[ Media Bias - Violence ] Current Research Overstates American Support for Political Violence

Researchers led by Sean J. Westwood of Dartmouth College, in a paper titled “Current Research Overstates American Support for Political Violence,” argue that “documented support for political violence is illusory, a product of ambiguous questions, conflated definitions, and disengaged respondents.” Often, pollsters were just capturing people expressing their partisan tribalism.

This manuscript was compiled on December 28, 2021

Political scientists, pundits, and citizens worry that America is entering a new period of violent partisan conflict. Provocative survey data show that a large share of Americans (between 8% and 40%) support politically motivated violence. Yet, despite media attention, political violence is rare, amounting to a little more than 1% of violent hate crimes in the United States. We reconcile these seemingly conflicting facts with four large survey experiments (N=4,904), demonstrating that self-reported attitudes on political violence are biased upwards because of respondent disengagement and survey questions that al low multiple interpretations of political violence.

Addressing question wording and respondent disengagement, we find that the median of existing estimates of support for partisan violence is nearly 8 times larger than the median of our estimates (18.5% versus 2.4%). Critically, we show the prior estimates overstate support for political violence because of random responding by disengaged respondents. Partial identification bounds imply that, under generous assumptions, sup port for violence among engaged and disengaged respondents is at most 6.3%. Respondent disengagement also inflates the relationship between support for violence and previously identified correlates by a factor of 4. Finally, nearly all respondents support criminally charging suspects who commit acts of political violence.

These findings suggest that although recent acts of political violence dominate the news, they do not portend a new era of violent conflict.

Our goal is not to argue that there is no support for political violence in America. Recent events demonstrate that groups of American extremists will violate the law and engage in violence to advance their political goals.

Instead, our purpose is to show that when attempting to estimate support for political violence among the public, care and precision is required. Generic and hypothetical questions offer respondents too many degrees of freedom, require greater cognition than a sizable portion of the population will engage in, and capture support for violence in general.

We suggest that future attempts to measure support for political violence:

1) utilize specific examples with sufficient details to remove the need for respondents to speculate;

2) benchmark results against general support for all violence; and

3) capture support for crimes that vary in severity.


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