Threats of Political Violence Are Injurious to Democracy Too
While Americans are understandably worried about another Jan. 6 attack, other forms of political aggression are on the rise
Three years ago today, a coordinated attack on the U.S. Capitol sought to disrupt and overturn the final stages of the presidential election process.
Political violence to this extreme degree—in effect, a violent coup attempt—has been a rarity not just in advanced democracies like the United States, but all around the world. According to The Economist, attempts to seize power by force have declined by a factor of 10 since the 1980s and ‘90s. Accordingly, Jan. 6th stands out not just as an outrage, but as our highest profile instance of politically-motivated violence in decades. With over 80% of Americans now registering concern about political violence, the 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol has cast a shadow over American politics and the election year ahead.
But while headline-grabbing instances of violent attacks in the last three years loom large, other aspects of the problem, like violent threats and intimidation, have quieter corrosive effects. In some ways, Jan. 6’s scale and importance might cause us to overlook more frequent, but smaller-scale instances of political aggression that can be just as damaging for democracy’s prospects over the long run. Individually, these instances rarely make the news when they occur. In aggregate, they erode key parts of our democracy, raising the risk of future crises and even physical violence, spelling just as much trouble for the health of democracy in this country.
With one year to go before Congress again gathers to count electoral votes, what does political violence and its associated threats look like in the United States? And what can be done to blunt its impact as we look towards the coming election and beyond?
Comparatively Rare, Increasingly Impactful
The good news is that physical acts of politically-motivated aggression and harm are still comparatively rare, particularly those that occur on a large scale. According to ACLED, one of the leading global data sources, 245 instances of political violence took place in the United States in 2022, the most recent year that included national elections. Most of these events were relatively small in scale, such as minor protests that turned violent. Any level of political violence in the United States is too high, but for the average American, the personal risk of experiencing physical harm from political violence specifically remains fairly low. (Note that political violence is only a subset—the overall level of social and mass violence in the United States remains high, compared to peer countries.)
The bad news is that the amount of physical violence reflected in such numbers is not the only thing we need to pay attention to when we think about our current situation and the health of our politics going forward. In fact, the number of incidents of political harassment and intimidation has been on the rise. Which means that the problem more broadly includes straightforward acts of political violence but also violent threats and intimidation, all of which pose real risks for the health of our democracy going forward. The number of physically violent incidents that occur only gives a partial snapshot, for two reasons.
First, incidence is different from impact. Almost by definition, political violence aims to do damage greater than the physical harm it inflicts. Therefore, even isolated incidents can have a huge institutional or political cost. Jan. 6th took place in one day, but it significantly eroded the health of our democracy—for the first time in the modern era, the United States could not claim a peaceful transition of power, and those overseeing the transition could not take their own safety for granted. Violent threats and behavior also impact some groups more than others. For example, threats to public officials are disproportionately directed at women and people of color and often harms are disproportionately felt by the LGBTQ community.
Second, much (though certainly not all) of the hostile behavior we see in the United States at present takes the form of threats and intimidation. If we care about impact on our democracy, we cannot discount threats of violence, even if they do not result in actual physical attacks. Fear is a powerful motivator. If a bad actor can achieve a desired outcome by making anonymous threats or intimidating their intended victim, there is no need for them to run the risks involved in property damage, assault, or homicide. Online harassment, threatening phone calls, or repeated notes in a mailbox are not the same as a brick through a window, but they can have a similar psychological effect. When the recipient is a legislator deciding how to vote or an election worker trying to focus on their job, threats and intimidation interfere with the healthy functioning of our democracy. One needs only to look at the threats leveled at members of Congress during the recent Speaker of the House race to imagine how such intimidation and harassment could successfully distort our political outcomes.
The Violence and Democracy Impact Tracker, or VDIT, is a tool our organization, Protect Democracy, built in partnership with the SNF Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University to survey different areas of democratic practice and track how they are impacted by political violence—here defined, following the Alliance for Peacebuilding’s lead, as force or violence, including threats and intimidation, used with a political motivation, to achieve a political goal, to assert political power over another group, or to disseminate a political message to an outside audience.
According to VDIT, the overall effects of political violence on the U.S. system are abnormal for a well-functioning democracy. We found elections to be a critical American vulnerability. Political violence, VDIT tells us, is having significant negative effects on our election processes and increasing the risk that those processes will break down in the future. As this VDIT graphic shows, the overall impact of political violence is currently a 2.6 out of 5—violations that are atypical of a well-functioning democracy, but that don’t yet threaten breakdown—but the impacts are most severe on elections, followed by individual liberties. The U.S. being at Level 1 would indicate it’s within the range of a well-functioning democracy, but since it’s far closer to Level 3, this means the U.S. is at risk of undergoing a significant erosion of its democracy.
Threats and intimidation of election workers are at the center of this impact. Since creating the Election Threats Task Force in 2021, the Justice Department has brought more than a dozen cases where it alleges that threats against election workers rose to the level of a crime. Many election officials are choosing to leave their positions, rather than endure continued harassment. While we lack comprehensive data on the number of officials who have resigned specifically because of threats and harassment, resignation levels are higher than in the past and surveys of election workers indicate that threats are taking a toll. One recent survey of election workers found that 45% worry about the safety of election workers in future elections and nearly three-quarters believe that threats against election officials have increased in recent years. And the impact is meaningful. In November, about half of voters in Western states will participate in elections overseen by officials who are new to their roles since 2020.
To Respond to Political Aggression, Look to its Targets
So what can we, collectively, do about these threats? The most effective response, of course, is upstream—deterring and diminishing the sort of rhetoric, disinformation, and calls-to-arms that have been largely responsible for violence and threats in recent years. An ounce of prevention, as the saying goes, is worth a pound of cure. This will be a tall order, given that for some electorally significant political subcultures, such as the MAGA wing of the Republican Party, there is a standing presumption that their opponents winning a political race or attaining political office is an illegitimate result. So long as a sizable political faction—led by former President Trump—treats the threat of violence by its supporters as an effective political tool, the corrosive effect of violence will not go away. But even absent a collective reckoning with this part of our political culture, we are not powerless to protect our democracy and the election workers who have too often become targets for simply doing their jobs.
First, money matters. Increased funding for election administration could enable administrators to invest in physical infrastructure like security cameras and panic buttons, as well as staffing, safety training, and in serious cases, security services. In 2022, during a recount of a Republican primary in El Paso, Colorado, “dozens of angry election watchers pounded on the windows, at times yelling at workers and recording them with cell phones … [while] in the hallway a group prayed for ‘evil to descend’” on election workers, according to a write-up in Reuters. This is just one example of many. Funding for additional staff in particular would have dual benefits: better-staffed offices can more effectively detect and respond to threats and additional staff can also help make up the capacity lost to recent resignations.
Second, more can be done to protect election workers’ privacy. With appropriate legislation, states can empower election workers to protect their personally identifiable information, putting additional barriers between them and bad-faith actors who would subject them to doxxing and other forms of harassment.
Third, states could adopt legislation that would expand the ability of private individuals and attorneys general to hold threat-makers accountable in a way not inconsistent with the First Amendment. Many jurisdictions lack the kinds of civil causes of action that would allow an election worker to sue those engaging in harassment and threats. Even AGs who might want to pursue civil accountability may be unable to do so in some states.
Unfortunately, the constellation of political violence, threats, and intimidation is not an easy problem to solve. It is both a substantial threat to democratic stability in the United States and a downstream effect of a deteriorating democracy.
But these impacts are also far from inevitable—if we take political violence and aggression seriously, and design appropriate policy responses, we can limit the most severe consequences. If we do so, we’d ensure that Jan. 6th remains an extreme outlier, but also prevent smaller and less visible instances of political violence and aggression from irreparably eroding our democracy.
© The UnPopulist 2024