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Government responsiveness, political violence, and the ’60s

Are we heading for an era of political violence as people lose faith in their governing systems?

Bobby Kennedy

Wednesday’s shooting during a congressional baseball practice in Alexandria, Virginia, was a disturbing incidence of political violence. Julia Azari wrote an important post Thursday explaining the possible relationship between political violence and a lack of government responsiveness. I wanted to comment a bit on this and note that this relationship isn’t necessarily a very clear one.

Drawing on work by Nathan Kalmoe and Lilliana Mason, Azari noted that individuals who lack faith in democratic systems are more likely to say they favor violence to solve political problems. The logical extension would be that if more Americans feel that their government isn’t working for them and isn’t responsive to their needs, more Americans will find violence an acceptable alternative to democracy. If this is what’s going on, it is indeed a deeply disturbing trend.

But it’s important to think back to what was perhaps the most politically violent decade in modern American history — the 1960s. This saw the assassinations of John Kennedy and Medgar Evers (1963), Malcolm X (1965), American Nazi Party leader George Lincoln Rockwell (1967), and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. (1968). It’s difficult for those who didn’t live through that era to understand how much violence had become an ingrained part of the political system.

But was this turbulent era also a time when Americans had lost faith in the political process? The American National Election Studies has been collecting an index of questions on democratic responsiveness since 1964. This index includes questions on whether people believe the government cares what they think and whether they have a say in governmental decisions. The chart below shows the average level of this index since 1964.

As the chart shows, the 1960s were actually a high point in people’s faith in their government. The most politically violent era was also the era in which people considered their government most responsive to them. There may, in fact, be little relationship between faith in government and incidences of political violence.

Now, there are obviously a lot of other factors to consider. The 1960s are considered violent in large part because there were many successful assassination attempts. There were assassination attempts on every president from Nixon to Obama; only Reagan was actually harmed. George Wallace was shot in 1972 but survived. It’s hard to know how many assassinations have been thwarted through improvements in the way the Secret Service protects presidents and candidates.

It’s also important to note, as Azari does, that responsiveness itself has changed form over the years. Individual Americans may have enjoyed more direct responsiveness from their elected officials back in the ’60s, which was during a period of weak political parties. Today, in a very polarized era, responsiveness exists more through the parties themselves. That is, the average Democrat is better represented by the Democratic Party than she was a few decades ago in terms of policy, but that’s of little satisfaction to her if that party is out of power. People today can be more confident they’ll get what they want when their party is in power, but that leaves a narrow minority of voters intensely frustrated with the government at any given time.

We should also keep in mind that the actions of those violent individuals who actually attack government officials don’t necessarily speak to larger societal trends or beliefs. There are obviously a great many people angry at national leaders right now, and there’s a great deal of heated rhetoric fanning that anger. It’s an incredibly small percentage of those people who actually become violent. Indeed, as Nancy Leong suggests at the Washington Post, a past history of violence, especially violence against women, is a far better predictor of future violent behavior than extreme political beliefs are.

Our nation’s history is rife with both heated rhetoric and political violence, and an attack on our elected officials, no less a ranking congressional leader, is an assault on representative democracy that must be taken very seriously. But it’s not obvious that this tragedy portends a rising number of such events.

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