January 6

Was the Capitol Riot Really the Opening Battle of a Civil War?

There are good reasons to think polls grossly exaggerate the number of Americans who support political violence.


As outrageous and embarrassing as it was, the Capitol riot that happened a year ago today did not come close to stopping Joe Biden from taking office. The assault on the Capitol was haphazard and hapless, a temper tantrum rather than an incipient coup. It was a humiliating spectacle for the United States, indisputable evidence of Donald Trump's reckless self-absorption, and a fitting end to a ridiculous presidency. But in the end, the vandalism and violence merely delayed the ratification of the election results until that night.

Former President Jimmy Carter nevertheless claims that "a violent mob, guided by unscrupulous politicians, stormed the Capitol and almost succeeded in preventing the democratic transfer of power." In a New York Times essay titled "I Fear for Our Democracy," Carter says the threat represented by that "insurrection" continues to endanger our system of government. "Our great nation now teeters on the brink of a widening abyss," he writes. "Without immediate action, we are at genuine risk of civil conflict and losing our precious democracy." The Times editorial board likewise warns that "the Republic faces an existential threat from a movement that is openly contemptuous of democracy and has shown that it is willing to use violence to achieve its ends."

This alarming portrait of a nation on the verge of civil war supposedly is verified by polling data showing that Americans are not only more bitterly divided than ever but also increasingly inclined to resolve political disputes with violence. Carter, for example, cites a January 2021 survey in which "36 percent of Americans—almost 100 million adults across the political spectrum—agree[d] that 'the traditional American way of life is disappearing so fast that we may have to use force to save it.'"

Washington Post/University of Maryland poll conducted last month likewise is generating alarm among people who are inclined to see the Capitol riot as a harbinger of a near future in which bullets replace ballots. "Do you think it is ever justified for citizens to take violent action against the government, or is it never justified?" the survey asked. A third of the respondents, including two-fifths of Republicans, said "violent action against the government" could be justified. That is a sentiment on which this country was built, and one I think I would have to endorse, given how broadly the question was worded. Post columnist Jennifer Rubin nevertheless saw those results as further evidence that "democracy itself is on the ballot this year."

A study published last September in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences challenges the notion that a substantial minority of Americans—more than two-fifths, according to some reports—condone political violence. The Dartmouth political scientist Sean Westwood and his co-authors argue that "documented support for political violence is illusory, a product of ambiguous questions, conflated definitions, and disengaged respondents."

Westwood et al. acknowledge that partisan animosity, a.k.a. "affective polarization," has "increased significantly" during the last few decades. "While Americans are arguably no more ideologically polarized than in the recent past," they say, "they hold more negative views toward the political opposition and more positive views toward members of their own party." But at the same time, "evidence suggests that affective polarization is not related to and does not cause increases in support for political violence and is generally unrelated to political outcomes." So what are we to make of claims that more than a third of Americans believe political violence is justified?

"Despite media attention," Westwood et al. note, "political violence is rare, amounting to a little more than 1% of violent hate crimes in the United States." They argue that "self-reported attitudes on political violence are biased upwards because of disengaged respondents, differing interpretations about questions relating to political violence, and personal dispositions towards violence that are unrelated to politics."

Westwood et al. estimate that, "depending on how the question is asked, existing estimates of support for partisan violence are 30-900% too large." In their study, "nearly all respondents support[ed] charging suspects who commit acts of political violence with a crime." These findings, they say, "suggest that although recent acts of political violence dominate the news, they do not portend a new era of violent conflict."

These conclusions are based on three surveys in which Westwood et al. presented respondents with specific scenarios involving different kinds of violence, varying in severity and motivation. "Ambiguous survey questions cause overestimates of support for violence," they write. "Prior studies ask about general support for violence without offering context, leaving the respondent to infer what 'violence' means." They also note that "prior work fails to distinguish between support for violence generally and support for political violence," which "makes it seem like political violence is novel and unique."

A third problem they identify is that "prior survey questions force respondents to select a response without providing a neutral midpoint or a 'don't know' option," which "causes disengaged respondents…to select an arbitrary or random response." Since "current violence-support scales are coded such that four of five choices indicate acceptance of violence," those arbitrary or random responses tend to "overstate support for violence."

What happens when researchers try to address those weaknesses? In all three surveys that Westwood et al. conducted, "respondents overwhelmingly reject[ed] both political and non-political violence." And while a substantial minority disagreed, that number was inflated by respondents who were classified as "disengaged" based on their failure to retain information from the brief scenarios they read.

The first two surveys, conducted in January 2021, described two actual incidents of political violence. In one, "a Democratic driver was charged with hitting a group of Republicans in Florida who were registering citizens to vote." In the other, "a Republican driver was charged with assault for driving his car though Democratic protesters in Oregon."

In both cases, a fifth of all respondents said the assault was justified. The level of support was essentially the same when the partisan details were omitted. But disengaged respondents were much more likely to approve of the assaults than engaged respondents. When the partisan details were included, about 38 percent of disengaged respondents said the driver's actions were justified, compared to 12 percent of engaged respondents. When the partisan details were omitted, the numbers were about 45 percent and 11 percent, respectively.

The third survey, conducted last April, randomly assigned participants to read "a story with a Republican or Democratic shooter engaging in politically motivated violence or an apolitical act of murder." As you might expect given the severity of the violence, far fewer respondents said it was justified. Overall, 10 percent of respondents said the shooter was justified in the political scenario, while about 7 percent said the apolitical shooter was justified. But there was a huge gap between the disengaged and engaged respondents: 34 percent vs. 4 percent in the political scenario and 26 percent vs. 3 percent in the apolitical scenario.

The gap between engaged and disengaged respondents shrank dramatically when they were asked a more concrete question: Should the driver or shooter face criminal charges? "Across our conditions," Westwood et al. report, "between 83% and 100% of respondents who passed the engagement test want the suspect in the politically motivated violent crime charged, while between 81% and 94% of disengaged respondents want the suspect in the politically motivated violent crime charged."

The study presents additional evidence that the answers given by respondents who failed the engagement test do not necessarily reflect their actual views. "When presented with a dichotomous question and no 'don't know' option," the researchers report, "disengaged respondents essentially randomly split their responses between the two choices, while engaged respondents overwhelmingly report that the driver is not justified….When disengaged respondents are presented with five choices that include a neutral midpoint, the modal response is the midpoint with the remaining respondents splitting their responses between the remaining four categories."

In addition to suggesting that surveys commonly exaggerate the level of support for political violence, this study casts doubt on the idea that political motivation has much to do with how people respond to these questions. Westwood et al.'s study included a question used in prior surveys: "How much do you feel it is justified for [members of your party] to use violence in advancing their political goals these days?" There are five possible answers, ranging from "not at all" to "a great deal."

While that "measure of political violence" was "predictive of support for political violence in our vignettes," Westwood et al. say, it also predicted "support for apolitical acts of violence." They think "the evidence is clear" that  "the survey measure…captures general tolerance for violence and not political violence specifically."

Given these findings, the dire predictions of literal partisan warfare should be taken about as seriously as the claim that the Capitol riot "almost succeeded" in overturning the results of the presidential election. "Our results show support for political violence is not broad-based," Westwood et al. conclude. "To the contrary, we find the public overwhelmingly rejects acts of violence, whether they are political or not. Our evidence suggests that extant studies have reached a different conclusion because of design and measurement flaws."