A recent study published in Political Research Quarterly helps to clarify the connection between populist attitudes and support for political violence among Americans. The findings suggest that populists’ concerns about societal changes and their preference for strong, unchecked leadership may contribute to their openness to political violence.
Populism typically divides society into two opposing groups—”the people” and “the elites.” The people are portrayed as patriotic, pure, and virtuous, while the elites are seen as corrupt, arrogant, and unresponsive to the concerns of the people. This division is based on the perception that the elites disregard the cultural heritage and economic interests of the country.
Populists tend to be skeptical and distrustful of mainstream political institutions, viewing them as corrupt and complicit in undermining the will of “the people.” They often support political leaders and movements that promise to challenge the political establishment.
“Populism is on the rise today globally, and I undertook the project because I want to learn about the implications of this trend for democratic societies,” said study author James A. Piazza, a professor of political science at The Pennsylvania State University. “I wanted to know if populism is a risk for peaceful politics within democracies like the United States, and if so, why and how?”
“In general, I am interested in how peaceful political participation is maintained in countries like the United States and what happens when broad social and demographic changes occur that challenge historically powerful groups in society. I am also very interested in the troubling rise in illiberalism democracies and erosion of public support for democratic institutions in countries like the United States, and what the implications are for these trends.”
For his study, Piazza conducted a comprehensive survey involving 1,393 participants across the United States. The survey was administered online, ensuring a diverse representation of the U.S. population. The survey, carried out over ten days in December 2022, covered a wide range of topics, including questions related to populist attitudes and support for political violence.
Participants’ support for political violence was assessed via six carefully crafted questions. These questions assessed various aspects of political violence, such as its acceptability as a means of achieving political goals or expressing disagreement with the government.
Similarly, participants’ populist attitudes were measured using an index consisting of eight questions developed by previous studies. These questions aimed to gauge different aspects of populist sentiment, such as anti-elitism, mistrust of expertise, and belief in the sovereignty of “the people.”
To ensure the accuracy and validity of the research, the study incorporated control variables, including participants’ age, gender, income, race, religious identification, political affiliation, and more. Additionally, a measure of trait aggression was included to account for the potential influence of aggressive personality traits on support for political violence.
When it comes to the extent of support for political violence, the study revealed that overall, support for such actions among the participants was relatively low. In fact, the most common response was that individuals expressed no support for political violence whatsoever, representing nearly 30% of all participants. This suggests that a significant portion of the population rejects political violence as a means of achieving political goals.
One of the central findings of the study was a positive correlation between populist beliefs and a willingness to use violence to achieve political objectives. In other words, individuals who held populist beliefs were more likely to endorse the use of violence to achieve political objectives.
However, the relationship between populism and political violence was not straightforward. While populism was associated with an increased likelihood of economic grievances, these grievances did not translate into support for political violence. In fact, the data showed that economic grievances were negatively associated with endorsing political violence. This suggests that populist individuals might be more economically aggrieved but still opposed to political violence as a means of addressing these grievances.
Distrust of government and political institutions, another potential mediator, did not appear to play a significant role in explaining the connection between populism and support for political violence. Although populism was positively correlated with distrust of these institutions, this distrust did not make individuals more inclined to support political violence.
“In conducting the study, I was struck that distrust of political institutions is not a significant mediator, given how central this issue is to popular narratives about political extremism in the United States. Subjects in the study who are distrustful of U.S. political institutions are not found to be more likely to support political violence.”
On the other hand, two key factors emerged as significant mediators of the populism-political violence relationship: social change threat and political illiberalism.
Populist individuals were more likely to perceive social change as a threat, particularly in the face of increasing diversity and minority empowerment. These perceptions of social change threat, in turn, were associated with a higher likelihood of supporting political violence.
Political illiberalism, characterized by a preference for strong, unaccountable leaders, also mediated the connection between populism and support for political violence. Populist individuals were more likely to exhibit politically illiberal attitudes, and this illiberalism was linked to a greater endorsement of political violence.
Social change threat and political illiberalism together explained a significant portion (more than 50%) of the relationship between populism and support for political violence.
“Hopefully, the average person will gain a better understanding of what populism is, how it manifests in people’s thinking patterns, and what its consequences for political behavior. Also, I hope that the study challenges some conventional thinking on populism in the United States, such as the popular argument that economic grievances fuel populism and help to explain violent extremism. I don’t find a lot of evidence for this in the study.”
But the study, like all research, includes some caveats. The study is based on observational data and cannot determine whether endorsing populist beliefs directly causes support for political violence. There could be other unmeasured variables or confounding factors that influence both populism and support for political violence. Moreover, the study focused on the U.S. population, and the findings may not fully capture the complexities of populism and political violence in other countries.
“One major question that the study does not address, but that could be investigated in future research, is whether the link between populism and political violence works the same for Democrats and Republicans. I find that populist Democrats and Republicans in the study are both more likely to endorse the use of political violence, unlike non-populist Democrats and Republicans. But, I do not investigate whether the relationship between populist sentiment and support for political violence works differently, is mediated by different things, for Democrats and Republicans. Future research should examine this.”
The study, “Populism and Support for Political Violence in the United States: Assessing the Role of Grievances, Distrust of Political Institutions, Social Change Threat, and Political Illiberalism“, was published August 31, 2023