Menus Subscribe Search

Linking Uncivil Rhetoric With Violent Acts

• January 11, 2011 • 4:18 PM

Political scientists have long wondered if violent political speech can be linked to political violence, a question given urgency in the wake of the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords.

Partisans have been quick in the wake of Saturday’s shooting in Tucson, Ariz., to point fingers, and to point fingers at pointed fingers, alternately deploring and defending the heated political rhetoric that somehow seems tied — in perception if not reality — to the attempted assassination of a U.S. congresswoman.

Sarah Palin is to blame. Or maybe Sharron Angle is. Or it’s the president himself, who must deeply regret now his intemperate pledge to “bring a gun” to the opponent’s “knife fight.”

When the blame subsides, we’ll be left with a national discussion about where most of us draw the line between what’s civil in politics and what’s not, and what the consequences are of language that goes beyond that boundary. Does political rhetoric really matter — to average citizens, for our democracy, in the minds of unstable outliers?

Political scientists, at least, can help us set the stage for that dialog.

“This is not simply a concern of academics and certain pundits; many Americans are fretting about the way we do politics in America, and they’re anxious to move in a new direction,” said political scientist Daniel Shea. “So I think it’s incumbent upon political scientists in particular to better understand the issue and to begin to chart solutions.”

[class name="dont_print_this"]

Idea Lobby

THE IDEA LOBBY
Miller-McCune's Washington correspondent Emily Badger follows the ideas informing, explaining and influencing government, from the local think tank circuit to academic research that shapes D.C. policy from afar.

[/class] He reached that conclusion well before Saturday’s shooting. Shea is one of the researchers behind the Allegheny College Survey of Civility and Compromise in American Politics, a study released last spring that probed average American opinion about the tone of modern politics. Some 95 percent of people said they believe civility in politics is important for a healthy democracy — the good news, in Shea’s eyes. But nearly 50 percent said they believe civility has been on the decline since Barack Obama took office (and those paying close attention to politics were four times more likely to say this than those paying only moderate attention).

Most surprising are the responses when people were asked to define what should be out of bounds. “If you were able to create a rule book for civility in politics,” subjects were asked, “which of the following would not be OK — would be, that is, against the rules?” Overwhelming majorities opposed belittling or insulting someone (89 percent), questioning someone’s patriotism because they have a different opinion (73 percent), and personal attacks on someone they disagree with (87 percent).

Most Americans, in short, think entirely commonplace occurrences in politics today constitute political rhetoric that’s beyond the pale. We’re not even talking gun sights or “second-amendment remedies.”

“These things are common in politics for a particular group of citizens, they are not common in politics for a vast majority of Americans,” Shea said. “That’s the key part of this whole question: Who’s doing this, who’s involved in this dramatic transformation? I call it the ‘hot wings’” — the overcharged fringes of the political spectrum.

Nathan Kalmoe, a doctoral student at the University of Michigan, has looked more specifically at violent political language as part of his dissertation. In a particularly salient recent paper, “Does Violent Political Rhetoric Fuel Support for Political Violence?” he tested the effects on citizens of the mildest form of the genre.

Some subjects read the text of a political ad that included phrases like “I will always fight for America’s future” and “join me in this fight.” Others read a subtly tweaked version of the same text: “I will always work for America’s future … join me in this effort.”

Kalmoe then gauged support for political violence by asking subjects to rate their agreement with statements like “Sometimes the only way to stop bad government is with physical force,” or “Some of the problems citizens have with government could be fixed with a few well-aimed bullets.”

On the whole, those exposed to the more violent rhetoric were no more likely to support political violence. But then Kalmoe broke down the data. People predisposed to aggressive behavior in their everyday lives (as measured by a standard psychological screening) were in fact more responsive to the violent rhetoric. Low-aggression citizens reacted the opposite way.

Kalmoe borrows much of his theoretical framework from research that has linked violent media (from video games to movies to song lyrics) with violent attitudes and behavior. And he theorizes from that literature that if he were to ratchet up his mild political rhetoric — from, say, “fighting for your rights” to pointedly ambiguous calls to arms — the responses might ratchet up, too.

“There are other negative consequences that can come from violent rhetoric,” Kalmoe said. “The study I’ve undertaken is evidence of that. It’s not either ‘violent rhetoric is leading to political violence,’ or ‘it has no negative consequences for democracy’ — that’s what the debate has seemingly devolved to, which isn’t necessarily surprising. But I’m hoping that this work can show that there’s a middle ground.”

Some citizens are particularly susceptible — and on a level they may not consciously recognize — to even the mildest violent political language. But that’s not to say those people (who are equally likely to be Democrat or Republican, Kalmoe adds) will act on support for political violence. Kalmoe’s research can’t address that. But it does, he says, point to the power of words.

“And it’s important that leaders and citizens think carefully and reflect on the ways that they express themselves, because that has serious consequences for the kind of politics that we have, the kind of political environment that we have.”

Subscribe to Miller-McCune

Emily Badger
Emily Badger is a freelance writer living in the Washington, D.C. area who has contributed to The New York Times, International Herald Tribune and The Christian Science Monitor. She previously covered college sports for the Orlando Sentinel and lived and reported in France.

More From Emily Badger

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

August 22 • 4:00 PM

The Invention of the Illegal Immigrant

It’s only fairly recently that we started to use the term that’s so popular right now.



August 22 • 2:00 PM

What Can U.S. Health Care Learn From the Ebola Outbreak?

A conversation with Jeanine Thomas, patient advocate, active member of ProPublica’s Patient Harm Facebook Community, and founder and president of the MRSA Survivors Network.


August 22 • 1:22 PM

Two Executions and the Unity of Mourning

The recent deaths of Michael Brown and James Foley, while worlds apart, are both emblematic of the necessity for all of us to fight to uphold the sanctity of human dignity and its enduring story.


August 22 • 10:00 AM

Turbo Paul: Art Thief Turned Art Crime Ombudsman

There’s art theft, there’s law enforcement, and, somewhere in between, there’s Turbo Paul.


August 22 • 8:00 AM

When Climate Change Denial Refutes Itself

The world is warming—and record-cold winters are just another symptom.


August 22 • 6:17 AM

The Impossibility of the Night Shift

Many night workers get “shift-work sleep disorder.” And no one knows how to treat it.


August 22 • 6:00 AM

Long Live Short Novels

Christopher Beha’s Arts & Entertainments comes in at less than 300 pages long, which—along with a plot centered on a sex-tape scandal—makes it a uniquely efficient pleasure.


August 22 • 4:00 AM

Why ‘Nature Versus Nurture’ Often Doesn’t Matter

Sometimes it just doesn’t make any sense to try to separate the social and the biological.


August 21 • 4:00 PM

Julie Chen Explains Why She Underwent Westernizing Surgery

The CBS news anchor and television personality’s story proves that cosmetic surgeries aren’t always vanity projects, even if they’re usually portrayed that way.


August 21 • 2:37 PM

How the Brains of Risk-Taking Teens Work

There’s heightened functional connectivity between the brain’s emotion regulator and reason center, according to a recent neuroscience paper.


August 21 • 2:00 PM

Cracking Down on the Use of Restraints in Schools

Federal investigators found that children at two Virginia schools were being regularly pinned down or isolated and that their education was suffering as a result.


August 21 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, School Principal?

Noah Davis talks to Evan Glazer about why kids aren’t getting smarter and what his school’s doing in order to change that.



August 21 • 10:00 AM

Why My Neighbors Still Use Dial-Up Internet

It’s not because they want to. It’s because they have no other choice.


August 21 • 8:15 AM

When Mothers Sing, Premature Babies Thrive

Moms willing to serenade pre-term infants help their babies—and themselves.


August 21 • 8:00 AM

To Fight the Obesity Epidemic Americans Will Have to First Recognize That They’re Obese

There is a void in the medical community’s understanding of how families see themselves and understand their weight.


August 21 • 6:33 AM

One Toxic Boss Can Poison the Whole Workplace

Office leaders who bully even just one member of their team harm everyone.


August 21 • 6:00 AM

The Fox News Effect

Whatever you think of its approach, Fox News has created a more conservative Congress and a more polarized electorate, according to a series of recent studies.


August 21 • 4:00 AM

Do Children Help Care for the Family Pet?

Or does mom do it all?


August 20 • 4:00 PM

Why Can’t Conservatives See the Benefits of Affordable Child Care?

Private programs might do a better job of watching our kids than state-run programs, but they’re not accessible to everyone.


August 20 • 2:00 PM

Oil and Gas Companies Are Illegally Using Diesel Fuel in Hundreds of Fracking Operations

An analysis by an environmental group finds hundreds of cases in which drillers used diesel fuel without obtaining permits and sometimes altered records disclosing they had done so.


August 20 • 12:00 PM

The Mystery of Britain’s Alien Big Cats

In a nation where the biggest carnivorous predator is a badger, why are there so many reported sightings of large cats?


August 20 • 10:00 AM

Death Row in Arizona: Where Human Experimentation Is the Rule, Not the Exception

Recent reports show that chemical roulette is the state’s M.O.


August 20 • 9:51 AM

Diversity Is in the Eye of the Beholder

Perception of group diversity depends on the race of the observer and the extent to which they worry about discrimination.


Follow us


The Impossibility of the Night Shift

Many night workers get “shift-work sleep disorder.” And no one knows how to treat it.

How the Brains of Risk-Taking Teens Work

There's heightened functional connectivity between the brain's emotion regulator and reason center, according to a recent neuroscience paper.

When Mothers Sing, Premature Babies Thrive

Moms willing to serenade pre-term infants help their babies—and themselves.

One Toxic Boss Can Poison the Whole Workplace

Office leaders who bully even just one member of their team harm everyone.

Diversity Is in the Eye of the Beholder

Perception of group diversity depends on the race of the observer and the extent to which they worry about discrimination.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014 fast-food-big-one
Subscribe Now

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.