Insurrectionist movement in U.S. is larger and more dangerous than expected, research finds

In NORC surveys, millions of Americans indicate that they hold insurrectionist sentiments

In early April 2021, Prof. Robert Pape of the University of Chicago released an analysis of 377 Americans arrested or charged in the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection. Looking to take the temperature of the nation at large, Pape and his team have followed up with a new survey of American adults to gauge their political sentiments related to an insurrection.

The latest findings are even more concerning: The survey suggests that the insurrectionist movement in the U.S. — with violence at its core — is larger and more dangerous than Pape and his team initially thought.

The results, from a nationally representative survey undertaken in the middle of June, is intended to provide a more pointed, broader look at the movement — essentially a risk assessment building on the previous research from March that found the Capitol insurrectionists came from places deeply concerned that the rights of minorities and immigrants were crowding out the rights of white people.

“Our objective is not to look backward,” said Pape, a leading scholar in political science, “but to determine the risk for political violence going forward.”

More specifically, the research team wanted to assess the risk for violence in relation to the 2022 midterm election. If the insurrectionist movement is focused on putting former President Donald Trump back in office, Pape explained, that could be activated multiple ways as soon as the 2022 election season starts. It’s less about the risk to a single day, but for the entire election season.

The survey was designed by Pape and his team and executed by NORC at the University of Chicago. Many of the questions were tested in smaller surveys or different types of surveys prior to both the March and June polls. In June, the team expanded the question set based on previous results in order to stress test the findings and widen the aperture to include other factors.

The researchers planned on running a pilot phase of the survey in May, set to last a little longer than two weeks. “But after the first week, the findings were so disturbing that we just stopped and realized we had to immediately speed up the timetable of doing the NORC(2),” Pape says.

Pape calls the NORC(2) the gold standard of polling. It’s the probability sample of a nationally representative sample and has an only 1.3% margin of error. The researchers assessed how consistently respondents answered certain questions that were written differently but belonged to the same category. What they found was a high degree of stability among answers related to insurrectionist sentiments — equating to well over 10 million people.

“That’s a very worrisome finding,” Pape said. “This is not just people randomly ticking boxes, but they’re consistently ticking similar boxes, meaning they are adamant about this feeling.”

Rather than a dying movement, the team found the insurrectionist sentiments were larger and more dangerous than they believed the movement was in March.

“We would have thought that since June is months after March — which is six months after the insurrection in January — that things would have gone the other way,” Pape said. “Keep in mind: Trump has been de-platformed. There have been over 550 arrests to punish and process, through the criminal justice system, people who participated in the January 6 insurrection.

“There were reasons to think that things were cooling off and dying down or might have been cooling off and dying down. That’s not what we see. We see the opposite.”

This latest research is the second phase of the process, and the research team plans to do a stage three diagnostics and political risk assessment project to better understand what might be the most helpful interventions ahead of the midterm election season. Pape and his colleagues want to avoid offering any knee-jerk recommendations or overread the data, but instead allow the science to connect the dots via more and more survey and research snapshots.

“[The movement] is continuing,” Pape said. “It’s larger, it’s more dangerous — that’s what the data justifies now.”