For a single, stand-alone measure of just how toxic American politics have become, you could do a lot worse than this chart. It plots the number of threats against members of Congress since 2016. The data was compiled by the Los Angeles Times in a fantastic story running this week.
In 2016 there were fewer than 1,000 threats reported to the House Sargeant-at-Arms or the Capitol Police. This year there were over 4,000 just in the first three months alone — if that pace holds the number will rise to over 16,000 threats by the end of the year, or a whopping sixteen-fold increase since 2016.
While the overwhelming majority of these threats are never acted on, they represent a deeply troubling trend: a growing portion of the electorate is using the threat of violence as a tool to achieve their political goals.
Experts interviewed by the Los Angeles Times point to an overheated social media and cable news culture as one major driver of the threats. They said that former President Donald Trump, who routinely denigrated his opponents and incited a riot at the Capitol that disrupted the electoral certification process, also bears a large portion of the blame.
Today, for instance, Republicans are much more amenable than Democrats toward political violence as a means to an end. More than half of Republicans say “we may have to use force” to save the “traditional American way of life,” compared to 15 percent of Democrats. And 47 percent say “a time will come when patriotic Americans have to take the law into their own hands,” compared with just 9 percent of Democrats.
The rising number of threats against members of Congress suggest this isn’t just bluster: voters are telling pollsters they’re increasingly comfortable with political violence, and substantial numbers are taking it a step further by threatening lawmakers. It’s not just lawmakers either: election workers are increasingly facing threats against their lives, most of them driven by the conspiracy theory that the 2020 election was “stolen.” School board members are facing violence over mask mandates. Public health workers are being threatened and harassed as well.
All in all we’re witnessing the routinization of violent threats as part of the political process. Pardon my French but it fucking sucks. It’s an incredibly grim development, and it bodes poorly for the 2022 and 2024 elections. This is where I’d normally write something like “at this point, however, those threats have not yet been converted into action,” but of course that’s not true. January 6 happened. And now, even worse, an entire political party seems hell-bent on pretending it didn’t.