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A spiral of violence and fear is creating angst for many voters ahead of the midterm elections

Three-quarters of Americans say they worry about the future of the country as a threat of violence chills the air.
Protests As Joint Session Of Congress Confirms Presidential Election Result
Demonstrators attempt to enter the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.Eric Lee / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — Armed men in masks and tactical gear have shown up at secure ballot drop boxes. Candidates of both parties have been physically attacked, election workers intimidated. And threats against members of Congress are up tenfold.

For many voters, a vicious spiral of violence and fear is creating angst, paranoia and an overwhelming sense of dread that the nation is on the eve of destruction, according to a growing body of public opinion research.

Democrats worry that the GOP is bent on seizing power regardless of the outcome of elections — a concern rooted in former President Donald Trump’s lies about the 2020 race he lost. Polls show a large portion of Republicans fear democracy is in peril because they believe that elections are rigged against them.

“The corollary to denying the 2020 election is that the deniers don’t believe that exercising their vote is a way to fix [problems] on Nov. 8,” said former Rep. David Jolly, a political independent who served in Congress as a Republican from Florida.

Trump’s false claims about the election have convinced some of his most ardent supporters of a dangerous theory, Jolly said: “You can’t reclaim democracy by going to the ballot box on Nov. 8 — you actually have to use force or intimidation.”

Polls consistently show that Americans — of both political parties and no political party — are worried about the state of the union and their place in it.

Two-thirds of Americans say the country is at its lowest point in their memory, and more than a quarter report being so stressed they can’t function most days, according to a recent survey commissioned by the American Psychological Association in which more than three-quarters said the future of the country was a significant source of stress in their lives.

“We didn’t even ask these types of questions before the 2016 election because politics didn’t seem to be a driving stressor,” said C. Vaile Wright, a clinical psychologist and a senior director at the APA. “The way the political climate has changed to be more negative, the way the media has changed, I do think it has, for a lot of Americans, changed the way we process and deal with election season.”

Social media, push alerts and the 24/7 news cycle pound out a drumbeat of disaster. Old escapes, such as the World Series and movies, offer no respite. The post-Citizens United avalanche of political cash gives political actors the ability to flood commercial breaks and streaming video services with campaign ads like never before. Most of the ads warn of the dangers of electing one candidate or another in the darkest of terms.

“There’s a point of information saturation where you’re constantly exposing yourself to negativity, and that’s not helpful,” Wright said.

Trust in media and democratic institutions is at an all-time low. In one of his first acts as Twitter’s new owner, Elon Musk promoted a baseless conspiracy theory about the intruder who bludgeoned House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband, Paul Pelosi, with a hammer. 

Attack ads accusing Pelosi of being hellbent on “breaking our country” did not pause as her husband lay in the hospital, nor after police documents showed the attacker seemed to be partially inspired by the years of work and millions of dollars conservative have invested in turning Pelosi into a boogeyman.

Frustrated by the fear that democracy no longer serves them, some Americans are becoming convinced that violence is the answer.

A University of California, Davis survey of an unusually large sample of 8,620 Americans from July found that almost 1 in 5 agreed that violence is sometimes needed to “protect American democracy” when “elected leaders will not.” 

Among those who said violence was sometimes justifiable, 12% said they were personally willing “to threaten or intimidate a person,” 10% said they would “injure a person,” and 7% said they would be willing to “kill a person.” 

“We expected the findings to be concerning, but these exceeded our worst expectations,” said Garen Wintemute, the lead author of the study.

Numerous studies have found that large majorities of Americans expect political violence to increase in coming years, while large portions of the population — 43% in one YouGov survey — say another civil war is at least somewhat likely in the next decade.

A majority — 56% — of Republicans agreed the use of force may be necessary to “arrest the decline of the traditional American way of life,” according to the Survey Center on American Life, which is affiliated with the conservative American Enterprise Institute, compared with 35% of independents and 22% of Democrats. 

In the final turbulent days of the midterm elections, America, given the threat to free and fair elections, can be compared to “a fourth-world country,” said Michael Steele, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee and an MSNBC political analyst who has been highly critical of what he has characterized as extremists in the GOP.

The FBI plans to stand up multiple “command posts” to deal with potential threats on Election Day. The Department of Homeland Security, which was established in response to international terrorism, now says domestic extremists are the country’s biggest terrorism threat. And both agencies warned last week that “perceptions of election-related fraud and dissatisfaction with electoral outcomes likely will result in heightened threats of violence.”

“America is facing a mainstreaming of violence among people who are well-established in their communities and who seem to view their violence not as a criminal act but as an extension of political behavior,” Rachel Kleinfeld, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace, testified before the Jan. 6 committee this year. “Problematically, this was also the demographic picture as Nazi extremism mainstreamed among regular Germans in the 1930s.”

Of course, political violence is as old as the nation, which was itself born out of a violent insurrection against the British colonial government. Armed rebellions challenged the government from the start, the Civil War nearly ended it and the 20th century was rife with bombings, assassinations and political intimidation, from the Ku Klux Klan to the Weather Underground.

But experts worry that tolerance for violence is not only becoming more mainstream, but that political incentives in a highly polarized environment make it difficult for leaders to apply the brakes.

The Cooperative Election Study, a huge long-term academic research project administered by Harvard, found that one of the best predictors of pro-violent attitudes in individuals is “partisan moral disengagement,” a term borrowed from psychology used to describe ways of seeing others as evil, less than human and a mortal threat to the nation.

Steele, the former head of the national GOP, said the public and political leaders both bear responsibility for protecting the republic.

“If you stand idly by and watch a segment of our population take arms at the ballot box, what are you saying? What do you think you’re permitting?” He said. “And when you set in motion actions that intimidate at the ballot box, we’re no better than a fourth-world country.”

“What do you take away from that as a citizen?” Steele continued. “You say, 'Oh, OK, this is a whole new playground, there are no rules, there are no leaders — we can engage however we want.'”

The real test may come two years from now, when the presidency is at stake and Trump may once again be on the ballot. 

“The extremists are going to be learning from this midterm and they’re going to be planning for 2024,” said Oren Segal, the vice president of the Center for Extremism at the Anti-Defamation League. “But it also gives space for people who want a safer country to plan ahead, too. We shouldn’t let the extremists be the only ones who learn lessons from this election."