Three-quarters of Americans say they worry about the future of the country as a threat of violence chills the air.
WASHINGTON — Armed men in masks and tactical gear have shown up at secure ballot drop boxes. Candidates of both parties have been physically attacked, election workers intimidated. And threats against members of Congress are up tenfold.
For many voters, a vicious spiral of violence and fear is creating angst, paranoia and an overwhelming sense of dread that the nation is on the eve of destruction, according to a growing body of public opinion research.
Democrats worry that the GOP is bent on seizing power regardless of the outcome of elections — a concern rooted in former President Donald Trump’s lies about the 2020 race he lost. Polls show a large portion of Republicans fear democracy is in peril because they believe that elections are rigged against them.
“The corollary to denying the 2020 election is that the deniers don’t believe that exercising their vote is a way to fix [problems] on Nov. 8,” said former Rep. David Jolly, a political independent who served in Congress as a Republican from Florida.
Trump’s false claims about the election have convinced some of his most ardent supporters of a dangerous theory, Jolly said: “You can’t reclaim democracy by going to the ballot box on Nov. 8 — you actually have to use force or intimidation.”
Polls consistently show that Americans — of both political parties and no political party — are worried about the state of the union and their place in it.
Two-thirds of Americans say the country is at its lowest point in their memory, and more than a quarter report being so stressed they can’t function most days, according to a recent survey commissioned by the American Psychological Association in which more than three-quarters said the future of the country was a significant source of stress in their lives.
“We didn’t even ask these types of questions before the 2016 election because politics didn’t seem to be a driving stressor,” said C. Vaile Wright, a clinical psychologist and a senior director at the APA. “The way the political climate has changed to be more negative, the way the media has changed, I do think it has, for a lot of Americans, changed the way we process and deal with election season.”
Social media, push alerts and the 24/7 news cycle pound out a drumbeat of disaster. Old escapes, such as the World Series and movies, offer no respite. The post-Citizens United avalanche of political cash gives political actors the ability to flood commercial breaks and streaming video services with campaign ads like never before. Most of the ads warn of the dangers of electing one candidate or another in the darkest of terms.
“There’s a point of information saturation where you’re constantly exposing yourself to negativity, and that’s not helpful,” Wright said.
Trust in media and democratic institutions is at an all-time low. In one of his first acts as Twitter’s new owner, Elon Musk promoted a baseless conspiracy theory about the intruder who bludgeoned House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband, Paul Pelosi, with a hammer.
Attack ads accusing Pelosi of being hellbent on “breaking our country” did not pause as her husband lay in the hospital, nor after police documents showed the attacker seemed to be partially inspired by the years of work and millions of dollars conservative have invested in turning Pelosi into a boogeyman.
Frustrated by the fear that democracy no longer serves them, some Americans are becoming convinced that violence is the answer.
A University of California, Davis survey of an unusually large sample of 8,620 Americans from July found that almost 1 in 5 agreed that violence is sometimes needed to “protect American democracy” when “elected leaders will not.”
Among those who said violence was sometimes justifiable, 12% said they were personally willing “to threaten or intimidate a person,” 10% said they would “injure a person,” and 7% said they would be willing to “kill a person.”