BARR: Ignorance And Hyper-Partisanship Create Perfect Storm For Political Violence

(JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)

Font Size:

A recent, nonpartisan poll of 2,008 registered voters, conducted by the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, concludes what many Americans already know, which is that our two-party political system is a chaotic mess. Far more disturbing, however, are the survey’s findings that a significant percentage of voters consider that violence, suspension of democratic norms and states seceding from our union, all are acceptable alternatives to our current troubles.

These troubling findings certainly can, at least in part, be attributed to pronounced ignorance that has for at least a decade, characterized many Americans’ understanding of the structure of our national government. For example, a 2014 survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania found that more than one-third of adults surveyed could not name a single one of the three branches of our government.

Coupled with historic lows in the public’s trust in government, such a disturbing level of civic cluelessness makes the most recent finding by the University of Virginia even more troubling. 

Having so many voters remaining fundamentally ignorant about how our government operates, while at the same time having little or no trust in that government, and with some forty percent considering it “acceptable to use violence to stop” those in the opposing political party “from achieving their goals,” is a recipe for disaster.

If voters engaged directly with political leaders and parties, there might be at least some check on these disturbing trends, but, as the Pew Research Center has discovered, the vast majority of Americans get their news the easy way, from “digital devices,” which are by definition more subjective, less transparent and more easily manipulated than direct communication. It therefore should come as no surprise that a majority of Americans now support restrictions on their access to information by government and corporate censors.

All this creates a toxic environment for civil political discourse and which, in the current national political goings-on, makes it difficult to be optimistic things will improve anytime soon. 

Former President Trump might have given voice to what many voters felt in their gut but were unwilling to state when, in his 2016 campaign he declared publicly it would be fine for his supporters to “knock the crap out of [hecklers].” 

Individual acts of violence against political opponents are one thing. Large scale acts of politically motivated violence are quite another, and efforts by political leaders and media pundits to excuse or justify such actions muddy the waters far more than any single politician can hope to accomplish.

When Democrat leaders and pundits excuse or justify massive acts of looting and arson, such as many of those in the aftermath of the 2020 murder of George Floyd, or when certain GOP leaders downplay the violence at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021 because it was “mostly peaceful,” it smooths the way for individual, aggrieved voters to view politics through that same lens; which is precisely what nonpartisan surveys illustrate.

In this hyper-partisan atmosphere, populated by many participants with little, if any substantive knowledge of the underlying principles or issues, even a legitimate, academic exercise can be mischaracterized as something evil and nefarious, and therefore worthy of the most extreme opposition. For example, the ideas in a recent book on reducing the regulatory powers of the federal government, published by the very establishment Heritage Foundation — Mandate for Leadership 2025 — are labelled “textbook fascism” by a guest on MSNBC’s Morning Joe

If the ideas in a rather boring, but very academic and substantive book on how to reduce the powers of the federal government are considered to be “fascist,” then there truly is little, if any room remaining in which civil discourse can be advanced in our current political environment.

At the same time, voters who participate in and do have some knowledge of how our political system operates, are witnessing a Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives behave in a totally confusing and dysfunctional manner, with no apparent regard for the welfare of the country beyond their own careers.

It therefore should come as no surprise that many Americans have come to adopt alternatives, including those that in the past were considered beyond the pale; whether violence, or as one psychologist at the esteemed Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania suggests, that we would be better off choosing our political leaders by lottery rather than democratic elections.

Bob Barr represented Georgia’s Seventh District in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1995 to 2003. He served as the United States Attorney in Atlanta from 1986 to 1990 and was an official with the CIA in the 1970s. He now practices law in Atlanta, Georgia and serves as head of Liberty Guard.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the Daily Caller.