Identifying Correlates of Support for Political Violence in the United States

Alexander Landry

Partisan violence refers to the use of physical force to hurt, damage, or kill opposing political partisans. It constitutes the ultimate violation of democratic norms and signals the possible collapse of democratic governance. Recent, high-profile acts of violence such as the January 6 insurrection and the attack on the Speaker of the House’s husband have stimulated concern among many researchers, practitioners, and members of the public that political violence threatens American democracy. But to effectively address partisan violence, we must identify the psychological mechanisms that drive people to support it.  

Along with my colleagues James Druckman and Robb Willer, we sought to identify robust correlates of Americans’ support for partisan violence. Theory and prior research suggested many potential correlates, both those that were expressly political in nature and those common to intergroup violence more generally. Among the expressly political variables, we considered partisans’ (left–right) ideological extremity and their anti-establishment orientation, a deep-seated antagonism toward the political system itself.  

Psychological Mechanisms Behind Support for Partisan Violence 

Regarding factors common to intergroup violence more generally, we considered dispositional traits, attitudes toward the outgroup (in this case, opposing partisans), and general social ideologies. For instance, we assessed partisans’ dispositional need for chaos—their desire to create disruption to gain social status—and dehumanization—their explicit and blatant denial of opposing partisans’ humanity. We also assessed support for general ideologies concerning the proper social order, including system justification—the support for prevailing social conditions simply because they exist—and social dominance orientation—the support for social hierarchy and group-based dominance.  

To identify robust correlates of support for partisan violence, we used several measures of such support. These included general support for partisan violence (e.g., “How much do you feel it is justified for [IN-PARTY] to use violence in advancing their political goals these days?”), willingness to engage in violence if the other party wins the 2024 Presidential Election, and support for specific acts of violence against opposing partisans that range in extremity from physical assault to murder.  

Sampling Methodology 

We conducted three studies of US political partisans, two of which were conducted on large, nationally representative samples (NTotal = 2,003). Because inattentive respondents can grossly inflate the correlates’ relationship with support for partisan violence, we partnered with CloudResearch (Study 1) and Bovitz (Studies 2-3) to recruit high-quality respondents. We also embedded several attention checks in each survey and excluded those who failed any of these checks.

Our samples were highly attentive, particularly the sample recruited via CloudResearch’s Connect platform, with over 98% passing both attention checks embedded in that survey.  

Key Correlates of Support for Partisan Violence 

In each study, we regressed support for political violence on all the correlates simultaneously. US partisans’ need for chaos, dehumanization of opposing partisans, and support for social ideologies (system justification and social dominance orientation) were strongly related to each measure of support for partisan violence. This paints the portrait of someone motivated to use disruptive methods (need for chaos), liberated from the moral restraints that inhibit harming fellow human beings (dehumanization), in order to protect their preferred social order from out-partisans deemed to threaten it. 

Interestingly, the expressly political variables (left-right ideological extremity and anti-establishment orientation) were not consistently related to support for partisan violence. The robust correlates, on the other hand, encompass more than politics. Specifically, they are general dispositions (need for chaos), beliefs about the proper social order (social ideologies), or attitudes that can target a wide variety of social groups (dehumanization). This might suggest individuals inclined toward violence in politics might be similarly inclined in other areas of life (and vice versa). This is a vitally important question to address as it would provide insight into how and where interventions can be pursued. 


The practical lesson is to develop interventions for this subpopulation and be wary of communications that reinforce or activate these tendencies. Institutionally, encouraging politicians, the media, educators, and civic leaders to avoid chaotic and dehumanizing language would be helpful. Our hope is these initial insights will motivate further investigations into various types of violence, leveraging multiple operationalizations and accounting for a range of variables. This will sharpen our understanding of the etiology of political violence and ways to counteract it. 

You can read the full article describing this research here.  


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