This is from a statement by the National Jewish Democratic Council, quoted in the New York Times:
It is fair to say—in today’s political climate, and given today’s political rhetoric—that many have contributed to the building levels of vitriol in our political discourse that have surely contributed to the atmosphere in which this event transpired.
The statement is careful, to be sure: “many have contributed” to a “discourse” that “surely contributed to the atmosphere” in which the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords and the others took places. This is a far cry from saying that vitriol led to violence. But it takes a step in that direction, and it is a step too far, given what we know at this point in time.
How might we approach this link between vitriol and violence from a social science perspective? According to Dick Armey, we shouldn’t really bother:
In the final analysis, when we get the final answer, why did this fellow do this? The answer will come from psychology, not from sociology or political science. If we really want to understand deviance and danger in this country, we should apply the correct field of study, the correct disciplines and tools of understanding with rigor and responsibility, not just exercising pop sociology out of our hip pocket.
I’m all for rejecting pop sociology and of course psychology is relevant, but I do think other social sciences can say something as well.
Does violent political rhetoric fuel support for political violence? Political leaders regularly infuse communication with metaphors of fighting and war. Building from theoretical foundations in media violence research, I field a nationally-representative survey experiment in which subjects are randomly assigned to different forms of the same political advertisements. I find that even mild violent language increases support for political violence among citizens with aggressive predispositions, especially among young adults.
Kalmoe exposed subjects to the text of two fictional political advertisements. Some subjects saw ads that use the verb “fight.” Some saw the one that used phrases like “stand up” or “work for.” Some saw a combination. Here is the text of one ad, with the variations made obvious:
Americans today are fighting/struggling to keep their jobs and their homes. All you ever asked of government is to stand on your side and fight/stand up for your future. That’s just what I intend to do. I will fight/work hard to get our economy back on track. I will fight/work for our children’s future. And I will fight/work for justice and opportunity for all. I will always fight/work for America’s future, no matter how tough it gets. Join me in this fight/effort.
Subjects were then asked questions about political violence, such as whether they agreed or disagreed with this statement: “Sometimes the only way to stop bad government is with physical force.”
- Finding #1: The vast majority of people disagreed with these statements. That is, they did not support violence.
- Finding #2: Seeing one or both of the “violent” political ads had NO overall effect on support for political violence.
- Finding #3: Seeing violence political ads DID have an effect among those with a predisposition to aggression, as measured with a standard psychological battery. Among those with the greatest predisposition to aggression, being exposed to a violent political ad increased their support for political violence by about 20 points on a 100-point scale. Among those with the least predisposition to aggression, being exposed to a a violent ad actually decreased their support for violence.
- Finding #4: This conditional relationship—between seeing violent ad and a predisposition to aggression—appears stronger among those under the age of 40 (vs. those older), men (vs. women), and Democrats (vs. Republicans).
Although this study concerns only attitudinal support for violence, not actual acts of violence, its findings seem, on their face, to suggest that Jared Lee Loughner could have been motivated by violent political rhetoric. Such rhetoric exists, obviously. Some of it concerned Giffords in particular. And Loughner was a man under the age of 40 with some apparent predisposition to aggression. But that’s not a conclusion we can draw at all, and this is why the National Jewish Democratic Committee’s comment struck me as going too far.
Again, social science can help—and especially conventional theories about how information affects attitudes and behavior. For information—vitriolic political discourse in this case—to influence Loughner’s attitudes and behavior, he would have had (1) to be exposed to that discourse and (2) to accept or believe what he was hearing. Was he? We do not know.
To prove that vitriol causes any particular act of violence, we cannot speak about “atmosphere.” We need to be able to demonstrate that vitriolic messages were actually heard and believed by the perpetrators of violence. That is a far harder thing to do. But absent such evidence, we are merely waving our hands at causation and preferring instead to treat the mere existence of vitriol and the mere existence of violence as implying some relationship between the two.
For more on this general subject, see this thread at Chris Blattman’s blog, John Pitney’s book on military rhetoric in politics, Lee’s old post on militant extremism, and my post on Scott Roeder. I thank Brendan Nyhan for reminding me of the Blattman thread.
Matt Grossman, who I thank for sending me the Armey quote, also sent along these possible topics, for which there might be some extant research of value:
1) the relationship between polarization and political violence
2) how individual attitudes change after losing competitive elections
3) the lack of ideological coherence in the political views of radicals
4) changes in the use of violent or military metaphors in politics
5) how radicals interpret political messages in the media
6) the relationship between polarization and civility by elites and political tolerance or the acceptance of violence
I welcome comments about these topics or anything else in comments.