One in five adults in the United States would be willing to condone acts of political violence, a new national survey commissioned by public health experts found, revelations that they say capture the escalation in extremism that was on display during the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.
The online survey of more than 8,600 adults in the United States was conducted from mid-May to early June by the research firm Ipsos on behalf of the Violence Prevention Research Program at the University of California, Davis, which released the results on Tuesday.
The group that said they would be willing to condone such violence amounted to 20.5 percent of those surveyed, with the majority of that group answering that “in general” the use of force was at least “sometimes justified” — the remaining 3 percent answered that such violence was “usually” or “always” justified.
About 12 percent of survey respondents answered that they would be at least “somewhat willing” to resort to violence themselves to threaten or intimidate a person.
And nearly 12 percent of respondents also thought it was at least “sometimes justified” to use violence if it meant returning Donald J. Trump to the presidency.
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“This went beyond my darkest expectation,” Dr. Garen J. Wintemute, the director of the UC Davis Violence Prevention Program and an emergency room physician, said in an interview on Wednesday.
But some experts focused on political violence are much more circumspect about reports of it being widespread, saying that estimates tend to overstate the problem in the face of intense media coverage of the issue.
A study conducted by the Polarization Research Lab and Dartmouth College last December found that political violence accounted for a little more than 1 percent of violent hate crimes in the United States. The report found that surveys that allow for self-reported attitudes on multiple interpretations of political violence — using ranges like “somewhat justified,” “usually justified” and “always justified” — are biased upward.
Even so, the prevalence of extremist views about violence reflects a rise in the number of threats to elected officials and headline-making assaults that have disrupted government business, including the certification of the 2020 presidential election results by Congress.
“These findings suggest a continuing alienation from and mistrust of American democratic society and its institutions,” the researchers from UC-Davis said in a manuscript. “Substantial minorities of the population endorse violence, including lethal violence, to obtain political objectives.”
With less than four months until the midterm elections in November, the researchers did not want to wait to share their findings and took the unusual step of releasing them in a preprint manuscript, Dr. Wintemute said.
“There’s not a whole lot of time,” he said.
When asked if “having a strong leader for America is more important than having a democracy,” more than 40 percent of those polled said they agreed in some fashion, from “somewhat” to “very strongly.” A similar percentage concurred to some degree that “in America, native-born white people are being replaced by immigrants,” a racist doctrine known as the replacement theory.
“I remember a sense of foreboding just putting those words on paper, wondering what the hell we’re going to find here,” Dr. Wintemute said of the survey’s questions.
Some experts on the study of political violence who were not involved in the research cautioned on Wednesday that extrapolating the data for the entire U.S. population could be misleading. Attitudes toward violence don’t always translate to action, they said.
“Even as we’re studying violence, how do we make sure that we don’t normalize the belief that violence is accepted?” said Shannon Hiller, the executive director of the Bridging Divides Initiative, a nonpartisan research group that tracks political violence and is based at Princeton University.
In 2021, the U.S. Capitol Police investigated 9,625 direct threats toward members of Congress and other cases that involved concerning statements or actions, a nearly 12 percent increase from 2020, according to data from the agency. The number of cases has steadily increased during the last five years, more than doubling from the total for 2017.