One year after the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection, political polarization — and the threat of related violence — is increasing, says a Virginia Tech expert who researches the role of communities in promoting, deterring, or reacting to extremism, crime, violence, and tragedies.

The current political climate in the United States has created “a volatile situation, with hyper-partisanship fueled by widespread disinformation campaigns, leading to the normalization of political violence and a growth of extremism,” said James Hawdon, director of the Center for Peace Studies and Violence Prevention at Virginia Tech.

“A lot will depend on the 2022 and 2024 elections, and whether the elections are perceived to be fair and candidates who lose accept the results,” said Hawdon, who is also a professor in the Virginia Tech Department of Sociology. “I don’t like to be an alarmist, but the country has been moving more and more toward violence, not away from it. Another contested election may have grim consequences.”

Hawdon said the Jan. 6 attack itself was not unprecedented. He pointed to the 1860 presidential election of Abraham Lincoln and the 1855 Kansas referendum on slavery as two examples. Lincoln’s election resulted in 11 southern states seceding from the Union and a four-year armed insurrection, while the Kansas election ended up being contested, with supporters of a free state labeling the vote as bogus and establishing their own government.

What’s different, Hawdon said, are several new dimensions to the state of polarization that the country is experiencing.

“This is clearly a result of partisan politics and hyper-polarization, which research shows has increased considerably over the past 20 years,” he said.

In both historical examples, while there was broad disagreement on the issues, “everyone agreed on the facts,” Hawdon said. In 1860, for instance, “everyone agreed that Lincoln won the election. They disagreed over the issue — slavery — and those who wanted to maintain it believed the threat was serious enough to take up arms to defend it.”

The current context is different, he said. 

“Today, there is widespread disagreement even about the facts, with nearly two-thirds of Republicans who still think the election was stolen,” Hawdon said. That number jumps to 80 percent when asking Republicans who trust Fox News above other outlets, and 97 percent when polling those who primarily watch right-wing sources like OANN and Newsmax.

“We’ve always had polarized presses, of course, but what is new is the number of sources and outlets out there and the total lack of fact-checking and professional integrity,” he said. “There have always been lower-quality journalistic outlets that would blatantly print lies, but for the most part people knew what these were and very few people took them seriously. Everyone knew to turn on Walter Cronkite to get the facts. Now that we get our news from internet sources that are shared with us by people we trust, there is no single arbiter of truth.”

Another issue, Hawdon said: “The political machine has gerrymandered the House districts to the point where political polarization is assured to become more intense. This has led to extremism being normalized and even violence — or at least the threat of it — entering Congress.” 

He noted that this is not entirely new either, pointing to an incident in 1856 in which South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks beat Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner with a cane in the Senate Chamber over a speech Sumner made about slavery and Kansas.

That normalization of political violence is not isolated to the halls of Congress, Hawdon said.

As in the years before the Civil War, “there are similar sentiments about the seriousness of the threat and the need to take arms to ‘defend’ the country,” he said, referencing polling that shows 18 percent of Americans in total and 30 percent of Republicans agree with the statement: “Because things have gotten so far off track, true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country.”

Hawdon focuses his research on the role of communities in promoting, deterring, or reacting to crime, violence, and tragedies. His most recent work focuses on how communities are responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, and his ongoing research has studied online communities and how these pattern exposure to and participation in online extremism.

Written by Jordan Fifer