their striking findings of partisanship and its relation to violence and extremism.

Clashing Public Opinion on Singular Events

Recent reports by Pew Research Center and Bright Line Watch reaffirm rising concerns about damaging social and individual consequences of intensified polarization and political violence in the aftermath of the Trump era. Repeating their November 2020 survey in November 2021, Bright Line Watch found a stable split among the Democrats and Republicans—94% to 26% respectively—regarding their belief in President Biden’s rightful election victory. They reported a similar divide among two groups of voters in beliefs over the former president’s role in the January 6th, 2021, insurrection. According to the Pew Research Center’s survey on public opinion regarding the prosecution of Capitol rioters, 52% of Americans said that Trump’s conduct was wrong and that senators should have voted to convict him, while 87% of Democrats ratified this statement, only 11% of the Republicans did so. Overall, a partisan division over the legitimacy of certain events and attitudes is profound. Legitimacy is not a unitary construct as Schoon (2015) discusses it in a different setting based on agents such as armed liberation organizations; considering the multiplicity of audiences as varying sources of legitimacy could help make sense of this split well.

How does the recited finding of hardened partisan division relate to violence?

Especially upon protests following George Floyd’s killing and the January 6th attempt, estimating partisan support for violence has become an anxious curiosity. “Affective polarization”—measured by the gap between rating one’s hostility towards an out-party member versus an in-party member—has already risen two-fold between 1970 and 2012. Trump-era energized this hostility and division. Kalmoe and Mason (2020) and Bright Line Watch reached a similar conclusion suggesting that respondents condoned violence in response to losing an election at alarmingly high levels. However, other researchers argue that these findings may be due to methodological decisions: the formulation of the questions, reliance on hypothetical situations, and disengaged respondents. Yet, partisan animosity does not increase the support for violence. Rather than directly deriving from hate or hostility towards the opponent, support for partisan violence in the United States is partly due to overestimating the rivals’ support for violence and anti-democratic means. One way or another, mechanisms of how people negotiate the escalating anticipation of violence by “others” and how to correct these misperceptions need to be addressed in future research.

Although partisanship is not documented in most cases, hate crimes and right-wing violence in the United States increased in recent years. The vast majority of the attacks are towards racial/ethnic minorities. Yet, in 2018 the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) started to track male supremacy amongst other ideologies. Furthermore, extremism among active-duty military and veterans attracts attention in the media. State institutions differ in their approach to extremism. While the military considers the “the service discrediting” actions, the FBI focuses on the violent outcomes, and the courts try to balance the “freedom of expression.” The lack of a single agreed-upon definition of extremism by state institutions is among other obstacles to detecting and preventing extremism on duty.