No Penalty for Incitements to Violence

Right-wing politicians have a perverse incentive to continue engaging in reckless incitements to political violence.

By Ryan McGreal

Posted October 31, 2022 in Blog (Last Updated October 31, 2022)

The go-to defence of rhetorical incitement to violence is that no reasonable person would take the incitement literally. But we know there are plenty of unreasonable people who have already been radicalized to extremism, and they do take such incitements literally.

Years of prominent Republicans shamelessly calling Nancy Pelosi a traitor who deserves to be put to death have predictably resulted in a radicalized man attempting to assassinate her and violently assaulting her husband in the attempt.

As Republicans continue to normalize the use of political violence, so the public is becoming used to the idea. A recent large-scale survey by UC Davis found 1 in 5 Americans now support political violence in at least some circumstances.

Between 2017 and 2021, the number of threats against members of Congress increased from 3,939 to 9,625, an increase of 244 percent in just five years.

And it should not be a surprise to anyone to learn that women and especially racialized women are disproportionately the targets [PDF] of online abuse, hate speech and threats of violence.

Before anyone tries to bothsides this, political violence is overwhelmingly committed by right-wing white supremacist extremists.

And to tie this together, the research does show that incitements to violence by political leaders increase the likelihood that people who hear the messages will commit violence in response.

Finally, don't expect Republicans to stop. Fear and instability tend to make people more likely to support authoritarian strongman leaders - so their violent, dystopian, anti-democratic rhetoric may actually be making them more popular.

This anti-democratic death spiral shows up in a variety of ways. For example, in most countries following a mass shooting, the government responds with meaningful gun control legislation to reduce the risk of further mass shootings. Not in America.

In America following each mass shooting, Republicans block all efforts to regulate gun ownership and people react to the fear of gun violence by buying and stockpiling even more guns, which makes the next mass shooting even more likely.

(Note: the 2nd Amendment is nothing more than an excuse for gun policy negligence. It explicitly defines gun rights in the context of "a well regulated militia", a key clause in the one-sentence amendment that Republican lawmakers and judges conveniently ignore.)

So instead of a negative feedback loop in which functional civic institutions respond to a public policy hazard by reducing the source of the hazard, you end up with a positive feedback loop in which dysfunctional civic institutions acting on perverse incentives respond to the hazard by increasing the source of the hazard.

So why am I, a Canadian, writing about American politics?

Because Canadian Conservatives are paying attention to what their American counterparts are doing and are already starting to apply the same strategies here.