Is Political Violence on the Rise in America?

In a worrying sign, an election denier allegedly masterminded a series of shootings in New Mexico.

The New Mexico State Capitol
The New Mexico State Capitol (Robert Alexander / Getty)

A defeated New Mexico GOP candidate allegedly hired others to shoot at the homes of Democratic officials, in a case that is intensifying concerns about political violence in America.

But first, here are three new stories from The Atlantic.

Negative Polarization

On Monday, police in New Mexico arrested Solomon Peña, a Republican who, after losing a race for state representative last fall, allegedly paid four men to participate in at least two shootings at the homes of Democratic state officials in Albuquerque. Peña has blamed his loss on election fraud, and police believe the attacks were politically motivated.

I called the Atlantic staff writer David Graham, who reported last summer on the killing of a retired judge in Wisconsin, to discuss the political violence that appears to be on the rise in America.

Isabel Fattal: In your article about the assassination of the retired judge, you wrote that, based on the limited research that exists, the U.S. is showing warning signs of a rise in political violence. What are those signs?

David Graham: There are a few. One is we just have a really polarized country, and in particular, we have what political scientists call “negative polarization” or “affective polarization,” where people are driven almost more by their dislike of the other party than they are by any kind of shared value among their own party. And you see attitudes of a kind of dehumanization—seeing the other side as less than human, as a threat to democracy. All of these things encourage folks to take up violence; they make them believe that violence might be justified.

So you have these risk factors. And then we see lots of political violence, even though it’s not always on the level of assassination. The most obvious case is January 6. We have seen some attempted assassinations. We had a shooting at the practice for a congressional baseball game in 2017, in which Republican Representative Steve Scalise and others were injured, and we had the Trump-supporting pipe bomber in 2018. We had a guy who tried to attack an FBI office in Cincinnati and was then killed.

Isabel: What was your reaction to this New Mexico case?

David: It’s interesting to compare it with the Wisconsin case. One thing that’s good about this is no one was killed or seriously injured, which is a major difference. But in other ways, as part of the trend, I think it’s almost a bit more concerning.

The Wisconsin case, from what we know, is somebody who had a personal vendetta against this judge because of a case where the judge ruled against him. People are always going to have that sort of disagreement, and what we don’t want is a situation where political violence is normalized so they think violence is a good way to deal with that.

But in Albuquerque, we have somebody who was specifically complaining about elections being stolen; who described himself as the “MAGA King,” according to postings online; and who seemed to be really motivated by the sorts of things we hear people talking about in regular discourse about “stolen” elections. So you can see how it connects to things we hear every day and then takes on this really dangerous form. In that sense, I think the outcome is less grave—but we need to be more worried.

Isabel: Solomon Peña, the alleged perpetrator in New Mexico, didn’t act alone—he involved other people in the shootings. What does that say more broadly about political violence right now?

David: I think the organization is alarming. On January 6, we could see some coordination among groups, but it’s unclear how coordinated it was. And you wonder, if these people had had their act together more, what might have happened? Could Mike Pence or Nancy Pelosi have been harmed?

The same thing applies here. This guy was allegedly able to get some people to go shoot at these folks’ houses for him. It seems, from what we know now, that they’re kind of small-time criminals, so it’s not like this was a mass political movement. But it’s worrying that someone was able to enlist people. You wonder how big it gets when it goes beyond a single actor.

Isabel: What relevance, if any, do you think the recent convictions in the plot to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer have to this trend?

David: I think it’s a little ambiguous. It’s obviously important that people who commit crimes like this are caught and prosecuted and punished for it. The discourse around the Whitmer case is weird, because on the one hand, you have folks getting some pretty stiff sentences, and on the other hand, you have a critique—and this is not just on the right, you hear this from folks on the more civil-libertarian left too—saying, Is this a real plot, or is this something the FBI cooked up? Because we’ve seen cases where the FBI takes people who are prone to violence and helps get them going. You have an argument among some people that this plot was really deep-state puppeteering.

So in that case, although you have a deterrent effect, you also may end up with people distrusting the government more and being angrier about things.

Isabel: There’s obviously no easy answer to this, but what can be done to stem this violence?

David: The short answer is it’s really complicated. One thing we do know is that leaders make a difference, and when leaders are condoning or even encouraging violence, that is likely to produce more violence. When leaders say it’s unacceptable, even in the service of their cause, that will tamp it down. That’s not all of the answer, but it’s one simple answer that we do have.


Today’s News

  1. The United States hit its debt ceiling, and the Treasury Department announced that it has begun using “extraordinary measures” to prevent the federal government from breaching the limit.
  2. Prosecutors are planning to charge Alec Baldwin and one crew member with involuntary manslaughter in the 2021 accidental shooting on the set of the film Rust.
  3. The Agriculture Department announced that it is tightening its oversight on which products can be labeled “organic.”


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Evening Read

Illustration of a person mixing a martini of happy and sad faces in front of shelves of brightly colored bottles
Jan Buchczik

Nothing Drains You Like Mixed Emotions

By Arthur Brooks

“Ōdī et amō,” the Roman poet Catullus wrote of his lover Lesbia about 2,000 years ago. “I hate and I love. Why I do this, perhaps you ask. I know not, but I feel it happening and I am tortured.”

Maybe you can relate. If you’ve ever had mixed feelings about someone you love, you know the intense discomfort that results. If your feelings were purely positive, of course, the relationship would be bliss. Even purely negative feelings would be better, because the course of action would be clear: Say goodbye. But mixed feelings leave you confused about the right thing to do.

Read the full article.

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Read. Good for a Girl, Lauren Fleshman’s memoir about life as a runner, asks: When should athletes stop pushing through the pain?

Watch. The Last of Us, a new HBO series (the first episode is now available to stream), makes the apocalypse feel new again.

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David recently wrote about a very different example of how political polarization plays out: the debate over gas stoves, which, he argues, exemplifies the silliest tendencies of American politics. But you can also read the article for the simple pleasure of his wordplay. It’s a sharp analysis with many great air-, cooking-, and heat-related puns nestled in it.

— Isabel