Richard Forno, University of Maryland, Baltimore County
A warning about the threat of political violence leading up to the 2022 midterm elections was issued to state and local law enforcement officials by the US Department of Homeland Security on Oct. 28, 2022.
The bulletin was issued the same day that the wife of Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, was hospitalized after a home invasion by a lone right-wing extremist who intended to harm her.
This incident is the latest in a growing stream of extremist confrontations taking place across the United States in recent years. These incidents primarily targeted Democrats, including an attempt to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in 2020. But the threats from both sides of the political spectrum have increased significantly.
And, of course, there was an insurrection in Jan. 6, 2021, at the US Capitol, where supporters of a defeated Republican president, acting on the massive lies he perpetuated, violently tried to prevent the certification of electoral votes. According to well-documented public evidence, several rioters planned to find and kill both Speaker Pelosi and Vice President Mike Pence.
Such incidents reflect a disturbing trend targeting the very fabric, foundation and future of US democracy. But what led to this point?
As a researcher who looks with a critical and apolitical eye at security issues, I believe that the rise of contemporary right-wing political extremism – and violence – began with an outdated focus on national communications policy.
Slow burn caused by media
Until the late 1980s, the Federal Communications Commission’s Fairness Doctrine required traditional licensed broadcasters to offer competing viewpoints on controversial public issues. But these rules don’t apply to cable or satellite providers. As a result, the rise of cable news channels in the 1990s led to highly partisan programming that helped divide American society in the following decades.
This programming fueled increasing polarization in the public and political arena. Bipartisanship was abandoned in the 1990s, when the Republican Congress under Speaker Newt Gingrich embraced a “grounded” policy of governance. That means treating the minority party not as loyal opposition and respected elected colleagues with policy differences, but as enemies.
In addition to emerging partisan cable television networks like MSNBC and Fox News, in the early 2000s, an increasingly polarized Congress and the public embraced a new source of division: social media.
Internet platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and 4Chan have allowed anyone, anywhere, to create, produce and share political commentary and extremist rhetoric that can be amplified by other users and drive the news cycle of the day.
Political pundits and influencers across the spectrum are less concerned about properly informing the public. Instead, they created a frenzy in search of money-making clicks and advertising dollars. And political parties have taken advantage of this disdain to satisfy and energize their voting base or funders.
Moderation or censorship?
To combat online extremism, social media companies have reluctantly begun moderating user posts and sometimes banning prominent users who violate their community standards or terms of service.
In response to what it calls “censorship” from Big Tech, the right wing has split into many niche platforms that cater to their conspiracy theories and extremist or violent views such as Truth Social – run by former President Trump – Gab, Parler, Rumble and more.
Compared to Democrats, Republicans have mastered this type of gutter politics. One example: Right-wing political figures mocked Paul Pelosi for the attack, spreading baseless conspiracy theories about his personal life and using the incident for cheer lines at campaign rallies.
Accordingly, today’s voters and politicians end up confronting each other in the public sphere not on things and substances that affect the future of the country, but on basic facts and conspiracy theories, or to address the distractions often generated by their respective media ecosystems. This has only been exacerbated by long-standing nationwide cuts in media literacy and civics education.
The unique problem of law enforcement
Against this background, federal law enforcement has been more vocal in warning about the dangers of domestic political extremism, including a bulletin issued in February 2022. The Oct. 28 DHS concerns this.
But it is difficult for law enforcement to effectively address political extremism, because speech protected under the First Amendment is a primary consideration. Phrases like “I’m fighting for you!” or “Saving our country!” may seem typical political blooming to a person. But others may see them as an implied call for intimidation or violent action against political opponents, election officials, volunteer poll workers and even ordinary voters.
How does speech become a violent act? Security specialists and scholars use the term “stochastic terrorism” to capture how a single, hard-to-find person can be inspired or influenced into violence by broader extremist rhetoric, as apparently happened in the year allegedly tried to kill Paul Pelosi with a hammer.
The law enforcement problem is exacerbated by right-wing lawmakers who normalize or actively praise the actions of violent extremists, calling them “patriots” and demanding their prison sentences be overturned or pardoned. . This helps to hide the actual reasons for such incidents, often by diverting them into broader conspiracy theories involving their opponents.
There are certainly controversial left-wing politicians, pundits, activists and talkers too.
But few – if any – openly flout the fabric of American government, plan to subvert democratic elections by force or plot to assassinate politicians.
In contrast, there are more than 300 Republican dissidents running for office this year, including many incumbents — most of whom endorse political violence like the January 6 attack by either their actions or their silence.
Hope for the best; prepare for the worst
Tensions are high heading into the 2022 midterms. Politicians make closing arguments, and online messaging machines spread campaign information, fundraising requests – and lots of disinformation, too.
Americans expect a peaceful transition of political power after the election, but recent history shows that we must prepare for the worst. It is clear that the modern Republican Party openly and successfully embraces and exploits misinformation, anger and attacks on democracy and the rule of law.
Until Republicans actively repudiate their extremist rhetoric and the misinformation that contributes to it, I believe the likelihood of political violence in America increases every day.
Richard Forno, Principal Lecturer in Computer Science and Electrical Engineering, University of Maryland, Baltimore County
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.