Debate Moderators Should Ask Both Candidates About Political Violence

Posted in: Politics

On June 24, The Washington Post published a report suggesting that “the nation is experiencing a lull in political unrest.” But the apparent good news dissipated quickly as the Post attributed the lull to the fact that “Trump’s supporters believe he will win the presidency.”

The Post explained that “There’s little reason for pro-Trump extremist groups or radicalized MAGA fans to demonstrate when they foresee the presumptive Republican nominee coasting to victory over President Biden in five months and positioned to enact promised “retribution” against his enemies in seven….”

Democratic politics cannot survive such implied asymmetry. “We are peaceful when we win and violent when we do not” is not a peace worth having or a peace with any enduring value.

Last month, a survey reported that many people understand this unpleasant fact of our political life. “Two out of three Americans say they are concerned that political violence could follow the 5 November election….”

The presidential debate should not neglect those concerns.

In the long term, this country needs to take steps to address both the causes and consequences of this willingness to embrace violence as a political tool. Those steps begin in the classroom with a revival of civics education and training in conflict de-escalation.

They include electoral efforts designed to make sure that those who threaten violence do not derive political advantage from doing so. Those steps should also end in the courtroom, where perpetrators of political violence are held to account.

In the meantime, we need to recognize that in today’s America, endorsement of political violence is much more prevalent among MAGA Republicans than it is among other political groups.

Compare what President Biden and Donald Trump are saying about that issue. Biden has unequivocally condemned political violence, which he says is “never, never acceptable in the United States’ political system, never, never, never.”

In contrast, Trump won’t issue such a condemnation of political violence. In an April 2024 interview with Time, he embraced the “peace when we win/violence when we do not” view.

He would only say, “I don’t think we’re going to have that. I think we’re going to win. And if we don’t win, you know, it depends. It always depends on the fairness of an election.”

Beyond the statements of our political leaders, public opinion surveys suggest that there is much work to be done to address the normalization of violence in politics, even as they document partisan differences about political violence.

For example, in October of last year, a Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) poll found that “support for political violence has increased over the last two years. Today, nearly a quarter of Americans [23%] agree that “because things have gotten so far off track, true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country.”

In 2021, that number was 15%. PRRI says that 2023 was “the first-time support for political violence has peaked above 20%.”

PRRI goes on to note that there is a stark political divide. “One-third of Republicans [33%] today believe that true American patriots may have to resort to violence to save the country, compared with 22% of independents and 13% of Democrats. Those percentages have increased since 2021, when 28% of Republicans and 7% of Democrats held this belief.”

Moreover, “Republicans who have favorable views of Trump [41%] are nearly three times as likely as Republicans who have unfavorable views of Trump [16%] to agree that true American patriots may have to resort to violence to save the country.”

Other polls report similar results.

A 2022 University of Chicago Institute of Politics survey found that three in 10 Americans agreed that “it may be necessary at some point soon for citizens to take up arms against the government.” Here again it is clear that Republicans are much more ready to turn to violence as a political tactic.

That poll also identified different visions about why that tactic might be justified. “Democrats tend to support violence ‘on behalf of inclusive democracy and civic equality,’ while Republicans support violence ‘in defense of the traditional social hierarchy,’ in which White men retain disproportionate status and power.”

That is a chilling, if not totally surprising, finding.

Beyond what the polls tell us, the prosecutors, judges, school board members, poll workers, and others who receive threats on an almost daily basis would find the idea that we are experiencing a lull of the kind described by the Post rather strange. As ABC News notes, “Federal judges and federal prosecutors saw a triple-digit increase in threats in 2023….”

Moreover, NBC News says that in 2023, “threats and harassment against officials including city council members, school board members, poll workers, mayors and local prosecutors increased…. Elected or appointed government officials and judicial officials are most likely to face such hostility, they found, with death threats and invasions of privacy being the most common methods.”

Even the Post acknowledges that “One in six local officials said they’d been threatened in the past three months.” It also reports that “white supremacists in particular are emerging as a renewed threat, with public activity increasing rather than receding as with other parts of the militant far right.”

Political violence of that kind just doesn’t happen. Even people predisposed to using violence in politics will not do so without being encouraged by political leaders who “demonize the other party” and use “dehumanizing and denigrating rhetoric that normalizes violence or threats against some groups.”

As the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace puts it, “The normalization of violence by political leaders… may provide a sense that acting violently against those groups will be permitted, may not be punished, or could be lauded and turn one into a hero.”

When former President Trump calls the January 6 insurrectionists “hostages” and labels them as “warriors,” he is dropping a match into gasoline. The Post reports that even in this period of what it calls relative calm, Trump’s MAGA allies “repeatedly have suggested violence as a way to deal with Democrats and other political foes.”

It cites the example of one prominent MAGA podcaster who said on his podcast last March that President Biden “should be hung by the neck until he’s dead” for supporting a ban on assault weapons.

During tonight’s debate, amidst all the time that will be spent on abortion, inflation, immigration, and other things, the moderators owe it to all of us to ask both candidates about political violence. While we might already know what they will say, millions of independents and so-called “double haters” who will watch the debate should have a chance to hear the answers for themselves.

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