Jurisprudence

Your “We Are Headed Toward a Civil War” Friend Has a Point

A new survey shows that as trust in public institutions declines, more Americans are willing to support political violence.

A protester raises a sign unmistakably calling for a ban on assault weapons during a protest against gun violence at the US Capitol.
A protester raises a sign unmistakably calling for a ban on assault weapons during a protest against gun violence at the U.S. Capitol. Allison Bailey via Reuters Connect

This story was reported by The Trace, a nonprofit newsroom covering gun violence in America. Sign up for their newsletters here.

Half of Americans agree somewhat that there will be civil war “in the next few years” and nearly one in five are similarly confident that they will soon arm themselves with a gun in a situation where political violence is justified, according to a nationally representative survey released July 19.

Researchers at the University of California, Davis questioned 8,600 people in May and early June, gauging views on democracy, American institutions, and readiness to carry out violence in order to achieve political aims. Half of those surveyed were women and the average age of respondents was 48. The study is expected to undergo peer review later this summer.

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“This is a very strong methodological study that backs up what we are seeing in a lot of other data,” said Dr. Rachel Kleinfeld, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment who specializes in democracy and security. “America is at risk of experiencing major political violence.”

The researchers were motivated to do the study, they said, because of a rise in violence, particularly involving guns, surging firearms sales, an erosion of confidence in democracy, and the widespread adoption of extreme and false beliefs. Rates of belief in the QAnon conspiracy, the so-called “great replacement” theory, and in Donald Trump being the true victor in 2020 tracked results from earlier research. Nearly one in five Americans agreed strongly or very strongly, according to the Davis study, that “the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump.”
One in five also endorsed political violence as a means to achieve an important political objective and one in four at least somewhat agreed that given America’s current direction, “true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country.”

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Kleinfeld said that previous studies had found similar levels of support for political violence, but the Davis study adds an important dimension by identifying broad backing for authoritarian rule and alienation from democratic institutions that have served as a bulwark against civil conflict. Nearly one in five surveyed strongly agreed that it was more important for America to have a powerful leader than to be a democracy. “Democracies with strong institutions rarely experience serious political violence,” Kleinfeld said, “But a very significant portion of our population is willing to support the erosion of our institutions and a turn to strong man rule.”

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Extrapolating to the U.S. population, the Davis study found that between 4 and 5 million Americans would be “very or completely willing” to intimidate, injure, or kill to achieve a political goal. Between 3 and 5 million would be similarly willing to commit violence against government, election, and health officials, as well as the police and military. “These individuals are not being bombastic,” Kleinfeld said, “they are willing to say precisely what kind of violence they support.”

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Nearly 20 million Americans think it’s “very or extremely likely” that they will arm themselves with a gun in the next few years in a situation where political violence is justified, the study found, 11 million expect to carry that gun openly to show they are armed and 3 million expect to shoot someone.

The accuracy of polls that show high levels of support for political violence has been questioned, with some researchers arguing that ambiguous language and inattentive respondents have led to provocative, but false, findings. The Davis study takes steps to address criticism of prior research, but the authors acknowledge that “bias from sources such as inattentive or strategic responses” may have shaped some of the results.

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In a recent article, Kleinfeld argued that full-blown civil war is not imminent, but the threat of a political camp resorting to violence in pursuit of power is real. “Instead of worrying about civil war,” she wrote, “Americans should be concerned about a party faction using government and private violence as two pincers to muzzle dissent, gain power, and buttress their control.”

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Although the threat of political violence is most acute from the right, Kleinfeld said in an interview that the Davis study suggested a “strong latent desire on the left” for militancy. She cited a rise in gun purchases by women and non-whites and the study’s finding that more than a third of Americans feel that political violence is sometimes justified to “prevent discrimination based on race or ethnicity.”

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Garen Wintemute, an emergency physician, longtime gun violence researcher, and a lead author of the study, agreed that initial findings suggested an openness to violence is not confined to one end of the political spectrum. “What do you think is going to happen when armed voter suppression meets armed voter support? Where does that go?” he said. “This is not crazy talk, it’s entirely plausible.” Nearly 20 million people, the study found, believe that violence is at least sometimes justified, “to stop those who do not share their beliefs from voting.”

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He cautioned that the findings left key questions unanswered, pointing to the widespread expectation of civil war. “What I would really like to know is whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing,” he said, “are you pushing for civil war, or do you view that prospect as a disaster?”

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Wintemute said he hopes to convene focus-groups to explore why people gave the answers they did. A finer analysis of the results is also planned, he said, that will tally responses by an array of categories — determining, for instance, how many of those who expressed belief in QAnon also expect to soon be armed with a gun while committing political violence.

Wintemute described the survey as a “mirror” and “a way for the country to see itself.” Even some members of his research team had trouble accepting the findings, Wintemute said, which he knows some may view as alarmist. “This is not fear-mongering,” he said. “I want readers to engage directly with the results, which are not about us, they are about them.”

Kleinfeld agreed that the results of the study are disturbing, but urged people not to look away. “It’s very hard for Americans to accept these numbers,” she said, “It’s easier to fight with this study or put one’s head in the sand. But we are still at a point where this can be stopped. This is a portent of our future, it’s not a prediction.”

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