“Professors Debate” is a headline that would not have merited a “breaking news” banner, even under CNN’s old regime.
But this debate is both important and timely, given the January 6 committee hearings: How many Americans countenance political violence and what difference does that level of support make?
As with many academic debates, the differences can seem small. Professors Nathan Kalmoe of Louisiana State and Lilliana Mason of Johns Hopkins maintain that 10 percent to 20 percent of Americans support partisan political violence.
Professors Sean Westwood of Dartmouth, Justin Grimmer and Matthew Tyler of Stanford and Clayton Nall of the University of California, Santa Barbara, claim that’s a wild exaggeration. They find only about 3 percent expressing support for political violence.
Professor Robert Pape of the University of Chicago and Cornell’s Peter Enns peg the number in between, at 10 percent and 13 percent, respectively.
The Army’s Counterinsurgency Manual answers the “so-what” question: “active popular support often has the greatest impact on the insurgency’s long-term effectiveness. … Popular support results in safe havens, freedom of movement, logistic support, financial support, intelligence, and new personnel. … As the insurgent group gains in support, its capabilities grow.”
Recent experiments also demonstrate that, while Americans exaggerate the inclination of their partisan opponents to endorse political violence, correcting those misimpressions reduces popular support for violence.
So, the debate over the number may have real consequences for the future course of political violence.
What’s behind the differences in the numbers?
How analysts choose to add up the answers has an impact. The basic Kalmoe-Mason question asks, “How much do you feel it is justified for [respondent’s party] to use violence in advancing their political goals these days—a great deal, a lot, a moderate amount, a little, or not at all?”
Kalmoe and Mason consider four of the five potential answers, or 80 percent, as expressions of support for political violence. That is, respondents who don’t say “a great deal” or “a lot” or “a moderate amount,” but instead select “a little,” count as supporters of political violence just like those who say “a great deal.”
That may be a legitimate choice, given the fact that only one of the five answers offers a complete and explicit rejection of political violence. But pollsters very rarely tally responses that way.
If Kalmoe-Mason had employed a different counting rule, including only those who picked one of the two strongest endorsements, they would have put support for political violence at 4 percent, much closer to the estimate offered by Westwood et. al.
Second, we know different questions produce different answers. Some critique Kalmoe-Mason’s question as vague.
What constitutes “violence?” Does it include property damage, or assault, or just murder?
When Enns specified “physically harming others,” support was just over half of what it was for generic “violence.”
The more serious the violence, the less support.
Another important consideration: What’s the base rate to which we are comparing?
We assume nearly everyone opposes violence in general, so any support for political violence is over-and-above public (non-) support for violence broadly.
Sadly, it isn’t so. Westwood et. al. demonstrate that the number expressing support for political violence may be indistinguishable from those willing to justify nonpolitical violence.
They offered, as a random subset of their sample, a vignette about a driver of the respondents’ own party ramming people from the other party registering to vote. Another group was told the same story cleansed of partisan references. Twenty-one percent said the politically motivated attack was justified while nearly the same number, 20.6 percent, found the apolitical attack justified.
In other words, some people may be prone to support violence regardless of the “justification,” with political violence no more attractive than other forms.
Whatever the precise percentage of Americans who endorse political violence, it’s a lot of people. The smallest number cited in these studies is about 3 percent, which represents nearly 8 million American adults.
Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has helped elect 30 U.S. senators, 12 governors and dozens of House members. Mellman served as pollster to Senate Democratic leaders for over 20 years, as president of the American Association of Political Consultants, and is president of Democratic Majority for Israel.