The US, faith in institutions and political violence

It is no longer completely ridiculous to ponder whether the US might be heading towards a new low level civil war.

Indeed, it is arguable that it is already in an emerging state of insurgency. The number of weapons in private hands makes the prospect at least possible although, unlike the Civil War, the division may not be a clear division geographically but would be more like a patchwork.

Moreover, where members of the armed forces and police would stand on the matter, complicates things further as there is increasing evidence of extremists among both.

In a society where there are 400 million guns in private hands; 43 million new ones were purchased in 2020-21; and, where 90,498 gun deaths occurred in 2020-21 violence and preparedness for it are not uncommon to say the least.

Underpinning it all is a toxic combination of distrust in institutions and institutions themselves adding to the distrust.

Two recent research reports published in the PNAS – one on public perceptions of the Supreme Court and one on support for political violence – provide some insights into the situation.

In terms of faith in institutions a PNAS paper on a decades-long longitudinal survey shows that the Supreme Court is now much more conservative than the US public.

The paper by Stephen Jessee, Neil Malhotra and Maya Sen looks at the results of three surveys conducted between 2010 and 2021 which ask respondents about their issues on the policy issues before the court.

The research was prior to the Roe v Wade decision and no doubt the findings will need to be updated in the light of that – particularly given one finding from the research (of which more later).

The surveys in 2010, 2000 and 2021 asked respondents’ opinions on the key issues in 32 prominent cases in the Court’s docket and also asked respondents how they expected the Court to rule in each case.

“Using these data, we show that the gap between the court and the public has grown since 2020, with the court moving from being quite close to the average American to a position that is more conservative than the majority of Americans”, they say.

“Second, in contrast to findings showing consistency in the public’s approval of or deference to the court, we find the public’s expectations of the court vary significantly over time and in tandem with the court’s composition and rulings.”

They also find that many members of the public underestimate the court’s conservative rulings and that support for institutional change varies significantly between Democrats and Republicans.

The authors conclude that “the fact that so many people currently underestimate how conservative the court is implies that support for proposed changes to the court may be weaker than it would be if people knew with greater accuracy the court’s conservative nature.”

Given community reactions to Roe v Wade (which was post the research)  it would probably be safe to assume that more people now know more about the Court’s conservatism – although perhaps a better term than conservatism would be revolutionary reaction.

As for reforming the Court, expansion is not popular although a slight majority is in favour of term limits with Democrats three times more supportive of expansion than Republicans although attitudes to term limits are closer (67% Democrat support versus 43% Republicans.)

But when it comes to whether Americans support political violence another paper suggests much current research overstates American support for political violence.

As for a new civil war, a paper by Sean Westwood, Justin Grimmer, Matthew Tyler and Clayton Nall contrasts some American concerns that the country is entering a new period of violent partisan conflict with wider community attitudes.

They say: “Political scientists, pundits and citizens worry that America is entering a new period of violent partisan conflict. Provocative survey data show that a large share of Americans (between 8% and 40%) support politically motivated violence.”

“Yet, despite media attention political violence is rare amounting to a little more than 1% of violent hate crimes in America.”

Using four large surveys they suggest that self-reported attitudes to political violence are biased upwards and that the median of existing estimates of support for political violence is nearly six times larger than their study suggests (18.5% compared with 2.9%).

“Our results show support for political violence is not broad-based….The public overwhelmingly rejects acts of violence whether they are political or not. Our evidence suggests that extant studies have reached a different conclusion because of design and measurement flaws.”

Up to a point Lord Copper one might well respond. The Capitol riots, widespread belief in electoral fraud, deliberate official fraud through gerrymandering and voter suppression, the delegitimisation and demonisation of opponents, racism, poverty, national ignorance and illusions – plus all those assault weapons – means you wouldn’t want to take a bet on it all being due to design and measurement flaws.

After all, in many countries over many centuries,  three percent of a population has been more than enough to incite wingspread political violence.

John Spitzer drew the author’s attention to the two papers.