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U.S. political leaders face a drumbeat of violent threats

In a new survey, experts are concerned about how this violence is eroding democracy.

- December 21, 2023
Wooden US flag with bullets for stars (political violence)
(cc) Gilbert Mercier

The shootings of Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-Ariz.) and Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La). The assault on Paul Pelosi, the husband of Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). The arrest of an armed man outside the home of Justice Brett Kavanaugh and the arrest of another who had threatened Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) at her home. The violence of the Jan. 6 attacks on the U.S. Capitol. 

These are some of the headline episodes of political violence directed at American politicians and leaders. They are the ones that we all know about. But thrumming below the surface is a larger problem: more systematic efforts to threaten and intimidate both elected and unelected leaders at all levels of government.

These efforts surface from time to time. One was the plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. More recently, in the defamation trial of Rudy Giuliani, the Georgia election worker Wandrea “Shaye” Moss described the threats she and her mother received after being falsely accused of fraud by Giuliani and others. Moss eventually quit her job at the Fulton County Department of Registration and Elections.

Moss’s story may be unusual in the sheer volume of threats she received, but the experience of being threatened is all too common. For example, in a recent survey of retired members of Congress by political scientist Alex Theodoridis, about three-fourths of members reported that they or their families had been threatened; only 22% said that they had never been threatened. Moreover, the more recently members had been elected, the more likely they were to report threats – suggesting that the problem is worse now than before.

The threats extend even to ordinary government employees, especially election workers like Moss. These threats make the news occasionally, but the problem is arguably more severe. Surveys of election workers close to the 2020 election have shown that a third felt unsafe. 

The problem persists three years later. Some tolerance for political violence is still evident among ordinary Americans. In an August 2023 PRRI survey, 23% said that “because things have gotten so far off track, true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country.” This includes 33% of Republicans. Perhaps most disturbing is that a much higher fraction now support an actual violent episode – the January 6 attack – after Trump and some other Republican leaders have tried to legitimize and excuse it. Only a small number of Republican voters condemn the attack on the U.S. Capitol and believe the attackers should be punished.

A new survey of academic experts in political violence also suggests cause for concern. The survey is conducted by Protect Democracy and the SNF Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University. In the most recent survey from October-November, 41% of respondents said that political violence had created a “significant erosions of democratic quality” with a “risk of future breakdown.” And 11% expressed even more concern, arguing for an even higher risk of imminent breakdown.

Consistent with the experiences of Wandrea Moss, experts were especially concerned with the impact of violence on elections. They cited violence from the far right wing in particular, which has increased sharply in recent years. They also cited the tendency of some elected officials to incite and condone violence. Most notably, Donald Trump’s rhetoric continues to be suffused with violence.

The use of violence and threats of violence to intimidate political leaders in the U.S. is nothing new, of course. Nevertheless, its consequences remain significant, even when they are not readily visible. We see them in the sheer number of leaders who require personal security. Even more, we see them in the number of officials who are simply quitting or retiring. 

Less visible will be the people who never seek leadership positions in the first place, fearing what they or their families may face.