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Why We Should Worry About Political Violence

In "American Homicide," a historian links homicide rates to the way people feel about their government.
April 12, 2010 |
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The recent spike in violent political rhetoric coupled with last week's arrest of two men who threatened the lives of two Democratic House members has a lot of commentators worried about a surge in domestic political terrorism.

Those fears are misplaced. Not because there won't be violence, but because politically inspired violence won't necessarily be aimed at politicians.

A few months ago, Ohio State University historian Randolph Roth published a groundbreaking book, "American Homicide," that offers something like a unified theory of why Americans kill each other at such a high rate and what can be done about it.

After meticulously tracing trends in violence and political power in the U.S. from colonial times to the present, Roth concludes that high homicide rates "are not determined by proximate causes such as poverty, drugs, unemployment, alcohol, race, or ethnicity, but by factors ... like the feelings that people have toward their government and the opportunities they have to earn respect without resorting to violence."

Roth's analysis in fact puts politics at the very root of the highest homicide rate of any First World democratic nation. He points to the Civil War as the genesis of even peacetime unrest. It was not simply a case of violence begetting violence. Rather, high homicide rates were the symptom of low overall political confidence. The Civil War, Roth says, was "a catastrophic failure in nation building," when a large percentage of the population lost faith in government and eyed their countrymen with distrust.

"Our high homicide rate started when we lost faith in ourselves and in each other," he says.

Conservative writers like to argue that distrust for government is part of our birthright as Americans. And they're right. It's built into the system and can be found in the writings of Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson. But there's a difference between distrust and disdain. The tradition of truly hating government began with the Civil War and a nation literally torn apart by contrasting visions and mores.

Roth essentially believes that that antagonism plays out today when elections leave half the nation feeling empowered and the other half feeling disenfranchised. The more people who feel empowered, the lower the homicide rate. If people feel their government shares their values and acts on their behalf, they have greater trust and confidence in their dealings with others. Conversely, those who feel out of power and mistrustful of government carry those attitudes into everyday relationships with murderous results.

As Roth sees it, even activists and politicians -- from the right or the left -- who sew bitter disdain for government are indirectly encouraging the mistrust that breeds violent behavior.

"The extent that people feel dispossessed affects how they deal with other people," Roth told me. "They carry that anger ... to a discussion in a tavern or a property dispute. That anger can cause us to lose our temper more quickly."

Roth's research compares the trends in "political trust" and murder statistics. For example, white homicide peaked in 1980, the final year of the Carter administration, when people angry over school busing, the Iran hostage crisis, and the defeat in Vietnam were uhappy in large enough numbers to bring white trust in government to its post-war low.

Does this suggest that Barack Obama's election will cause a shift in rates of violence? Absolutely. According to Roth, FBI data released in December bear that out. In the first six months of 2009, urban areas that Obama carried saw the steepest drop in the homicide rate since the mid-1990s.

During that period, the states with the largest percentage of counties that voted more heavily Republican in 2008 than they did in 2004 saw an 11% rise in homicide in cities of over 100,000 residents.

I asked Roth to speculate on what could happen if the right continued its violent rhetoric and didn't gain seats in November or 2012. He suggested looking back at the 1960s and 1970s, when left-wing activists were preaching their own disdain for government. As trust of government evaporated, the murder rate doubled.

As my grandmother would say, "God Bless America."