CRF Blog

Should America Be Worried About Political Violence? And What Can We Do to Prevent It?

by Bill Hayes

The Carnegie has issued a new report titled Should America Be Worried About Political Violence? And What Can We Do to Prevent It? (PDF). It includes an executive summary, 10 Takeaways (shown below), links to further resources, and summaries of four sessions with scholars.


1. The time to stop violence is before it begins. Targeted violence builds on itself due to reprisal, but also because seeing others act on latent desires makes those desires feel more acceptable. Support for violent groups rises immediately after incidents of targeted violence, and when it declines it re-levels at a higher rate than before.

2. Philanthropy in this arena is thin and concentrated in a few areas. It has so far overlooked a number of arenas the workshop highlighted as vital, particularly:

Altering in-group norms that can normalize and lead to violence, for elites and political leaders, rank-and-file partisans, and those at risk of committing violence;

Preparation for local officials in pre-violence prevention and planning;

Training law enforcement and Attorneys General in de-escalatory tactics and laws to reduce violence;

Community resilience work for targeted communities;

Helping perpetrators and those at risk of perpetration leave violent groups; and

Improving data on communities at risk of targeted violence in the U.S., gaps in assistance, and incidents of targeted violence with bipartisan agreement.

3. Interventions need to focus on multiple points of influence to reduce violence, including political leaders and elites who normalize violent rhetoric and actions as well as individuals who might directly commit violence. Promoters and perpetrators of violence are not the same, though they can be mutually reinforcing. Therefore, neither can be addressed alone.

4. Interventions work best from the local level upward, not the top-down. Violence happens in a locality and people will draw on the assets in their locality to prevent it, so resilience and prevention are both highly localized – though with the right resources, local interventions can be replicated, adapted, and scaled. Mapping warning factors can help predict where violence is most likely to occur so that resources can be directed ahead of time toward prevention.

5. Local communities need assistance to plan ahead of time to prepare for and respond to targeted violence and potential violence. Separating protesters and counter-protesters, swiftly arresting perpetrators, deterring militias, and training police in respect and de-escalation dampen ardor for confrontation. Legal challenges against violent groups can also reduce their momentum.

6. We must all speak against violence, but party leaders and elite influencers from both parties are particularly important in speaking against incitements to violence. Because people respond to in-group norms and violence is stronger on the far right, politicians and leaders who support President Trump play a particularly strong role in shaping or censoring violent behavior.

7. Moderates willing to work across communities and temper their own groups are the first to be intimidated and silenced as extremism grows; they need particular support.

8. Media interventions should train journalists to complexify their story lines. Coverage that counts every issue as a win or loss for one side increases the temperature. Build on journalists’ incentives to offer surprising or positive stories that emphasize ambivalent attitudes and focus on multifaceted identities to humanize fellow Americans.

9. People seeking to engage with violent far-right groups are also far more likely to click on mental health ads. We should increase resources to off-ramp potentially violent individuals who are seeking help and belonging and finding it in violence.

10. Based on historic and overseas trends, we should focus on violence just after elections and intimidation beforehand rather than election day itself. In the U.S., violence spiked for the two weeks after the 2016 election. Research suggests that winning makes supporters feel more justified in using violence, while losing might provoke anger, particularly if elections are contested. Preparation now can help mitigate these risks in 2020. [more]