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Last August, the Palm Beach County School Board instituted a mask mandate in defiance of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. The blowback from parents was swift. By October, school board members were getting death threats. One member was approached and told to “sleep with the fishes” while another received a message saying “parasites have more value in life.” One email said a member would become “worm food” and that “soon the wrath of Satan will be upon you.”

The violent rhetoric wasn’t unique to Palm Beach. An anti-mask woman was arrested after threatening to bring a loaded gun to a school board meeting in Page County, Virginia. After another school board voted to institute a mask mandate in Missouri, a fistfight broke out.

A recent Reuters investigation found over 220 examples of school boards facing hostile messages and threats of violence. 

As debates over mask and vaccine mandates have become more contentious, the use and threat of violence is making it much harder for people to navigate local politics—perhaps because an increasing percentage of Americans no longer consider the use of violence an unacceptable means to achieve their political goals. According to a report from The COVID States Project, 1 in 4 Americans said violence against the government was ‘definitely’ or ‘probably’ justifiable. A Washington Post poll put the number closer to 1 in 3.

When Americans think of domestic political violence, the January 6th insurrection generally comes to mind. But political violence and threats more often come at the local level, where they don’t receive the same amount of coverage and media attention.  

Demographic and cultural change has created a feeling of status threat, as many white Christian Americans worry that their social dominance is imperiled and that violence may be necessary to restore the social hierarchy.

What is driving this increase in Americans who believe that political violence is acceptable? One of the answers is in the intensity of Christian nationalism and its conflict with democracy. The percentage of Americans who identify as Christian has fallen to 63% in 2021, and the percentage of Americans who identify with no religion is up to 29%. This, along with demographic and cultural change, has created a feeling of status threat as many white Christian Americans worry that their social dominance is imperiled and that violence may be necessary and justified to restore the social hierarchy.

But much of the rest of the country views Christian nationalism suspiciously. A 2019 poll from Morning Consult found that nearly half of the country views Christian nationalism as a threat to their interests. But Republicans are far more likely than other groups to believe that political violence is necessary to achieve their goals. 

The normalization of political violence has dire implications for democracy, which is meant to be deliberative, not coercive. If this process continues, the breakdown of democratic norms and practices is all but certain.

Marcus Johnson

Marcus Johnson is a political commentator and a political science Ph.D. candidate at American University. His primary research focus is the impact of political institutions on the racial wealth gap.