Vitriol and Violence

Yes, Glenn Beck, one sometimes leads to another

As a sort of addendum to my morning post—in which I argued that, while the cretinous rhetoric emanating from the likes of Beck/Palin/Limbaugh is worthy of derision, it should not, contra Bob Brady, be legislatively banned—I wanted to quickly highlight why such rhetoric is in need of tamping down.

In even mild doses, it leads to a greater acceptance of political violence among young adults predisposed to violent tendencies—perhaps including Jared Lee Loughner.  (H/T The Monkey Cage.)

Caveat: This study comes from a polisci doctoral student at the University of Michigan (which, I should note, has a pretty well respected political science program), and to my knowledge has yet to be published in any peer-reviewed journal. Yet, Nathan Kalmoe’s findings, based on a national survey (caveat two: carried out online, and only 412 adults, which is a relatively small sample size, but nonetheless can produce statistically significant data), should give us a moment’s pause.

While—good news!—exposure to violent rhetoric doesn’t seem to affect the population at large in significant ways, there’s a catch. Among those more prone to aggression (the young, the poor, and the poorly educated):

Across each of the items and the index, trait aggressive subjects become more supportive of political violence. The results not only reach statistical significance, they are also substantively large, pushing the most aggressive citizens across about one-quarter of the support for political violence scales. Moreover, these treatment effects are on top of the already strong predispositions of trait aggressive citizens to support political violence in the absence of violent rhetoric.
In other words, it’s not out of the question that the rise of vitriolic rhetoric since (and just before) Obama’s election contributed to Loughner’s shooting spree—or that it will lead others to violence, as well. Consider this, from Kalmoe’s paper:
Recently, the furor surrounding the national healthcare debate – beginning with raucous  town hall meetings in August 2009 and culminating in the bill’s passage in March 2010 – led to a  spike in death threats against public officials and smashed windows in Congressional offices; someone even cut the gas line at a house thought to belong to a Congressman after the wrong address was posted on a hostile website (Hulse 3/25/10). Another man wrote an anti-government suicide note before flying a small plane into a Texas IRS building, killing himself and one employee (Brick 2/18/10).
As protestors marched outside the U.S. Capitol building chanting “kill the bill” – some carrying signs with slogans endorsing explicit violence – political leaders inside and others on television literally shouted their opposition as they described apocalyptic implications of passage.  Congress members appeared regularly before the crowd, showing their approval by waving their own “kill the bill” signs and a “don’t tread on me” flag (Hulse 3/21/2010).  One leader posted a map on Facebook with rifle cross-hairs on the districts of lawmakers who voted for the bill, alongside their names (Palin 3/23/2010a), and later added a Twitter post saying, “Don’t Retreat – Instead, RELOAD!” (Palin 3/23/2010b).  At least four of the “targeted” members of Congress received death threats or had their offices vandalized with bricks thrown through their windows (Bazinet 3/24/2010; Rich 3/27/10; Rucker 3/25/2010).  The governor of Minnesota encouraged supporters to “take a 9-iron and smash the window out of big government in this country,” (Condon 2/19/10).  And in the early months of 2010, with the acrimony surrounding the health care debate, the Senate Sergeant of Arms reported a 300-percent increase in threats against members of Congress (Lovley 5/25/10).  This conjunction of opposition politicians encouraging hostile crowds and the outbreak of death threats and vandalism led some commentators to ask whether political leaders were partly to blame for the violence and threats (Rich 3/27/10).
As I mentioned earlier, neither violent rhetoric nor, quite frankly, political violence itself is anything new. And the content or appropriateness of political speech should not be for Congress to regulate. That said, there is a danger here; it’s real, and when politicians embrace the craziness of Palin or Beck or Michael Savage or whoever, they lend them and their paranoia credibility. If you’re prone to violence, and if you think your country is under siege from a Muslim Kenyan white-people-hating socialist bent on destroying America, does taking up arms really seem that out of the question?
Rhetoric matters.
One other point: There’s a tendency among the pundit class to search for equivalency among the right and left. This is utter and absolute horseshit, at least in the context of this present age.
Now, it may turn out that Loughner was inspired by some nutty far-left blog that advocated killing Democratic Blue Dogs, of which Giffords was one. But if you look broadly at today’s political discourse, as[Matt] Bai purports to do, what you find is that gun, warrior, murder, mayhem, and generally Armageddon-like, apocalyptic rhetoric is virtually monopolized by right-wing organizations, talk-show hosts, and politicians. That is not saying that the right always monopolizes the rhetoric of violence. Certainly it has in the South, but in different eras, the left rather than the right has had the franchise in the far west and the north. Think, for instance, of the late ‘60s. But in the last two years, there is no contest.