Neil Heriot | November 7, 2022
Last week, a man broke into the residence of Paul and Nancy Pelosi, and demanded to know where the latter was. Nancy Pelosi was fortunately on the other side of the country and was therefore protected from the attack. Her husband, on the other hand, was not so lucky and seriously hurt. Although Paul Pelosi had to undergo surgery and stay in the hospital this past week, he was released today and will make a full, albeit lengthy recovery.
Unfortunately, this is not an isolated instance. The attack on Mr. Pelosi is part of a worrying trend of increasing political violence and the destabilization of American democracy.
In any nation, there are goals and issues. Democracies approach these goals and issues by popular and peaceful consensus. Politicians vie for positions in order to implement policies to the best of their ability. Throughout this process, everything remains peaceful. Parties unable to achieve their goals on their own may work with another in a compromise. If a party loses their position, power is peacefully transferred. This process is reflected in voters, who may debate each other. While one may not “win” a debate, both would walk away with at least an understanding of the opinions of the other. This emphasis on peacefulness and respect is key to a stable and thriving democracy, and for much of its history, this is what the U.S. prided itself on. Any interaction between members of congress and their voters was strictly peaceful. At the end of the day, everyone saw each other as a fellow American. This was taken for granted; Americans assumed that politics would remain fundamentally peaceful and respectful. Recent times have proven that assertion wrong.
Political violence, once contained to the margins, has become more mainstream after the election of Donald Trump in 2016. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace did a study on the rise of American political violence and found that, among other findings, Americans are more willing to use violent means – such as harassment and threats to opposing party members, to Congress, and to election workers. Others also found that their preferred way to achieve an issue or a goal, much like Mr. Pelosi’s attacker did, was not by trying to petition them or vote them out for an alternative, but simply attacking the politician and people they were close to force them to comply. Gone was understanding your fellow man, replaced by the need to eliminate him if he did not agree with you.
This didn’t come out of nowhere, however. Americans did not wake up one day and simply decide to start being violent to everyone who didn’t agree with them. A study from the Atrocities Prevention Study Group Project found that social media misinformation eroded real facts and replaced them with certain biased narratives that people subscribed to and ignored other, alternative opinions. While they focused on how social media misinformation can impact the conditions for atrocities, it can still give an answer as to why America has become more politically violent.
Americans began to use social media more and more until it became a crucial way for the average American to keep themselves informed. The important thing to note about social media that does not apply (as much) to mainstream media is that social media is tailored to show the user what they want to see and hear. Social media causes users to fall into a confirmation bias. Content they enjoy is continually presented – most often content that agrees with their opinion. Opposing opinions are suppressed and may eventually vanish, all to maintain a user’s screen time. In looking for further support of their own opinions, users may also come across fringe opinions – ones that, if they like, will become showcased more and more. They delude themselves into thinking that their ideas are correct, and all others are wrong, because there is nothing in front of them to show the user that they are wrong. Then the delusion continues with the idea that they have to show everyone else they are right. The normal means of debate, petitioning, and voting would take too long to prove this, so violent means are called upon instead, as they make an impact much faster.
More and more Americans have fallen into this trap, and current trends are only showing things are going to be worse. The midterms are tomorrow (and I would encourage you to vote if you haven’t voted early), but according to Politico, there is serious concern for election violence. This was unthinkable just 10 years ago. America was supposed to be the bastion of free, fair, and safe elections, and election violence was supposed to be in an authoritarian regime with fraudulent elections or a weak democracy. Even if these threats remain threats and nothing actually happens, the very fact that it could’ve happened and precautions were taken highlights just how endangered American democracy has become.
If Americans cannot trust democratic processes such as elections, nor can they trust democratic institutions like Congress and the courts, the very foundation of American democracy will collapse. A strong democracy needs an engaged and trusting electorate to back it, and if more and more Americans decide to circumvent these processes and institutions in the form of violence to achieve their goals, that electorate is lost. With the weakening of democracy, more and more Americans will turn to alternative means – locking America in a vicious cycle of an ever weakening democracy and less trusting political participants.
It doesn’t have to be this way. In my personal experience, I fell into the same trap many did with social media and I began to lose faith in American democracy. But recently, I found myself talking with the other side, finding that they are not the irredeemable simpletons I had been led to believe that they are. Even as I became more aware of the problems and limitations of democracies, I realized they are not irredeemable. If more Americans learned about the other side like I did, American democracy could receive the strengthening it desperately needs today. I concede that I may be overly hopeful, naïve, and optimistic, and that not everyone can be approachable. There have been and there will be people like Mr. Pelosi’s attacker. But I truly believe that they are still a fringe, and the rest of America is full of good, decent people. With these beliefs, I strongly believe American political violence is not the unstoppable, inevitable, force we have come to believe that it is.