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Political violence and threats are on the rise. Who’s to blame?

Research from Pew might convince us to look in the mirror instead of at our political foes

SHARE Political violence and threats are on the rise. Who’s to blame?
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Eliza Anderson, Deseret News

In the run-up to this year’s midterm elections, there were several instances of violence or threats of violence directed at politicians and their families, as well as at those engaged in hot-button political issues like abortion.

This comes as Republican and Democratic lawmakers are receiving more threats than ever, and as Americans express greater intolerance toward those with whom they disagree.

One of the most high-profile instances of violence this year was the assault on Paul Pelosi, husband of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who was attacked with a hammer at their house in San Francisco. The attack led to calls for more security for lawmakers and their families —adding to the chorus of politicians who were already asking for more security as threats against them have increased over the past several years. 

The rise in threats against lawmakers is well documented: The U.S. Capitol Police opened 9,625 cases in 2021 related to threats against members of Congress, up from 3,939 in 2017, according to a Reuters report. 

After the attack against Pelosi, Capitol Police Chief Tom Manger issued a statement saying the agency has requested additional resources in order to provide more security to members of Congress. 

“After the 2011 shooting of Representative Gabby Giffords and the 2017 shooting of Representative Steve Scalise, the United States Capitol Police made security improvements. With the increasing number of threats against elected officials from city council members to federal judges, our work to further our efforts to protect the Members of Congress becomes increasingly urgent,” Manger said.

Other political violence or threats this year include: 

  • A smashed window at the Bangor, Maine, home of Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins. 
  • The attempted stabbing of New York Republican gubernatorial candidate Lee Zeldin. 
  • The arrest of a man who threatened to kill U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal, a Democrat, after he showed up at her Seattle home. 
  • The attempted assassination of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh by a California man who arrived at Kavanaugh’s home with a gun and ammunition and allegedly told police he planned to kill Kavanaugh over his role in the decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. 
  • Attacks on several pregnancy crisis centers and pro-life groups, which were vandalized or worse following the Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade.  
  • These are just the proverbial tip of the iceberg. Threats of violence have also increased toward local officials and federal judges, according to a report by Time. And in some cases, members of Congress have received threats from people in their own political party because they were viewed as being insufficiently loyal, such as Republican Rep. Liz Cheney.

In a speech delivered in the days after the attack on Paul Pelosi, President Joe Biden placed the blame for the rise in violence at the feet of former President Donald Trump, based on his claims about election fraud during the 2020 election. 

Speaking of the rioters who attacked the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, he said, “It was an enraged mob that had been whipped up into a frenzy by a president repeating over and over again the Big Lie that the election of 2020 had been stolen. It’s a lie that fueled the dangerous rise in political violence and voter intimidation over the past two years.”

While taking aim at political violence perpetrated by Republicans in the speech, he did not address violence by those on the political left. He did say there was “no place” for violence “whether it’s directed at Democrats or Republicans.” 

While rhetoric used by politicians may be contributing to a rise in partisan anger, it’s hard to know whether the politicians are fueling the anger or if they’re responding to a rise in contempt and anger among their constituents for people on the opposing side. 

study of partisan hostility released earlier this year by Pew Research Center shows that Republicans and Democrats are more likely than ever to assign negative traits to members of the opposite party. For example, 83% of Democrats and 69% of Republicans say members of the other party are more likely to be closed-minded, up from 70% and 52% in 2016. The number of Republicans who say Democrats are more likely to be dishonest is 72%, up from 45% in 2016. Meanwhile, 64% of Democrats say the same about Republicans, up from 42%.

The number of Republicans who say Democrats are immoral has gone from 47% in 2016 to 72%, while 63% of Democrats say Republicans are immoral, up from 35%. Both Republicans and Democrats are much more likely to hold “deeply negative” views of the other party than they were in the past — 62% of Republicans say this, up from 21% in 1994, and 54% of Democrats, up from 17%.

Pew Research Associate Hannah Hartig said the voters who are most likely to be disdainful of people in the opposing party are those who are the most politically engaged.

“Typically the more engaged you are, the more likely you are to ascribe a negative characteristic to the other side,” she said. “They’re also much more likely to say they strongly identify with their own party.”

She also pointed out that among voters who lean left or right, they are more likely to strongly dislike the opposing party rather than strongly support their own party. Put another way, many Americans are more likely to be allied with a political party based on their negative views of the other side, rather than enthusiasm for their own side. 

It also appears that more voters are fearful of the opposing party. Hartig said the number of people who say it really matters which side wins an election has been going up over the past several elections. 

“There’s this idea that the stakes are really high, and people are just so deeply entrenched in the side that they support,” she said.  

While this study looked at partisan divisiveness, it didn’t explicitly address solutions, she said. 

“There are a lot of flashing red signs here,” she said. “But we didn’t really dig into how can we alleviate this. That’s certainly something we’re interested in.”