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Political violence is a sign of eroding democracy

But it’s not just about polarization.

Gun flag
Gun flag

An incidence of political violence occurred Wednesday. This, a horrific shooting in Alexandria, Virginia, as Republican members of Congress practiced for a baseball game, is different from the Greg Gianforte incident a few weeks ago. The rhetoric surrounding a violent incident matters, and, of course, the method and scale matters too.

But both incidents are likely to shape a bigger conversation in American politics about why this type of violence is happening now. As Ezra Klein pointed out in a somewhat complicated set of tweets, the ability to resolve differences and make policy without violence is as essential as it is difficult.

Two fantastic political behavior researchers, Nathan Kalmoe and Lilliana Mason, have shared their insights. Mason provides some detail about the nature and context of American political divisions, explaining that both parties treat each other with the contempt inherited from years of racial and religious strife. Kalmoe suggests that violent political rhetoric, along with individual personality factors, can drive support for political violence.

But another point of Kalmoe’s stood out the most to me. He writes, “Another important factor was political disaffection. People who doubted that elections get government to pay attention to citizens were 12 points more supportive of political violence compared to those with the most confidence in elections.”

Based on my own research and observations, this seems like a crucial element to understanding violent politics. Perhaps it’s not just dehumanization and animosity. It seems likely that a sense of political frustration or helplessness also contributes to a political situation in which people talk, joke, and even act on the idea of solving political differences with violence.

Contemplating the structural conditions does not absolve individuals of responsibility for their actions. And it does not limit the possibility that violent individuals will take out these tendencies in other ways, as it appears Wednesday’s shooter also may have done. But we have to face the fact that some political disputes are resolved peacefully while others are not, and there are reasons for this difference.

I’ve been saying for a while now that American politics is underresponsive and overresponsive at the same time. This observation is based on my research about mandate politics. Mandate rhetoric is designed to sound responsive: Politicians claim they are doing the people’s business — carrying out the policies that are the reasons they were elected.

But on the other side of that coin is the sense that once you’ve won, you have a broad mandate to implement your agenda, objections be damned. That your election victory justifies what you said to get there and what you do with the power of elected office. And in a polarized political context, that can mean that moving forward with a policy agenda without making concessions to the other side.

Without assuming identical tactics or policy agendas, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that both Democrats and Republicans have felt this way in the past decade or so. Under divided government, it’s possible both sides felt this way — that those in power were failing to respond to their concerns and policy demands.

On his excellent comparative politics blog, Tom Pepinsky wrote back in January about how most authoritarian politics is characterized not by daily dystopia but by “boring and tolerable” existence in which political participation had little effect on the government. This post has haunted me as I’ve watched the 115th Congress unfold, with jammed phone lines and canceled town hall meetings. Democracy requires real responsiveness and transparency. Elections are part of responsiveness, but the process doesn’t end once the ballots have been counted.

There will be a lot of takes, I expect, castigating the tone of political discourse and calling for civility. But I suspect a deeper explanation for why political differences give way to violence has to do with the frustration of unresponsive politics. No level of frustration justifies violence. An important part of democracy, however, is trying to understand the conditions that allow anger to fester and make violence look to some like a viable approach. Peaceful democratic governance is better, and it requires leaders who listen to their citizens — not just the ones who voted for them, and not just during an election year. There’s not much the left and right agree on, but perhaps these principles can be a start.

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