Does rising support for political violence prove Americans didn't learn from Jan. 6?

A new poll shows nearly a quarter of Americans approve of violence 'in order to save our country'

Hand lighting a Molotov cocktail made from an American flag
At least 75% of Americans believe that our democracy is at risk
(Image credit: Illustrated / Getty Images)

Nearly three years removed from the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, it appears the United States is only becoming more fractured — and increasingly violent. A poll released Wednesday found that not only did a majority of Americans believe the nation's democracy is withering, but that a startling percentage of them also supported political violence ahead of the 2024 presidential election

The poll, conducted by the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), questioned 2,525 adults with a 2.19% margin of error. It found that 75% of respondents "agree that the future of American democracy is at risk in the 2024 presidential election," and 77% "believe that the country is going in the wrong direction."

The most shocking figure from the poll, though, could be that 23% of respondents agreed that "true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save the country." This figure happens to be largely split among party lines, with 33% of Republican respondents approving of violence as opposed to 13% of Democrats. The poll also showed that there was significant support overall — 38% — for a shift toward authoritarianism. Does this poll show that Americans have abandoned the warnings of Jan. 6? And how will it play into the upcoming election?

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What the commentators said

The United States is in for a "pretty challenging election season between now and the presidential election in 2024," Robert Jones, the founder and CEO of PRRI, told NPR. Jones noted that PRRI has asked about support for political violence in eight separate surveys since March 2021, and this was the first time the figure has risen above 20%. 

Even years on from Jan. 6, "the temperature is high and people feel the sense that the guardrails are down," Jones added. These temperatures have gone up universally, but "especially among Republicans," Jones told Axios. While the shift to accepting violence may be worrisome, it's not all that surprising in the current climate, because "if you have this sense that your demographic is supposed to be at the top of political power, and elections don't produce that outcome ... almost everything's justified," Jones added. 

This trend toward violence and authoritarianism shows that "Americans appear increasingly fine with surrendering the rule of law if they believe it will make them feel safer," Philip Elliot wrote for Time. This poll should prove worrisome for those who want democracy "to be like the bills put on auto-pay: it happens in regularly scheduled intervals with minimal reason to worry," Elliot added. It's hard "not to read these results as one political party gamely laying the groundwork for another disputed election that leans more on popular protest than legal challenges," he continued. 

In other words, "the chaos unleashed on Congress on Jan. 6, 2021, is going mainstream," Elliot said. "That has seismic consequences for the country in ways that neither party properly appreciates." This type of division has been brewing for a while, as a report from earlier this year by Brookings Institution fellow William A. Galston noted that "sentiment [about Jan. 6] remains mostly divided along party lines and has barely budged."

What next? 

While the new poll clearly shows that the lessons of Jan. 6 have been largely forgotten, the data wasn't all doom and gloom. It found that a near consensus of Americans — 94% — agreed that we should "teach our children both the good and bad aspects of our history so that they can learn from the past."

However, the potential for violence heading into 2024 could be dangerously close, as "most of the crowded Republican field of White House hopefuls have subscribed to some version of [Donald] Trump’s Big Lie," Elliot wrote. It's also looking "increasingly difficult for anyone but Trump to win the nomination in 2024," he added. 

Despite this, a majority of Americans still appear to be against political violence, according to the poll. At least 63% of respondents also hold an unfavorable view of former President Donald Trump, the man often accused of being directly responsible for Jan. 6. However, "support for political violence has increased over the last two years," the poll showed, and that figure is unlikely to dissipate heading into 2024. 

"The current Republican Party is one in which a siege of the Capitol may be more efficient than canvassing," Elliot concluded.  

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