“A study published last September in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences challenges the notion that a substantial minority of Americans—more than two-fifths, according to some reports—condone political violence. The Dartmouth political scientist Sean
Westwood and his co-authors argue that “documented support for political violence is illusory, a product of ambiguous questions, conflated definitions, and disengaged respondents.”
Westwood et al. acknowledge that partisan animosity, a.k.a. “affective polarization,” has “increased significantly” during the last few decades. “While Americans are arguably no more ideologically polarized than in the recent past,” they say, “they hold more negative views toward the political opposition and more positive views toward members of their own party.” But at the same time, “evidence suggests that affective polarization is not related to and does not cause increases in support for political violence and is generally unrelated to political outcomes.” So what are we to make of claims that more than a third of Americans believe political violence is justified?
“Despite media attention,” Westwood et al. note, “political violence is rare, amounting to a little more than 1% of violent hate crimes in the United States.” They argue that “self-reported attitudes on political violence are biased upwards because of disengaged respondents, differing interpretations about questions relating to political violence, and personal dispositions towards violence that are unrelated to politics.”
Westwood et al. estimate that, “depending on how the question is asked, existing estimates of support for partisan violence are 30-900% too large.” In their study, “nearly all respondents support[ed] charging suspects who commit acts of political violence with a crime.” These findings, they say, “suggest that although recent acts of political violence dominate the news, they do not portend a new era of violent conflict.”
These conclusions are based on three surveys in which Westwood et al. presented respondents with specific scenarios involving different kinds of violence, varying in severity and motivation. “Ambiguous survey questions cause overestimates of support for violence,” they write. “Prior studies ask about general support for violence without offering context, leaving the respondent to infer what ‘violence’ means.” They also note that “prior work fails to distinguish between support for violence generally and support for political violence,” which “makes it seem like political violence is novel and unique.”
A third problem they identify is that “prior survey questions force respondents to select a response without providing a neutral midpoint or a ‘don’t know’ option,” which “causes disengaged respondents…to select an arbitrary or random response.” Since “current violence-support scales are coded such that four of five choices indicate acceptance of violence,” those arbitrary or random responses tend to “overstate support for violence.”
What happens when researchers try to address those weaknesses? In all three surveys that Westwood et al. conducted, “respondents overwhelmingly reject[ed] both political and non-political violence.” And while a substantial minority disagreed, that number was inflated by respondents who were classified as “disengaged” based on their failure to retain information from the brief scenarios they read.”
“2020 was the first year on record that the majority of Americans said they did not belong to a church, synagogue, or mosque; from the 1930s to the turn of the 21st century, around 70 percent of Americans did belong to one. Americans, particularly younger ones, increasingly report that they have no religious preference, or as some have put it, it’s “the rise of the nones.” But perhaps “none” doesn’t quite tell the whole story.”
“We documented the partisan trade-off bias across five studies using online samples of a total of 1,236 participants, a mix of Republicans and Democrats. As an example, in one of our studies participants were randomly assigned to view a set of policy trade-offs, some proposed by Republicans and some proposed by Democrats. The policies dealt with taxes, environmental regulation, gun control and voting rights. Participants then rated how intentional they perceived the negative side effects of each policy to be. The more participants identified with the Republican Party, the more intentional they perceived the side effects of the Democratic-proposed policies to be, and the more participants identified with the Democratic Party, the more intentional they perceived the side effects of Republican-proposed policies to be.
In a nutshell, our studies showed that the negative side effects associated with different policy trade-offs are not interpreted by opponents as side effects at all, but as intended goals of the policy.”
“The good news is that by identifying the partisan trade-off bias, our research points a path forward: Policymakers who pay more attention to this bias might be better equipped to achieve compromise. This means that rather than focusing only on the main goal of a policy, they need to communicate clearly to the public what is intentional and what is a regrettable side-effect of that goal.”
“Some recent evidence has suggested that the national period of declining crime—which began in the mid-1990s, as rate of violence fell dramatically in the U.S.—may be over: The most recent Uniform Crime Report (UCR), an important though incomplete snapshot of homicides nationwide, found that homicide had increased by 30 percent from 2019 to 2020.
But just-released data from the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) paints a much less depressing picture. According to the 2020 NCVS report, the violent crime rate actually declined last year, if homicides are excluded. Moreover, the popular narrative that former President Donald Trump’s anti-China rhetoric caused some spike in hate crimes against Asian-Americans appears to be wrong. For Asian-American victims, both the violent crime rate and simple assault rate declined from 2019 to 2020.
It’s important to interpret these findings cautiously. The NCVS does not count homicides; the data comes from telephone interviews with random Americans. It’s thus a scientific survey, rather than a tally of actual crimes.
The UCR, on the other hand, consists of crimes reported to the FBI by law enforcement agencies. Police departments are not required to report any information at all, which means that the UCR is in some ways more accurate—these are verified reported crimes—but also more statistically unreliable. Year-to-year fluctuations in the data might represent different reporting procedures rather than any actual increase in crime; the overall number of crimes reported to the FBI is obviously just a small snapshot.
The public should take the findings from both reports with a grain of salt. It could be the case, obviously, that murders in cities increased while other categories of crime decreased elsewhere; it’s also possible that certain minority communities suffered increased crime in a manner that isn’t captured by the data. But with so much bad news about rising violence, the NCVS data suggests that things might not be as bad as we think.”
“Despite a mix of coverage in the media, the prevailing message from officials seems to be “don’t panic.” The Federal Reserve predicts this period of rising prices to be “transitory,” and there are signs that price increases are starting to slow. But in the meantime, Americans are worried about inflation, and most blame the Biden administration, according to recent polls. It’s why Biden switched gears this week, going from celebrating the passage of his bipartisan infrastructure bill to addressing inflation concerns.”
“Seventy-six percent of U.S. adults said gas prices had gone up “a lot,” and 65 percent said food prices had gone up “a lot,” according to an Economist/YouGov poll conducted Nov. 6-9. One in four Americans said they spent more on groceries in October, compared with September, according to a Morning Consult poll conducted Oct. 29 through Nov. 3. And a Scott Rasmussen national survey conducted Oct. 11-13 found that 77 percent of registered voters had “recently experienced sharp increases in the cost of items they would like to buy.””
“Increased prices can impact voters’ political views of the economy overall because their effects are felt so immediately, contributing to Biden’s negative approval rating. “There is a psychology to inflation that is different from everything else, and it tends to drive how people view the economy because they experience it every day whether it is at the grocery store, gas pump or buying household goods,” John Anzalone, a Democratic pollster, told the Los Angeles Times.
Polling captures how voters are thinking about inflation as a political issue. A plurality of registered voters (40 percent) said the Biden administration’s policies were “very responsible” for the inflation, and a majority (62 percent) said the administration’s policies were at least “somewhat responsible,” according to a Politico/Morning Consult poll conducted Oct. 16-18. In a Harvard/Harris poll conducted Oct. 27-28, 56 percent of registered voters said they weren’t confident in the Biden administration’s ability to keep inflation at bay, and 53 percent said the same about the Federal Reserve’s ability. A majority (56 percent) said that Congress passing a $1.5 to $2 trillion social spending bill (such as the one they’re currently trying to pass) would lead to more inflation.
While the public reaction is out of step with expert forecasts, their fears should not be brushed aside. Some economists theorize that, left unchecked, fears about inflation can make the situation worse by creating a self-fulfilling prophecy in which employees, afraid of rising prices, demand higher wages, the costs of which employers would then cover through raising prices, leading to higher inflation. This is what happened in the 1970s, and it led to nearly double-digit inflation rates. Regardless of how transitory the Fed thinks these price increases will be, Americans are worried right now.”