This is not the first time that the possibility of potential for social conflict of this magnitude has emerged from an opinion poll in times of extreme polarization in the United States. One in five adults in the country would be willing to forgive acts of political violence.
At least half of U.S. society shares the belief that “in the next few years there will be a civil war” in the country, according to a nationally representative survey, in which one in five polled justified political violence and is willing to use a weapon to achieve goals they support.
It is not the first time that the threat of civil war emerges from an opinion poll in times of extreme polarization such as those felt today in the United States, where the oldest constitutional democracy in the world is under strong questioning by a good part of its citizens, saturated with conspiracy theories.
The online survey by researchers at the University of California, David, was released on July 19.
The survey is the first of its kind to explore the participants’ personal willingness to engage in specific political violence scenarios.
But it is presented, if you will, as an autopsy of citizen dissatisfaction with the nation’s democracy, where Democrats and Republicans are equally critical of the system, although the latter is more willing to use violence “to save the American way of life.”
The national survey was conducted from May 13 to June 22.
Coincidentally, in those five weeks alone there were seven mass shootings in the country, according to the Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit group that monitors gun violence.
Questions to 8,600 polled focused on perceptions about democracy and the potential for domestic violence, beliefs about U.S. society and institutions, and support for and willingness to engage in violence, including political violence.
The findings come as the House committee investigating the assault on Capitol Hill on January 6, 2021, is uncovering evidence that would prove that former President Donald Trump and his aides helped lead the insurrection on the legislative branch to stay in the White House.
Under this scenario, two-thirds of polled (67.2%) perceived that there is “a serious threat to our democracy”, but more than 40% agreed that “having a strong leader is more important than having a democracy” and 32% supported the statement that “in the U.S., native whites are being replaced by immigrants”.
“This was one of the most concerning findings in the survey, in my judgment,” said Dr. Garen J. Wintemute, director of the Violence Prevention Program at the University of California, Davis, regarding the value being placed on having a strong leader rather than a democracy.
“Historians and political scientists point out that desire for a strong leader increases at times of fear and uncertainty, and we are in such times,” Wintemute, lead author of the study, added in an e-mail interview.
At the same time, nearly 70% of adults—with very similar results for Democrats and Republicans—agree that “American democracy only serves the interests of the wealthy and powerful,” the draft survey said.
For the researchers, many of these findings are due to support from sectors of the population for false beliefs such as QAnon conspiracy theories, “grand replacement” thinking, and the myth that Trump won the 2020 election over Joe Biden.
In fact, the survey found that 1 in 5 adults endorse the core elements of the QAnon belief complex, that “the government, media and financial worlds in the U.S. are controlled by a group of Satan-worshipping pedophiles.”
That cocktail of pessimistic and academic-criticized views on the moral and political health of the nation may help to understand why half of the respondents (50.1%) agreed that “in the next few years there will be a civil war.”
According to the results, significant minorities of respondents strongly or strongly agreed with three key statements about conditions that could justify violence in the United States. At the extreme, a hypothetical civil war.
First, “protect democracy” if “elected leaders don’t” (18.7%); second, save “our American way of life,” which is “disappearing” (16.1%); and third, “save our country” because “things have gotten so far off track” (8.1%).
Imagining a 21st century U.S. civil war could be a complex and even alarmist exercise, although social, political and security scholars look to recent history to remind us that successive acts of violence lead to something more dangerous.
“A civil war today won’t look like America in the 1860s, Russia in the 1920s, or Spain in the 1930s. It will begin with sporadic acts of violence and terror, accelerated by social media. It will sneak up on us and leave us wondering how we could have been so blind,” proposed political scientist Barbara F. Walter of the University of California, San Diego, in her book How Civil Wars Start.
When the FBI broke up an alleged plot in October 2020 that included kidnapping Michigan Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer to try her for treason, the defendants planned to attack the state Capitol and instigate a civil war.
In the plot, to be executed prior to the November presidential election that year, a group of 13 men allegedly sought to take violent action against the state to “defend the U.S. Constitution” from Governor Whitmer’s overreach of power.
However, the acquittal in recent months of 2 of the 13 members of the plot, as well as the mistrial of 2 other men, has the Justice Department and its prosecutors on trial in a nationwide effort to combat domestic terrorism that, in many cases, is far-right violent extremism.
Extrapolating the survey results to the population level, the data are more alarming in realizing that more than 50 million U.S. adults believe that violence is justified, at least sometimes, to achieve the political goals they support.
“These are not abstract beliefs, made without commitment. Our extrapolations suggest that to achieve a political objective that they support, 6 million Americans would be very or completely willing to damage property and between 4 million and 5 million to threaten or intimidate someone, injure them, or kill them,” the researchers said.
Half of the participants in the survey were women, the average age was 48 years.
62.6 % were white, non-Hispanic; 11.9 % were African American; 16.9 % were Hispanic; and 5.4 % were Asian American, which translates into a mixed sample of what American society looks like today in terms of race or ethnicity.
In January 2021, a post-election survey by Edelman, the world’s largest public relations firm, found that more than half of Americans believed the country was during a “cold civil war.”
The study showed that, during the pandemic, political tensions in the United States between Trump and Biden supporters led people to question their trust in government and the media.
Of the over 33,000 people surveyed, over half believed government leaders and journalists are purposely misleading the public.