When elections lead to violence: It's happened before — and we're heading that way now

Scholar Nathan Kalmoe on how partisan division fueled bloody conflict in the 1860s — and how it could happen again

Published August 15, 2020 12:07PM (EDT)

 (Bureau of Engraving and Printing. Designed by Roy Gjertson. National Postal Museum/Public Domain)
(Bureau of Engraving and Printing. Designed by Roy Gjertson. National Postal Museum/Public Domain)

Not even the most perceptive academic could have timed the publication of a 10-year research project this perfectly. LSU political scientist Nathan Kalmoe's new book, "With Ballots and Bullets: Partisanship and Violence in the American Civil War" is being published in this overheated election season, and that's just an accident. Ten years back, no one would have imagined the recently reported Transition Integrity Project projection of "both street-level violence and political impasse" in all four war-game scenarios it conducted for the 2020 election. (The full report is here.) Such possibilities weren't on anyone's radar — except for his. 

"Pundits and scholars have generally lacked perspective in thinking about the bounds of mass partisanship in the U.S.," Kalmoe told me. They "virtually never consider that partisans might kill each other in extreme circumstances." Yet here we are today, facing that dire possibility in the weeks and months ahead. Both the length of time and the scope of research that went into this project set it far apart from any superficially similar warnings, even as it grounds them in much deeper soil — combining exhaustive historical research with expertise in public opinion research and political psychology. 

"With Ballots and Bullets" wasn't written to solve the dilemma facing us, or to replace or compete with any other warning messages that are increasingly flooding us. But it illuminates the larger landscape in which the forces buffeting us today become more intelligible than they would otherwise be, and potentially more tractable as well. I recently reached out to Kalmoe to discuss all this. As usual, our interview has been edited for clarity and length.

In your book, you state, "My most provocative contention is that ordinary mass partisanship can motivate mass violence under extreme conditions," and that this lethal potential "pushes far past current political behavior theories." How does your contention make sense of things better than current theories?

The Civil War shows us that ordinary partisans can be mobilized into mass killing and dying when politics reached its greatest extreme. Southern Democrats rejected the election of a Republican president because of his opposition to the expansion of slavery, and Northern Democrats were more reluctant to fight a war defending Republican control of government against their partisan brethren. Three-quarters of a million Americans died as a result, and American democracy (such as it was) nearly died with them.

Pundits and scholars have generally lacked perspective in thinking about the bounds of mass partisanship in the U.S. We've underestimated what's possible because of a myopic focus on recent politics. Current research recognizes that ordinary partisans dislike each other, but — as crazy as it sounds — we've only recently begun to acknowledge that many partisans absolutely hate each other. Our main measure of partisan animosity in surveys is how "cold" you feel toward the other party on a 100-point thermometer.

Pundits and scholars virtually never consider that partisans might kill each other in extreme circumstances. Why is that? Well, we're beset by "presentism" that makes us forget the more distant past, including eras in which mass partisan violence was common. Likewise, we habitually overlook violent partisanship in other countries, or we insist that Americans are somehow immune from the group psychology driving those conflicts.

And what does that mean for us today? 

My book is meant as a reminder that things look bad now, but they can become much, much worse. No past event is a clear prediction for the future in a direct sense, but the range of past events forces us to contend with a broader range of potential mass political behavior in the future. Recognizing the full scope of partisanship's power is important for scholarly reasons, but it's also essential for recognizing the practical threats facing our democracy today. I worry that modern Americans — including political leaders and scholars — think violent political conflict is a thing of the past and couldn't happen again today. That blind spot leaves us unprepared if American democracy continues to deteriorate. 

You say you found Civil War mass partisanship to be more enduring than might be expected, to produce extreme war-related rationalizations and to mobilize participation in mass violence. You identify three levels of partisan influence: individual partisan identities and social influences, which lay the groundwork for how the political world is viewed, and most importantly, "guidance and organization from local and national party leaders" that shapes that understanding and gives directions for action as a result. You identify this last as most important, and identify partisan newspapers as a primary means through which this influence flowed. How did that play out over time? 

First, I found that pre-war party voting patterns were more stable in the North than might be expected across changing party deaths and births in the 1840s and 1850s. Extrapolating from modern evidence and consonant historical descriptions, that gives us psychological and organizational reasons to expect strong partisan loyalties going into the war, partisan rationalization of war events and outcomes that maintain partisan stability, and even partisan mobilization into mass violence. 

Military-age men from Republican places were much more likely to enlist in the Union armies than men from Democratic places. Once in the army, men from Republican places were less likely to desert and more likely to die in combat. In other words, partisanship corresponded with willingness to kill and die in the war, a level of commitment far greater than anything modern public opinion scholars document. To be clear, I do not mean that partisanship was the only motivating force, nor that it was an explicit motive for most. People always state more noble rationales. But it captures psychological and social differences between individuals and communities that were politically organized into mass violence.

Stable partisanship and biased reasoning are clear in wartime voting stability and reactions to casualties. Correlations in local partisan voting remained high before and during the war, and the average level of Republican vote share hardly moved nationally and in most states. National casualties had no impact on Republican vote shares, but local casualties reduced Republican vote shares in places where Democratic arguments against the war persuaded swing voters to see those deaths as senseless and not martyrdom. Those casualty effects persisted in elections for decades after the war ended, and war memorialization followed partisan patterns too.

The available data can't give us precise estimates of cause and effect, so instead I describe the joint influence of individual partisan identities, social pressures from partisan communities, and leadership pressures from party elites as the motivating factors for these differences. Of course, the choice of which leaders to follow is motivated partly by individual and collective partisan identities, so it's hard to attribute independent shares of influence within those interactions.

At every level of your analysis, there's a common pattern of partisan convergence around the 1862 midterm elections, in contrast to wide divergence around the 1864 presidential election. What can you tell us about what happened? 

One of the most interesting results in the book is that partisan gaps in Union military enlistment shrank and grew through the war as Northern Democratic support for the war changed from lukewarm to enthusiastic to violently opposed. 

I found shifting patterns in war support among party elites by analyzing partisan newspapers throughout the war. Republican newspapers were enthusiastic throughout. Democratic papers were lukewarm supporters at the start, strong supporters in 1862, and strong opponents by the 1864 presidential election. Partisan gaps in Union military voluntarism followed that rise and fall of partisan war polarization in the newspapers. Those gaps were largest when Democratic leaders were most opposed to the Union war effort (1864), and they disappeared when Democratic leaders sounded most supportive of the war (1862).

Although the Democratic Party split by region in the 1860 election with Northern and Southern candidates, Northern Democrats struggled to support hated Republicans in a war against their former party-mates. The 1862 elections and general public support for the war may have given Democrats extra incentives not to oppose the war then, limiting criticisms to specific war policies and performance. Afterward, their rhetoric turned against the war — not just its implementation but against the whole thing. 

They always maintained a fig leaf that they wanted the war to end with a negotiated reunion, but that was never a realistic option. So calling for peace effectively meant accepting Confederate victory. This was the explicit Confederate goal — sap Northern will to continue the fight. Confederates actively supported Democrats in elections and planned military strategy to help anti-war Democrats win elections. Confederates even funded plots by Northern Democrats to launch their own rebellions against Republican governance in the North.

The Civil War is the most intensely studied period of American history. But your book brings together a unique combination of data sources, including quite a bit you're personally responsible for. What's most significant in terms of new insights, or in terms of resolving existing disputes?

I merged a massive amount of data from several sources to conduct systematic partisan tests in ways that are unusual for Civil War histories. The result is a 30,000-foot view of partisan war dynamics, which contrasts with the more common focus on key political leaders or the important but unrepresentative anecdotal experiences of ordinary Americans. 

These data were especially effective at addressing a key debate in Civil War political history: Did partisanship hurt the Northern war effort, or did Americans set it aside in favor of patriotic unity? The book's results clearly show that partisanship defined the voting, violence and related rhetoric of that time, though more so at the end of the war than at the start. Democratic partisanship hurt the war effort while Republican partisanship sustained it.

What is most worrying about comparisons between our situation today and the Civil War era? 

Elections focus the political stakes into a single moment, which is why those times pose the greatest risk for violence. The most worrying similarity is the explicit threat that partisans will reject legitimate results, causing democratic breakdown and violence. Through the 1850s, white Southerners threatened to secede if Democratic candidates lost presidential elections. The Civil War began when they refused to accept the election of a Republican president.

Notably, Civil War partisan violence was not limited to North-South cleavages — it included widespread violent conflict between Northern Democrats and Republicans, as historian Jennifer Weber shows, though not nearly to the same scale. Today, we have Republicans led by Donald Trump threatening to reject the results of a legitimate 2020 election if it goes against them. Unlike their forebears, they are trying to delegitimize what is likely to be a fair result rather than rejecting elections wholesale, but the result is the same. This is the biggest, most immediate threat to American democracy.

How does that relate to the upcoming election?

There are also worrying historical echoes in the roots of today's partisan conflicts. The broader democratic challenge in a diverse society, then and now, comes when partisanship fuses with other social identities like race and religion. (Group identities and attitudes are generally much stronger forces in politics than abstract values and ideologies.) Cross-cutting identities — in which various groups are sometimes allied and sometimes opposed across issues — help to reduce broader conflict between groups, as Lilliana Mason's U.S. research shows. Likewise, Joel Selway and Joshua Gubler find that the threat of political violence around the world is greatest when lines of social and political conflict consistently pit one set of people against another. 

In the mid-19th century, the old political parties splintered at the same time that religious groups and regions were fracturing, and attitudes about enslavement were fundamental in each split. Immigrants and native-born Americans were similarly divided by party. As historian David Potter shows, the new party coalitions that formed in the 1850s severed the cross-cutting group identities that had held the country together. Identity sorting, then and now, means that there are fewer guardrails to stop animosity from spiraling into violence. 

Democrats today are a big-tent party — they have substantial support from nearly every group, but their support is particularly strong among groups that have been oppressed by dominant groups since before the nation's founding. In contrast, nearly nine in 10 Republican voters are white. White Americans are themselves deeply split between the two parties on the basis of their attitudes about race and religion, with 80% of conservative white Christians casting ballots for Trump in 2016. In other words, race and religion remain at the center of our partisan politics, which is a return to the partisan-group polarization of the late 19th century.

As in 1860, white Southerners are part of the problem today. Back then, white Southerners found a home in the Democratic Party as they sought to destroy American democracy and expand the enslavement of Black Americans. Today, white Southerners are a core constituency in the Republican Party following 20th century racial realignment, still resisting the democratic elections and racial equality promised by the Constitution. 

We're in the midst of the most chaotic and bitterly contested election in living memory, with recent reports of an expert panel war-gaming four post-election scenarios, all of which "ended in both street-level violence and political impasse." Most Americans have no framework for dealing with this shocking development. But there is one — the Civil War — and it first drew your attention more than a decade ago.  What did you see then that others were missing?

My unique background helped reveal connections others were missing. Three things came together for me around 2010: I noticed the escalation of partisan hostility in town halls and on the floor of Congress, I was reading deeply about political conflict during the Civil War (and recognizing the core role of partisanship there), and I was concluding my intensive study of political psychology in grad school at Michigan. The history was purely recreational — public opinion scholars are not professionally well-versed in history. The Civil War histories showed a contentious politics that seemed more familiar than the reigning political science theories. Even so, the mass partisanship described by 19th-century historians sounded startlingly like modern political science descriptions of partisanship — party loyalty and stability, biased reasoning and links to social identities — all cranked up to extremes. 

What are the most significant new insights that have emerged, or been empirically established, in the course of your work since then?

The book project solidified my initial impressions of Civil War history. On one hand, ordinary partisans were mobilized into the greatest mass violence the country has ever seen, and the Northern public seemed to follow changing party positions through the war, as seen in their military participation patterns. On the other hand, even the most extreme events imaginable seemed to have almost no effect on partisan voting patterns, as if nothing significant was happening. 

I should add that although the Civil War is certainly the most violent breakdown of the American political system, it isn't the only one. White Southerners used terrorism and armed militias to kill and intimidate Republicans — Black and white — in the South for decades after the war. They ultimately succeeded in establishing authoritarian state governments that disenfranchised most of the population and ignored the Constitution's requirement for equal protection under the law until the 1970s and beyond. That Reconstruction and Jim Crow Era racial-partisan violence gets even less recognition than the Civil War.

What do we need to do in response to reduce the peril, both immediately and over the long term? 

The most immediate need is to maximize the number of Republican leaders, citizens and nonpartisan institutions who are prepared to reject attempts by Trump and his Republican allies to delegitimize an election loss — if they do lose, which isn't a given. That should involve efforts to change institutional incentives and not just persuasive appeals to Republicans' "better angels."

Longer term, reducing the peril will require reorienting the Republican Party away from its ethno-nationalist (and consequently authoritarian) roots. How that can be done or whether it is even possible is unclear. That conflict has always been at the center of American politics, though it did not always divide the two major parties as it did in 1860 and does again now. 

One thing we don't need to do is reduce partisan animosity, at least when the implication is that both sides need to cool it. When one party is committed to eroding democracy and killing Americans through governing malice and neglect, they should be hated and opposed. If that party threatens violence to maintain democratically illegitimate rule, they should be resisted to the utmost, including violence as a last resort. 

In the Civil War context, violence — as practiced by the Union and also by radical abolitionists like John Brown and Nat Turner — was both necessary and good. Slavery had to end, and there was obviously no way to accomplish that within the American political system without violence. White Southerners instigated a war that politically enabled Republicans to end slavery and establish the legal framework for racial equality in the United States, but white Northerners and Black Americans (and indigenous people too) had every right to overthrow the U.S. government as it existed in 1860, with violence if necessary. In other words, partisanship and even violence are not problems in the face of authoritarianism. Sometimes they are essential solutions. In the Civil War, Republican partisanship and willingness to use violence were essential to advance democracy against authoritarian tyranny. 

Ultimately, my worry is that many Americans are unwilling to defend and advance democracy in the ways that are necessary. The Civil War showed those split commitments and that reluctance, but enough Northerners rose to the challenge. Those same Americans failed the test in the face of white Democratic terrorism after the war, ushering in the Jim Crow era of racial oppression. Americans lost the will to defend democracy after they won the war, and similar unwillingness today is an equally great threat to the promise of American democracy.

What is reassuring about our politics today, compared with the Civil War era? 

The geography of partisanship today is reassuring compared to the Civil War era. The death toll then was far greater because state governments were able to mobilize their resources toward warfighting in a way that is hard to imagine today, when partisan divisions across states are far less stark. Lincoln wasn't even on the ballot in most Southern states in 1860. By contrast, each party's presidential candidate got at least one fifth of the vote in each state in 2016. Large urban/rural divides are more of a geographic concern today, but they do not correspond with state administrative capacities that could multiply the capacity to organize killing.

The most reassuring aspect of both eras is that at least one party is broadly committed to actively advancing democracy, which has not always been the case.  In 1860, it was Republicans. Today, it is Democrats. Democracy needs partisan defenders.

What can be done to make the most of these differences to protect democracy and human life? And how does that relate to the upcoming election?

Geography doesn't fit well here, so I'll go in a different direction. One of the main takeaways in my book, and in public opinion research generally, is that leaders at all levels matter. People tend to follow those they trust. Leaders have the power to mobilize people in directions that are healthy for democracy or in ways hostile to it.

Party leaders will play key roles in directing their followers in the aftermath of the 2020 election. The fate of our democracy literally depends on what they collectively say, and what they ask their followers to do. We each individually have some sway in our own social circles to influence others in ways that build up democracy. That agency is important, even among ordinary people.

One striking finding in your book is the relative constancy and stability of partisan identity, even when that identity formally dissolves — as it did for the Whigs, and the Free Soil Party. What did you find about how social identities persisted across the most disruptive party system transition in U.S. history?

The partisan voting coalitions in the North largely held together in regions, states and cities, even as the party coalition ties between North and South fractured. In other words, the national coalitions fell apart, but most individual voters and their communities kept voting for the same groups of leaders they had supported before, though under different party names. 

I present systematic evidence of voting stability among ordinary people using county and state-level election returns for Congress, governor and presidential voting. The correlations in partisan voting patterns is as high between the 1840s and 1850s, even with the death of one of the two major parties, as it is within the 1840s. The best way to think about the parties in the 1850s is as a Democratic coalition and an anti-Democratic coalition, the latter of which sometimes splintered and sometimes unified.

Partisan voting patterns in the North were even more stable from the end of the war into the Reconstruction years, approaching the levels of local (and presumably individual) partisan stability that we see today. In other words, partisan stability in the 1840s and 1850s was high, but not quite as high as the present until immediately after the war.

You write that "monumental wartime events had no discernible impact on partisan voting in House and governor elections staggered throughout the war," which in turn "indicates substantial partisan stability in vote shares over time." How does that compare with common popular and scholarly views? 

Perhaps the biggest challenge I make to the conventional wisdom in Civil War history is to show evidence that Civil War events made little impact on partisan voting patterns. In particular, I find nothing in voting returns to suggest that battle wins and losses or even cumulative national casualties made an difference in the electoral success of Lincoln and his party.

The historical consensus is that Lincoln was on track to lose the 1864 election by a landslide until Sherman's army captured Atlanta, allowing Lincoln to win decisively. Instead, the election data show no signs that any battles, including Atlanta, made any dent in partisan voting. Lincoln was on track to win re-election from 1863 onward, with only a brief, unexplained dip in Republican vote share in fall 1862. 

My evidence isn't definitive on this point, but it's much stronger than the anecdotal speculation provided by politicians at the time and historians since. Instead, I argue that those experts detected shifts in public emotions about the war, but not anything that would change votes.

What's the most important question I haven't asked? And what's the answer?

Exactly how worried should we be about democratic erosion in the U.S. and the threat of partisan violence today? It's clear that we're trending in the wrong direction and the warning signs are flashing red, primarily as a result of Republican authoritarianism, but it is extremely difficult to judge just how likely the full range of bad and worse outcomes are. Much depends on the idiosyncratic decisions of key leaders, and although their general orientations may be relatively clear, exactly what they choose to do in a crisis is far tougher to estimate.

My next book project with Lilliana Mason tests the extent of partisan hatred and openness to violence today. We find a core of violent attitudes in a small but notable minority in both parties, roughly 10 to 20%. That suggests to me that there is a latent openness to violence in the public, which can be mobilized or demobilized by political leaders depending on the choices they individually and collectively make. We have experimental evidence indicating that top party leaders like Biden and Trump have the power to change these attitudes with the statements they make fueling the fire or dousing the flames.

By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, and a columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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