Not too long ago, identifying as a Democrat or Republican was important, but not life-defining.
But there is a difference between saying, “I am proud to be a Democrat, and I really hope we win!” and saying, “Republicans suck. I hope they die!”
“Die?” An exaggeration? Maybe, maybe not.
That’s what Nathan P. Kalmoe and Lilliana Mason set out to discover in their national study of what they call “lethal partisanship.”
About half the people in this country have beliefs about their opponents and use language about them that can rationalize violence.
On the basis of two national surveys, they look at three components of lethal partisanship: 1) beliefs that rationalize harm against opponents by depersonalizing and dehumanizing them (“partisan moral disengagement”); 2) feeling good in response to opponents’ suffering (“schadenfreude”); and 3) explicit support of partisan violence.
Close to half of the people expressed the first of these, describing the opposition as animal-like, disgusting and not worthy of being around. Think of the difference between a mere rival and an out-group.
A considerably smaller portion (5 to 15%) delighted in their partisan enemies’ suffering and advocated violence against them. As the authors say, that is a small percentage, but numerically, 5 to 15% of the population is a lot of people.
Democrats and Republicans are pretty much the same on these measures. So ironically, I guess, we have bipartisan support for bipartisan nonsupport.
The authors took a closer look at the extent to which these responses are real as opposed to simply expressive, as in, “I’m just saying.” They conclude that about half of those advocating violence really mean it.
The study is only one piece of research. Because the question of partisan violence has been ignored for so long, the authors have no real baseline to measure this against. Most significantly, a predisposition toward violence is far from a guarantee that violence will occur.
Whether lethal partisanship leads to actual violence depends on the specific circumstances and the role that political elites play in advocating or mitigating it.
Still, the findings show that about half the people in this country, including some of my friends and I would guess some of yours, have beliefs about their opponents and use language about them that can rationalize violence.
Dehumanizing opponents has been a key driver of genocide, whether it’s the Holocaust or Rwanda, which is commemorating the 25th anniversary of what’s probably the most “efficient” mass killing in modern history.
This kind of moral disengagement is violence’s gateway drug.
Yeah, I know. You don’t really mean it. We’re not Nazis. It’s those white nationalists, or those immigrants, whoever, but not us. And genocide requires a lot of action on the part of the state.
But how sure are you that your talk and the words of your partisan opponents are not waxing a slippery slope toward partisan violence?
How come you may think that words matter when you talk about microaggression or sexual harassment, but not when your words are about your enemies?
Finally, it does not take that survey to see other signs of the times.
The findings clearly indicate that our political analysis as well as our political imaginations need to more closely consider the potential for violence because the situation is so different now.
How sure are you that your talk and the words of your partisan opponents are not waxing a slippery slope toward partisan violence?
Violence against political opponents was also common, but it decreased during most of the last century. As a result, we began to see partisanship in a more benign light.
Until recently, both the Democratic and Republican parties were “big tents,” aggregators and moderators. They had to be because there were a lot of conservatives in the Democratic Party, liberals in the Republican Party and moderates in both.
Party identification was important, but so was a lot of other stuff that brought you into contact with other types of people and ideas. That mitigated against social and political sorting.
So we, meaning scholars as well as the rest of us, focused entirely on the benign side of partisanship like the importance it plays as a cue for how people make political discussions. No big deal.
Compared to today, that is like learning about American politics by watching Jimmy Stewart movies.
Americans now are sorted politically as well as socially. There are extraordinary partisan differences on virtually any important issue. People live among their own political kind. They don’t want their children to marry someone of another political ilk.
Our levels of trust of the opposing party has fallen off a cliff. Baby Boomer quiz: Dems, did you talk about Reagan the way you talk about Trump? GOP, did you think about Jimmy Carter the way you think about Hillary Clinton?
Hate crimes are up. Our president is, shall we say, kind to violence when he wants to be. Places like Portland, which has a long history of peaceful protest, now find themselves encountering street violence.
This is not about tsk-tsking. I am not taking a stand for or against partisan violence. Rather, I’m trying to get you to see how it could emerge because you might see it as the best option.
Has partisanship reached a point where people find their opponents so morally bereft and disgusting that they are happy when tragedy befalls them and are willing to use violence against them?
Can’t say for sure, but lethal partisanship is certainly a work in progress with historical roots.
And isn’t it possible that given the way you see politics right now, you might join that 5 to 15% if you are not there already?
Politics is already toxic. Will it become lethal?
Sign up for our FREE morning newsletter and face each day more informed.
Our journalism needs your help.
While asking for your support is something we don’t like to do, the simple fact is that our reporters, our journalism, and our impact rely on it. Since lifting our paywall and becoming a nonprofit in mid-2016, our local newsroom has benefitted from a stream of charitable support from people who want our type of journalism to survive. People like you who understand that our work is essential to a better-informed community. If you value the work of our journalists, show us with your tax-deductible support.
Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.