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Local officials face four kinds of threats. And they’re escalating.

Officials from both parties are being threatened and even assaulted. That’s hurting democracy.

- November 7, 2022

The recent violent attack on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband, Paul Pelosi, underscored what many observers have said for months: U.S. officeholders and their families and staff are receiving more and more threats of violence from the people they strive to serve.

After the Jan. 6, 2021, storming of the U.S. Capitol, many observers worried about threats against Congress — and rightly so, as the Pelosi attack and other attempted assaults show. But Congress is just the most visible target. Over the past several years, U.S. citizens have been threatening election supervisors, school board members, state legislators, mayors, land management employees and public health officials, in such states as Illinois, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

To understand this increased antagonism and danger, I researched threats against public officials — and learned how this state of affairs is affecting elected officials, staff and all of us.

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How I did my research

From August to October 2022, I conducted hour-long interviews with 50 people, including 31 women and 17 people of color. To come up with my sample, I emailed all state legislators in several states and all city council members and mayors in the top 10 largest cities, inviting them to be interviewed. Two states were controlled by one party; two states were contested states. In the invitation, I explained the topic: whether they had had “interactions with constituents that made them feel unsafe” and how such experiences affected them, their families and staff, even if they didn’t have any harrowing tales.

Participants then introduced me to others not included in my original sample. I contacted them and interviewed all who agreed to participate. In the end, I interviewed 21 state legislators, four mayors, 10 city council members, three school board members, and 12 staffers. (I am still seeking more respondents, particularly Republicans.)

All but two reported emails and phone calls threatening bodily harm; several experienced property damage; two had been actually assaulted. Some sent me documentation such as emails and voice mails. Many reported trauma and exhaustion mixed, a fatalistic attitude.

Some think the U.S. is headed toward civil war. History suggests something colder.

What motivates threats?

Respondents mentioned four motivations. First, some people were seeking economic deals, such as advantageous city contracts. Despite U.S. regulations against economic corruption, five respondents were still intimidated by people doing business with the town. One was a Republican small-town mayor who, like many local officials, had a full-time job and was serving as mayor on his own time. When he tried to bring in an independent auditor to check the town finances and contracting, he was threatened. A harasser who also worked for the town “called my employer and said, if you don’t shut this guy up, the relationship between your company and the city will be on thin ice.” Police informed him that his address was put online and there were credible threats “to burn down my house.”

Second, in cities and some suburbs, mentally ill constituents threaten elected officials and staff. Often, these constituents are living in difficult circumstances and are seeking social services. The elected officials I spoke with said they try to connect these constituents with social service agencies. But these threatening interactions strain their work days — especially for staff, who are on the front lines of these calls and visits.

Many officials reported receiving threats driven by ideology, which has become more frequent and alarming. Democrats reported threats expressing extreme right-wing views, often delivered in misogynistic and racist language. School board members said they’ve been called “pedophiles” and “race predators” because they resisted book bans on LGBTQ and race-related material or supported diversity programs. Most women and people of color reported hearing slurs that are more explicitly offensive than can be detailed here.

Some of these officials reported receiving such veiled threats as “watch your back, somebody will come and get you for what you say.” Several officials said their cars had been vandalized and rocks thrown through their office windows. Others mentioned cars repeatedly driving by their homes, sometimes slowing down as if staking out the place.

Although most people who spoke with me were Democrats, Republicans also mentioned ideologically-based threats. Some members of both parties noted that they were threatened not only by people from the other party, but also by people in the more radical wing of their own party.

Officials also fielded verbal attacks and threats that grew from Americans’ dearth of civic knowledge. Many constituents know little about what different officials do or can do, and they verbally abused or threatened officials based on unrealistic expectations and deep-seated suspicions about government and public service. Many people received messages along the lines of: “what you need is a gun to your head, you [***].” The insult was tailored to match the race and gender of the official.

How can the U.S. help prevent more political violence?

These threats shook officials deeply

These threats traumatized officials. Several cried recalling how these experiences have affected their families. “My children act tough but were terrified when a car drove up our driveway late one night,” one told me. Many more described their own fear and exhaustion. For staff, constituency service is “worse than being a barista at Starbucks,” said one staffer. “I am trash. They treat me like trash,” said another.

Nevertheless, elected officials appear determined to serve, seeing their job as a commitment to their community and refuse to be intimidated. Sadly, they also tend to normalize these experiences as “politics as usual.”

But most agree that this threatening climate has made it far more difficult to recruit high-quality candidates. Finding new people to run, especially for low-visibility local offices, has always been difficult. Now, any reluctance is compounded by fear of fellow citizens.

This is not normal politics

Disagreement is not the same as threats and abuse. Citizenship entitles us to disagree but not to harm others. Experts warn that this climate may get worse. Partisans follow cues from trusted politicians and behave accordingly — including taking suggestions about violence. When leaders rationalize aggression, they do not just hurt the opposition; they endanger themselves and their fellow officeholders. When these behaviors are treated as “politics as usual,” some people find it easier to follow any unfulfilled demand with abuse — which hurts everyone, including democratic institutions.

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Alexandra Filindra (@aflindra) is associate professor of political science and psychology at the University of Illinois Chicago and author of the forthcoming Race, Rights, and Rifles: The Origins of the NRA and America’s Gun Culture (University of Chicago Press).