A study asked Americans if they could support political violence. Half said they think a civil war is coming

The Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol may be just the beginning of an increasingly violent chapter in America’s history.

One in five Americans believes that violence can be at least sometimes justified “to advance an important political objective,” and half believe that a civil war is on the way “in the next few years,” according to a new nationwide survey by researchers at UC Davis’ California Center for Firearm Violence Prevention.

The survey dug into some of the potential motivations for political violence — and many revolve around issues important in conservative circles.

When asked questions about specific objectives, nearly 12% of respondents said that violence could be at least sometimes justified “to return Donald Trump to the presidency this year” and 25% “to stop an election from being stolen.”

Meanwhile, 7% of respondents believed it could be at least sometimes justified to use violence “to stop people who do not share my beliefs from voting,” 24% said it could be OK “to preserve an American way of life based on Western European traditions,” 19% “to oppose the government when it does not share my beliefs,” and 38% “to oppose the government when it tries to take private land for public purposes.”

The findings are foreboding at time when American democracy is on edge, with a House committee holding explosive hearings on the Jan. 6 attack and the country reeling from more than 300 mass shootings this year, amid debates over the Supreme Court’s power and efforts to restrict voting rights.

Riot police push back a crowd of supporters of President Donald Trump after they stormed the Capitol building on Jan. 6, 2021 in Washington, D.C.

Riot police push back a crowd of supporters of President Donald Trump after they stormed the Capitol building on Jan. 6, 2021 in Washington, D.C.

Roberto Schmidt /AFP via Getty Images

The survey of 8,620 people aimed to learn more about what was motivating Americans at a time when researchers noted that both gun violence and gun purchases are increasing, more people believe QAnon-type conspiracy theories and political polarization is widening.

While researchers tempered the results by noting that a “large majority of respondents rejected political violence altogether,” they said that “these initial findings suggest a continuing alienation from and mistrust of American democratic society and its institutions, founded in part on false beliefs.”

The findings “suggest a high level of support for violence, including lethal violence, to achieve political objectives,” researchers wrote. “The prospect of large-scale political violence in the near future is entirely plausible.”

In one of the survey’s more startling findings, 40% of the respondents said that “having a strong leader for America is more important than having a democracy.”

That was among many results that shocked the lead researcher, Garen Wintemute, an emergency medicine physician and the director of the California Center for Firearm Violence Prevention.

“I had pretty dark expectations about what we would find with this survey because of the homework I had done getting ready for it,” Wintemute said. “But the findings are darker than my worst-case scenario.”

Rachel Kleinfeld, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace and author of “A Savage Order: How the World’s Deadliest Countries Can Forge a Path to Security,” called the finding that many people value having a strong leader over a democracy “the most worrisome statistic” in the survey.

Kleinfeld said that while America has “most of the risk factors for significant widespread political violence,” the nation also has strong “resilience factors” like a powerful professional military and other institutions “that are hard to take down with violence.”

“Those are big resilience factors, but they can weakened and what we see in a statistic like that is very strong support for a weakening of our institutions,” Kleinfeld said. If that resilience is “weakened, we will likely see much more broad political violence,” she said.

Wintemute said the desire for a strong leader is a reflection that “there is a sense of insecurity and fear in the United States.”

When people feel insecure, many “look for strong leadership as in authoritative, as in authoritarian leadership,” Wintemute said. “Democracy and civil society experts have been concerned about this for quite some time. And I think what we’re seeing is that tentativeness of commitment to democracy in the United States is perhaps even greater than we thought.”

Another troubling sign could be found in the responses to why people would commit violence.

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