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Opinion | Whose America Is It?

Robert Malley, president and CEO of the International Crisis Group, wrote me:

While I wouldn’t want to make too much of a comparison between what we are seeing in the U.S. and what, at Crisis Group, we study in conflict-ridden situations, there is no doubt that the similarities are becoming alarming. For that reason, we have just decided, for the first time in our quarter century history, to cover the risks of election-related violence in the U.S.

In June, three staffers at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Seth G. Jones, Catrina Doxsee and Nicholas Harrington, released a report, “The Escalating Terrorism Problem in the United States.” It makes the case that the dominant role of the far right has

grown significantly during the past six years. Right-wing extremists perpetrated two thirds of the attacks and plots in the United States in 2019 and over 90 percent between January 1 and May 8, 2020.

The three authors warn that one of “the most concerning” events “is the 2020 U.S. presidential election, before and after which extremists may resort to violence, depending on the outcome of the election.”

Seth Jones, director of the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, emailed me to say “there are several factors that make postelection violence likely.” The first, he wrote, is

the assumption by extremist groups from all sides — white supremacists, militias, boogaloos, anarchists, and anti-fascists to name a few — that others are prepared for violence if the election does not go their way.

All of these groups, he pointed out,

have access to firearms, incendiaries, and crude explosives. This situation is a classic “security dilemma.” Each side’s efforts to increase its own security and acquire weapons inadvertently threaten the other side.

Second, according to Jones,

All sides are defining the election in apocalyptic terms: the election will decide the success or failure of the United States. For some far-left extremists, a victory for Trump would expedite the rise of fascism in the United States, however exaggerated that might be. For some far-right extremists, a victory for Biden and Harris (an African-American, which is a lightning rod for white supremacists) would accelerate the rise of Communism, Marxism-Leninism, and outright anarchy in the United States, however exaggerated that might be. Painting the election in these apocalyptic terms significantly increases (actually inflates) the importance of the election in ways that make violence almost inevitable.

The nonprofit, nonpartisan Network Contagion Research Institute, which in the past has focused on right-wing activity, issued a report on Sept. 14, “Network-Enabled Anarchy: How Militant Anarcho-Socialist Networks Use Social Media to Instigate Widespread Violence Against Political Opponents and Law Enforcement,” that warns:

An online structure supporting anarcho-socialist extremism appears to be rapidly growing. The appearance of posts with anti-police outrage and/or memes and coded language increased over 1,000 percent on Twitter and 300 percent on Reddit in recent months during social justice protests. Extreme anarcho-socialist fringe online forums on Reddit use memes calling for the death of police and memes for stockpiling munitions to promote violent revolution. Extreme anarcho-socialist fringe online forums on Reddit underwent growth in membership and participation during the quarantine and recent social justice protests.

The authors stress, however, that

this analysis does not suggest that violence from anarcho-socialist militants has yet become as widespread as ISIS nor does it have the death toll or historical reach that right-leaning extremism has in the U.S.

What is happening here? Four years ago, Shanto Iyengar and Sean Westwood, political scientists at Stanford and Dartmouth, wrote in “Fear and Loathing across Party Lines”:

Our evidence demonstrates that hostile feelings for the opposing party are ingrained or automatic in voters’ minds, and that affective polarization based on party is just as strong as polarization based on race.

In an email, Iyengar wrote: “I don’t think there is any doubt that Trump will allege widespread fraud in the event he loses.”

Given the degree of polarization, Iyengar continued,

a less than decisive Biden victory, coupled with Republicans’ willingness to accept Trump’s claims, may result in widespread protests and unrest.

In a separate email, Westwood voiced similar concerns.

The election has the potential to be incredibly destabilizing. The Republican Party and Trump have spent years conditioning supporters to mistrust elections and to see fraud where it doesn’t exist.

For many of Trump’s loyalists, Westwood wrote, “the only rational explanation for a Trump loss will be manipulation of the election by ‘deep state’ Democrats.”

Westwood does not foresee

a scenario where Trump accepts defeat without claims of fraud. This is a man whose narcissism prompted the creation of a presidential commission to investigate fraud in an election that he won.

To further demonstrate the strength of partisan bias, Iyengar sent me a June 2020 paper, “Partisan Gaps in Political Information and Information-Seeking Behavior: Motivated Reasoning or Cheerleading?” that he wrote with Erik Peterson of Texas A&M.

Peterson and Iyengar conducted a survey in which half of the participants were offered incentives if they answered highly politicized questions correctly (50 cents per right answer) and half were asked the same questions without incentives. They found that

experimental evidence indicated that partisans are genuinely committed to inaccurate beliefs and to congenial sources of information. This is to say the availability of incentives reduced, but by no means eliminated, the partisan divide in information. Approximately two-thirds of the initial partisan divide obtained in the un-incentivized conditions persisted when we offered respondents the opportunity to earn rewards for correct responses.

Polarization, in turn, activates intensified belligerence between partisan adversaries.

In their July 2019 paper, “Party Animals? Extreme Partisan Polarization and Dehumanization,” James L. Martherus, Andres G. Martinez, Paul K. Pif and Alexander G. Theodoridis link increasing “affective, identity based, and often negative” political polarization to “a willingness to apply dehumanizing metaphors to out-partisans.”

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