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A year after the January 6 Capitol Hill insurrection, Americans are increasingly likely to say political violence can be justified.
This is the disturbing reality laid bare in two recent polls that capture a deeply divided country with much reckoning left to do over the deadly riot and its place in US history.
The top lines. Thirty-four percent of Americans think violent action against the government is sometimes justified, according to a poll from The Washington Post and the University of Maryland released Saturday.
The survey, conducted December 17-19, revealed stark partisan splits on the question: 40% of Republicans and 41% of independents said violence against government is sometimes justified, compared with 23% of Democrats.
In a separate CBS News-YouGov poll conducted in late December and released Sunday, 62% of Americans said they expect the losing side in future presidential elections to react violently; 38% said they expect the losing side will concede peacefully. At least a quarter of Americans said “force might be justified,” depending on the situation, to achieve political or policy goals on issues like civil rights, gun policies, election results and labor.
The unsettling context. Another way to look at these polls would be to find comfort in the fact that, at the very least, a majority of Americans are opposed to either violent action or the use of force against the government.
But context is key. As the Post notes, the number of Americans who think that violent action against the government is sometimes justified “is considerably higher than in past polls by The Post or other major news organizations dating back more than two decades.” See for yourself:
- 23% of adults said violence is justified in 2015, according to the outlet.
- 16% had said the same in a 2010 CBS News poll.
- As many as 90% said violence is never justified in the 1990s, the Post said.
See the trend?
Remember the warnings. In the wake of the January 6 attack, officials and experts had warned – aggressively so – that the Capitol siege was an emboldening event that risked mainstreaming violence in US politics.
- “The plots of tomorrow are literally being hatched right now,” Oren Segal, vice president of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, told CNN in January 2021.
- “The violent breach of the US Capitol Building is very likely part of an ongoing trend in which (extremists) exploit lawful protests, rallies, and demonstrations, and other gatherings to carry out ideologically-motivated violence and criminal activity,” a joint US government intelligence bulletin warned at the time.
- “There’s going to be a lot of new people … organized and exposed to a set of prescriptions that ultimately bring us back to the same place … leading up to the attack on the Capitol,” Angelo Carusone, president and CEO of Media Matters for America, said in January 2021. “Except in this case, it’ll be more of them.”
These warnings underscore how little the country has reckoned with political violence in the year since the Capitol attack, and the way that pervasive misinformation has set us on a dangerous course.
Shortly after the insurrection, the House impeached then-President Donald Trump for inciting the mob, though he was acquitted by the Senate in a vote that took place after his tenure ended. A small minority of Republicans voted with Democrats to impeach him in the House and to convict in the Senate, but Trump has continued to hold significant influence over the direction of the GOP, with his loyalist members downplaying the violence on January 6 in the months since the attack.
The Post-UMD survey found that 54% of Americans believe that the rioters who entered the Capitol were “mostly violent,” while 19% view them as “mostly peaceful” and another 27% see them as “equally peaceful and violent.”
Democrats were much more likely to view them as mostly violent (78%) compared with Republicans (26%).
And more broadly, Americans see January 6 as a warning sign of violence to come, according to the CBS News poll. Almost 7 in 10 (68%) said they see the events of that day as a sign of increasing political violence in America, while only 32% view it as an isolated incident.
Our new normal? Listen to what David Frum, a veteran of the George W. Bush White House, told CNN’s Brian Stelter this weekend about the mentality of Trump’s allies and followers a year after the Capitol attack.
“They’re not horrified by the violence anymore, they’re increasingly accepting it. And they’re accepting too that our institutions, the institutions of the United States, are so defective that they need to be overthrown and rebuilt and renewed in some radical new way with violence, always, in the background as the tool by which this will be done,” he said.
The truth, Frum said, “is this is now normal. And it’s not normal in the sense of justifiable or laudable or acceptable. It’s normal in the sense that this is our reality. This is what is going on. And the central question – a central question of American politics for the future – is going to be: In 2022 and 2024, do you accept this? And if you don’t accept it, what will you do to keep the country true to its democratic and liberal traditions?”
Young people are alarmed. In light of the recent polling, it’s worth revisiting a survey from the Institute of Politics at the Harvard Kennedy School conducted late last year that found most American adults younger than 30 are concerned about the US and its democracy.
Young adults say, by 55% to 44%, that they’re more fearful than hopeful about the future of America – a shift from earlier in 2021, when most said they were hopeful. Only about one-third describe the US as a healthy or even “somewhat functioning” democracy, with 52% saying it’s a “democracy in trouble” or that it’s failed altogether.
Young Republicans are especially pessimistic: 70% say American democracy is in trouble or failed, compared with 45% of young Democrats who say the same.
“After turning out in record numbers in 2020, young Americans are sounding the alarm,” Institute of Politics Polling Director John Della Volpe said in a statement. “When they look at the America they will soon inherit, they see a democracy and climate in peril – and Washington as more interested in confrontation than compromise.”
CNN’s Ariel Edwards-Levy, Jennifer Agiesta and Devan Cole contributed to this report.