Four years ago, Lilliana Mason learned something she really, really hoped wasn’t true. A political scientist who studies Americans’ attitudes about politics and each other, she had long known that the citizens of this country were growing increasingly resentful and distrustful of the people we saw as our political opponents.
But it’s one thing to not like somebody — it’s another to want to hurt them.
“I thought it probably went, you know, probably as far as like dehumanization … that type of thing,” she said. Instead, she found that, for 15-20 percent of Americans, physical violence against political opponents was not a dealbreaker. In multiple surveys conducted by Mason and her coauthor Nathan Kalmoe, this large, bipartisan minority said violence was at least a little bit justified — particularly if their party lost the 2020 election.
Then, on Jan. 6, Mason sat in her living room, watching on TV as, just 6 miles away, a mob of armed right-wing extremists scaled the walls and poured through the windows of the U.S. Capitol. She thought about her research and was suddenly, absolutely livid. Her children were terrified. Her options to leave the city were stymied by a global pandemic. And her data — once a theoretical risk that she’d struggled to get other academics to take seriously — had jumped off the page and begun to beat a police officer to death with a fire extinguisher.
“I knew this was gonna happen,” she said. “I really didn’t want it. But like, they did it, you know? Like goddammit. They finally did it.”
What happened at the Capitol was the culmination of years of right-wing extremism, a political force that has increasingly manifested as actual violence. But Mason’s research — and her worries — go beyond right-wing extremists. Much of this nation now hates Americans who don’t affiliate with their party. The reasons for and consequences of that hatred look very different on the right than on the left, but it still leaves President Biden with a nearly impossible task: governing a radicalized country.