Is political violence against the government ever justified?

A survey taken after the one-year anniversary of the Jan. 6, 2021, attempted takeover of the U.S. Capitol finds that 23 percent of the U.S. believe that violent protest against the government is justifiable. The feeling was shared almost equally between liberals and conservatives. AP Photo/John Minchillo

Were the Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol, and the ambush of a female U.S. senator in a bathroom, one-off incidents? Or were they a harbinger of percolating anti-government sentiment that deems it permissible to act out against opposing political ideologies?

Fresh research into public opinion suggests it may be the latter: nearly one-quarter (23%) of U.S. residents—both liberals and conservatives—agree that violent protests against the federal government are ever justified. This was especially true among men and 18- to 29-year-olds. Women and the elderly were least likely to be supportive of aggressive measures.

The research was conducted nationally by the Covid States Project, a collaborative effort by Northeastern, Harvard, Northwestern, and Rutgers universities. The online poll lasted about a month, starting shortly after Christmas and lasting several weeks after the one-year anniversary of the Capitol incursion.

The findings would suggest that acrimony toward government was a recent phenomenon as reflected by a string of headline-worthy incidents, including the Virginia woman who threatened to bring loaded guns to her children’s school over a mask requirement. 

But animosity toward government in general can be traced as far back as the Revolutionary War.

‘Violence against the government does evoke something that is damaging, that harms people,’ says David Lazer, distinguished professor of political science and computer science. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

“Our founding documents referenced the justifiability to throw off the yoke of an unjust government when it no longer serves citizens’ interests,” says Alauna Safarpour, who works in Northeastern’s Network Science Institute in Boston. “That’s probably what we’re seeing in terms of whether it’s ever justifiable to violently protest.”

That specific phrase—ever justifiable—was the prevailing sentiment among liberals and conservatives in the study. The partisan gap was modest; 28% of liberals say violent protest is “ever justified,” compared to 25% of conservatives.

However, when researchers replaced “ever” with “right now,” only 10% of people were in favor of violence. Republicans were seven percentage points more likely than Democrats to back immediate violent action, largely because Democrats hold all the levers of power in Washington.

Thus, 67% of those who say it is justified to violently protest here and now say that the federal government is an appropriate target. Most of those were Republicans. 

More Democrats directed their ire at their state’s government (43% versus 26%), the poll found.

“More state governments are controlled by Republicans,” explains David Lazer, university distinguished professor of political science and computer science at Northeastern, and one of the study’s authors.

Independents were notably more hostile to local governments than either of the two major political parties.

Republicans were significantly more likely to say violent protest is justified against their state’s government when it is controlled by a Democratic governor (37%) than when it is run by a Republican governor (18%), the study found.

Democrats, meanwhile, were equally likely to advocate for protests against their state’s government regardless of whether their state is run by a Democratic or Republican governor (42% versus 47%, what researchers describe as an insignificant difference of five percentage  points).

The study didn’t explicitly ask the 23,000 people who participated what types of aggressive steps against the government would be permissible—pitchforks and burning torches, or something more drastic. Safarpour says recent examples of political violence ran the gamut from attempts to kidnap Michigan’s governor to Jan. 6 to threats against state election officials.

“That was the context that we were asking about in the survey,” she says.

Adds Lazer: “Violence against the government does evoke something that is damaging, that harms people. So that seemed like a good line to cross in terms of getting to the question of where we are as a country.”

Trust in democratic institutions—government, the news media, elections, and so on—has been steadily declining for decades, but has grown more pronounced in the last ten years, researchers say. They point to their prior research that shows doubts among a large portion of the population whether President Joe Biden actually won the 2020 election. “Many people also thought Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States,” Lazer adds.

If people think that ballots aren’t being counted properly, then democratic institutions are by definition eroding, researchers say. But they see reason for optimism in the fact that the 2020 presidential election drew a record number of voters.

“If democratic institutions had eroded so much that there was a significant lack of public trust, then we would not have seen so many people turning out to vote in the middle of a pandemic,” says Safarpour. “And we may see strong turnout for the midterms. That gives me hope.”

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