Robert Pape
Big Brains podcst

Will political violence destroy our democracy? with Robert Pape (Ep. 121)

Terrorism expert examines distrust in government and threats of political violence ahead of the 2024 election

Robert Pape
Big Brains podcst

Show Notes

Since the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol, University of Chicago Prof. Robert Pape has been closely observing the threats to our democracy. Now, the renowned terrorism expert and director of the Chicago Project on Security and Threats (CPOST) says that violent ideas coming from a dedicated minority are moving from fringe to mainstream.

In 2021, Pape's team, along with NORC at the University of Chicago, launched the Dangers to Democracy tracker, an ongoing series of surveys to track Americans' thoughts and attitudes about political violence. In one recent survey, about 12 million Americans said they believe violence is justified to restore Trump to power. Still, Pape believes the data may give us some answers about how to move forward, and how to strengthen the center.

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(Episode published October 5, 2023)

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Paul Rand: Big Brains is supported by UChicago’s Online Master of Liberal Arts program, which empowers learners to think deeply, communicate clearly, and act purposely in both personal and professional lives. Choose from optional concentrations on ethics and leadership, literary studies and tech and society. Learn more at

It’s a phrase that has dominated the headlines for the last three years. Democracy is in danger.

Tape: Is our democracy in danger?

Tape: Threats to American democracy.

Tape: Do you feel like our democracy is under threat right now?

Tape: I do.

Tape: Democracy advocates admit freedoms are eroding and authoritarianism is rising.

Paul Rand: In 2019, the threats to democracy seemed rhetorical, procedural, even abstract.

Tape: The rise of misinformation surrounding the 2020 election is creating serious ongoing problems for U.S. election officials.

Tape: Millions more Americans are expected to vote by mail due to the pandemic despite claims by the president, it will lead to voter fraud.

Tape: There are fears that there might be voter intimidation or even voter confrontation.

Tape: And will you pledge tonight that you will not declare victory until the election has been independently certified? President Trump, you go first.

Donald Trump: I’m urging my supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully.

Tape: What happens if President Trump refuses to leave the White House?

Paul Rand: But these threats were not realized, that is until January 6, 2021.

Robert Pape: All of a sudden, John, we’re told there’s not only a lockdown inside the U.S. Capitol, but all these senators, including the Vice President of the United States, they’ve been evacuated out of safety concerns.

Paul Rand: One of the people watching the violent events of that day, like the rest of us, was University of Chicago, professor Robert Pape, but unlike many, he wasn’t surprised.

Robert Pape: Unfortunately, I was actually quite worried about January 6th, months before January 6th.

Paul Rand: Pape is a professor of political science who has spent his career focused on international security affairs and is the director of the Chicago Project on Security and Threats.

Robert Pape: We have a talking head show, Chicago Tonight. Your listeners can go to this and see my October 5, 2020 interview. And I explained that what’s occurring here is right out of the playbook of a lot of fearmongers in other countries, and I warned that the real problem wasn’t going to be so much on election day. No, the core issue here is literally counting the vote all the way through January 6th. You could hear an audible gasp by the interviewer because that was way outside of the mainstream at that point.

Paul Rand: Up until January 6th, Pape had studied global terrorism, suicide bombings and economic sanctions. But after that historic day, he shifted his focus entirely to domestic threats of violence.

Robert Pape: This wasn’t just a hypothetical issue, this wasn’t just academic talk anymore. And so, ever since then, pretty much 24/7, myself, several other key researchers, have been focused on this problem and so have been our research teams.

Paul Rand: In 2021, his team along with the N-O-R-C, or NORC, at the University of Chicago launched the Dangers to Democracy Survey, which regularly tracks Americans’ thoughts and attitudes about political violence.

Robert Pape: Because see, our dangers to democracy tracker is a multidimensional set of questions, not just a narrow band of questions. And so you can really see that we can really interact and track changes, we can even run experimental designs with our surveys.

Paul Rand: What they’ve uncovered about support for political violence in America is frightening, and if you think this is just a right wing issue, think again.

Robert Pape: This is just becoming part and parcel now of our politics, and this is new. At 63, I can say I have experience, I experienced the Hanging Chad problem with Al Gore. That was nothing compared to this.

Paul Rand: But it’s not all doom and gloom. The surveys have also shown a possible pathway out of this impending crisis.

Robert Pape: It’s been very helpful, I think, to have somebody who comes at these issues of the democracy, the dangers to our democracy, not from the perspective of voting, but from the perspective of political violence. And that opens new questions that often leads to new understandings.

Paul Rand: Welcome to Big Brains, where we translate the biggest ideas and complex discoveries into digestible brain food. Big Brains, little bites, from the University of Chicago Podcast Network. I’m your host, Paul Rand. On today’s episode, the Violent Threats to Democracy and How to Stop Them.

You, of course, have a career as a political scientist, and when you got going you were focused on international security affairs, but in the near term you’ve been very focused on domestic security. And I wonder if you can tell us why the evolution and how did you get to this current place?

Robert Pape: I’ve been focused virtually my entire career on political violence overseas. It began to change for me in March 2020, right at the beginning of the pandemic. I saw the government fumbling and therefore I worried there might be mass deaths, and there were mass deaths. But because of my work on political violence, I went a step further. I began to worry that mass deaths would lead to deep problems of legitimacy for our government. Because you see, Paul, when we deal with, say, terrorism overseas, the number one thing we’re interested in... Well, among the things we’re interested I should say, is how widespread is the belief that the current government, the local government in the country is illegitimate, and the more illegitimate, the more support there is for violence in the country and the more violence therefore. Then what’s the heart of the worry about legitimacy? It’s whether the government is increasing your lifespan or reducing it. And once the government itself is either through incompetence or corruption or malicious behavior causing insecurity in the body politic-

Paul Rand: Or decreasing lifespan.

Robert Pape: Or decreasing lifespan, that is right at the heart then of the general engine that starts to generate support for political violence and more political violence itself. I do think that we can see some of the key answers in our dangers to democracy research that we’re doing.

Paul Rand: Can I ask you a question before you jump into the findings? We use this word democracy, dangers to democracy, and in some ways we run the risk of thinking, we all think of democracy as being the same thing, as you say something like dangers to democracy, what does democracy mean in the context of how you’re studying it?

Robert Pape: It means first and foremost, two core norms, values. One is free and fair elections, and therefore government. Core norm value number two is restraint in the use of force in settling our political disputes. If you don’t have those core values, then all the institutional structures, checks and balances, all the details of the institutional form we have, they just don’t mean anything.

Paul Rand: As you talk now about dangers to democracy, what you’re saying is there are dangers to our ability to hold free elections and our ability to do so without violence to get what you want.

Robert Pape: That’s exactly right. That’s why I talk about political and violent dangers to democracy.

Paul Rand: Since 2021, NORC and the Chicago project on security and threats, which Pape directs, have regularly surveyed Americans about their attitudes toward democracy and political violence.

Robert Pape: We now conduct nationally representative surveys. These are probability samples, that’s the gold standard of these surveys, these are not opt-in panels that are cheap. And we’ve been doing them for two solid years. And that has also given us an opportunity to really test out what’s happening inside of the body politic for support for anti-democratic attitudes, support for political violence. And this is yielding some very important findings.

Paul Rand: There are many fascinating findings from these surveys, but they can be roughly divided into two buckets. How much do Americans believe in democracy and what is their appetite for political violence?

When it comes to the first, it appears as if one of the biggest dangers to democracy is that we’re losing our faith in it altogether.

Robert Pape: One of the things that’s really helpful to know, Paul, is that this idea, the belief that our democratic institutions are deeply corrupt is an anchor.

Paul Rand: In a recent survey, an estimated 134 million Americans said elections won’t solve America’s fundamental problems. 139 million said a small group of elites control all the levers of power and enrich themselves at the cost of normal Americans. 40% of Americans share at least one of these sentiments

Robert Pape: That is similar to what happened among the Germans in the 1920s, or the Russians in the 1990s. But Carl Schmitt wrote a brilliant book called The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy to explain the rise of Nazis when basically, why did ordinary Germans choose authoritarianism? What he shows in this book is that it’s the belief that the elected parliament was so deeply corrupt and only interested the elites only for themselves, that the public chose authoritarian outcomes and even violent authoritarian outcomes as the lesser of two evils.

Paul Rand: Historically and globally, when you see issues that are emerging that have become problematic, one of the tipping points is that the citizens do not think that they will be as well or better off personally than they would’ve been in a previous iteration. One of the other questions that come up is, will you say, “Do you agree that if your preferred candidate for president does not win, that that would have grave consequences for your well-being?” And 28% of Republicans agreed with that and 31% of Democrats agreed with that. That’s a lot of people that are in danger of falling into that chasm of saying they are worse off or in danger because of who was elected politically.

Robert Pape: Thank you for bringing up that finding. That finding, that question goes back to Barrington Moore. When I was a graduate student in the 1980s taking comparative exams and the origins of democracy, Barrington Moore’s work was very prominent. Barrington Moore had a very simple argument. He said, “If people believe they’re going to lose their home as a result of the outcome of the election, they’re not going to be very pro-democracy.” Because they’re pro home first, they want to keep their home. So it’s very important that the outcome of elections not threaten private property, home ownership, the basic wealth of the people.

And so what you’re seeing is the more that people believe that the elections really will determine in significant ways their finances or their kids’ finances, even if it hasn’t happened yet, the more our survey respondents believe that our elections are so corrupt, they can’t solve America’s fundamental problems. That our leaders are so corrupt, that is both democratic and Republican leaders, are so corrupt that they’re the most immoral people in all of America. The more they believe, not just the 2020 election was stolen, but that the 2024 election is already so rigged that their party can’t win the more they support violence to achieve political outcomes.

Paul Rand: As Pape said, the first big finding leads directly into the second, that Americans are becoming much more comfortable with political violence, what that means and how to reverse course after the break.

Big Brains are supported by UChicago’s Online Master of Liberal Arts program, which empowers learners to think deeply, communicate clearly, and act purposely in both personal and professional lives. Choose from optional concentrations in ethics and leadership, literary studies, and tech and society. Learn

In a June 2023 survey, an estimated 44 million Americans said that force is justified to coerce Congress or government officials to do the right thing. In other words, 17% of the country believes that violence is justified to meet their political ends.

Robert Pape: One of the big things that we see in the support, especially the violence support for Trump, that we see in our surveys, which has grown since the Trump indictments, it is anchored very much in the belief that our democratic institutions are corrupt.

Paul Rand: We’ve had other guests on our Big Brains podcast, and you do have a sense that the loud voices on both sides that are out there are having us as a country swirling the drain. And other researchers will come in and say, “You know something? That’s a myth.” What you have is fringe voices at each end, but the overwhelming, overwhelming number of Americans really are concerned about the same things, have the same worries, and these are fringe elements that have always existed, it’s just that they have bigger megaphones now than they have, but it’s really just not that extreme.

Robert Pape: I would just sharpen that a little bit. The fringe is not 1% of America who are the supporters of violence and extremism and radicalism, it’s closer to 10% on each side, and that’s quite a large number because that’s 25 million on each side, or 50 million adults. We have to be very careful here. This is really the mainstream now, this is not just supporting a 300 oath keepers or proud boys. This is serious.

Paul Rand: Pape has documented this shift into the mainstream with another research project studying the arrest records of people from January 6th.

Robert Pape: This was not mainly Oath Keepers and Proud Boys, that’s only about 10% of the crowd. 90% are not Oath Keepers and proud boys. They are doctors, lawyers, gynecologists. They are business owners, they’re executives. This is really mainstream and even affluent Americans who are literally pounding police with flag poles, signs, bloody combat. The other element that we found over the last few years, we haven’t talked much about the great replacement idea. We are going through a giant demographic change in our country from a majority white country to whites becoming a minority. In 1960, Paul, nearly 90% of Americans were white. And I mean non-Hispanic white. Whites are going to be a minority.

And you’re seeing a change. You’re seeing this affect our politics now because even though this has been occurring for many decades, Paul, it’s now coming to the point of a transition. There are political figures, Donald Trump, there’s media figures, Tucker Carlson, who have made a living in gains out of causing fear about this thing called The Great Replacement as they refer to it. Well, what this is doing is it’s scaring large parts of the body politic here about why there might be possibly corruption. You see what I mean? And so what you’re getting is something that this is now bubbling up, but it’s also, even if Donald Trump were to disappear tomorrow, I’m not at all sure these problems would disappear.

Paul Rand: But it may surprise some listeners to learn that increasing support for political violence is actually a bipartisan phenomenon.

Robert Pape: When Donald Trump is vocalizing that the election is rigged, imagine if that had really happened on the Democratic side, where a Democratic president had lost and said, “No, I didn’t really lose. It was rigged.” This would be very difficult for tens of millions of Democrats to swallow as well. So this issue of political rhetoric has always been a critical issue in political violence overseas. It’s critical issue of not just terrorist group leaders, but leaders like Slobodan Milošević in Serbia, which led up to the Bosnian Civil War. This issue of political rhetoric by mainstream political figures, that’s incendiary and goes at the heart of Democratic beliefs, this has happened before, it just never happened really in the United States before to this extent. And there is a dog that’s not barking as loud for Democrats as it is for Republicans, and that’s political violence, but it’s not because the raw sentiments are not there.

Paul Rand: If this all sounds pretty bad, it’s because it is. But if you’ve listened to previous Big Brains episode, you know that it’s often best to approach surveys with a healthy dose of skepticism. I asked Pape, how seriously should we take these responses? One of the questions is, elections will not solve America’s fundamental problems. I guess the question is, all these things, of course, turn to how are questions phrased. So as a question like this, I would expect an answer to this when I have a question phrased like this. Well, of course they’re not going to, because the question is leading me to believe that elections will not solve.

Robert Pape: Any one question, Paul, can be a leading the witness style of question. It’s literally impossible for that to be not the case, which is why we do two things in our surveys here to try to test that or counteract those kind of effects. The first thing we do is we have multiple different questions, and what we do is we flip the direction of the question. So instead of saying, “Do you agree on X, Y or Z?” We try to lead you the other way. “Do you disagree on X, Y, or Z?” To try to lead the witness going in the other direction.

The second thing we do is we have multiple different questions going in very different ways. Then the third thing we do, and we do this especially for the words that are the most controversial around political violence, is we do experimental approaches. Some people have wondered, what is our wording? We have a certain wording that we like to use at CPOST because we stress tested it in experiments, and that is the use of force is justified for X, and then we fill in the X with many different things.

Well, what we have done is we have stress tested what that phrase means, the use of force, and we do it not in ways that are... It’s the highest standard, which are experimental standards. What that means is we pay the money, which is big money, to run in the same survey, say 1,500 or 2,000 respondents who literally answer the question phrase just that way. Then we have another pool of 1,500 or 2,000 who have that very same question, but then we add the phrase, “Even if some are injured or killed.” And then we can compare directly the two different means of the two different populations. We also do focus groups where we just ask open-ended questions, and these are to people that have answered our surveys. What do you think that phrasing means? They almost always think, “It means even if some people are injured or killed, like January 6th.” Which was the intent we as the researchers had when we did that, but there’s no way to know whether that intent was met.

And then we have reported those results and they’re really quite close and so that’s why we’ve stuck with the wording. We really take seriously that there’s possibilities of leading the witness. There’s possibilities of only one question. There’s possibilities of random box checking. There’s possibilities that we as experts think we know what a phrase means, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the respondents think the same way. So we have done every possible different approach here, Paul, and we can do it because every three months we got another crack at this. I also want to let your audience know that they’re being published in The Guardian, this big international newspaper, every three months so they can go find the story. Kira Lerner is one of the journalists publishing the stories about this. So they can go and find it, you don’t just have to go to our website now, and that’s going to happen every three months between now and the 2024 election.

Paul Rand: Before you get too depressed about the upcoming election and the future of our country, Pape thinks there’s a way out of this and a silver lining in the data from the survey.

Robert Pape: President Biden has been a strong calming force explicitly, vocally opposed to political violence. If your listeners will go to President Biden’s June 22nd, 2022 speech, when the decision by the Supreme Court to overturn Roe came out, your listeners will find in the June 22nd Biden-Roe speech, a big fat paragraph condemning would be violence on the left. Now, that hasn’t happened very much. It’s easy for politicians that condemn violence by the other party, what President Biden has done, and this speech, there’s no mistaking it, he has challenged Democrats that yes, be angry, but come and channel your anger into voting. Now, some Democrats have pushed back at President Biden on that. They want somebody to say, “He’s not tough enough. He won’t fight enough.”

I think that this is quite important. The more these anti-democratic and support for violence sentiments have gone into the mainstream, the more it’s incumbent upon democratic leaders to channel the anger that’s occurring in the country toward peaceful political solutions and to be explicitly opposed to political violence even by their own side. And what we need to do is we need to have bipartisan approaches to this. The idea that Democrats here will come up with an outcome, and then Republicans will just agree, I don’t think so. I think better to try to have a cooperative approach, and that’s a big thing. We need to go in this more positive way because this is how we’re going to strengthen the center. And I believe this is how we’re going to strengthen, not just save, but strengthen democracy

Paul Rand: And the silver lining.

Robert Pape: This is the good news in our surveys, which is that 80% of Americans, and that’s 80% of Republicans, as well as 80% of Democrats, abhor political violence.

Robert Pape: They support bipartisan solutions where they support the idea of Republicans and Democrats together in a joint statement condemning political violence. And it turns out there’s way more who strongly agree with that than just agree with that. So that this is something that we really need to lean into as a country, the idea of bipartisan cooperation to save democracy. And in fact, on September 26th at the University of Chicago, CPOST, our center, in cooperation with The Guardian is having a bipartisan event where not formers, but serving frontline officials from different parties, Michigan, Georgia, Arizona, with a community organizer as well, will be on the stage talking about dangers to democracy in the 2024 election.

And that’s coming Paul, right out of our research. And it’s really important because a lot of people talk about saving democracy, but in echo chambers. And often it means, “As long as my side win, of course we’ve saved democracy.” No, we need to come back to these two values I identified at the beginning of our podcast here and really see that it is in all of our interests to have free and fair elections and government, and all of our interests to have restraint in the use of force to settle political disputes

Paul Rand: In the beginning, you were talking about an early interview you gave where you talked about the Capitol riots and seeing the signs on the wall that something like that was going to be occurring. Let’s put your prediction hat back on. We’re gearing up toward the 2024 election. What’s going to happen based on the polling that you’re doing, the comments that you’re getting, the indictments that are happening, what do you think you’re going to look back on post-election and say, “The seeds for this were pretty obvious”?

Robert Pape: Well, there’s two issues here, Paul. I’ve never predicted we are heading towards civil war. I’ve always thought that was too extreme. I’ve studied political violence and civil wars for 30 years, but I do think there’s two things to worry about. Number one, are lone wolf attacks, including assassination attempts, and that’s essentially what the Pelosi attack was.

Tape: New video just released showing an intruder, breaking into the home of then House Speaker Nancy Pelosi attacking her husband with a hammer.

Robert Pape: That’s also what the would-be attacker who was arrested in front of Obama’s home with lots of guns in June.

Tape: District of Columbia police have arrested a man suspected of threatening to blow up former President Barack Obama’s home here in Washington. Authorities say he had the materials necessary to make an explosive device similar to a Molotov cocktail.

Robert Pape: Also the Kavanaugh would be attacker.

Tape: A California man is facing federal charges for the attempted murder of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, the suspect was arrested near Kavanaugh’s home in Maryland.

Robert Pape: If one of those really succeeded in a big way, this would be a major challenge for our democracy. But those are not easy for law enforcement to stop. Unfortunately, the lone wolf kinds of terrorism that’s being inspired by this mantle of legitimacy that the supporters of Trump think this a good thing is unfortunately a danger. We’re going through a very precarious next year, and it will probably get worse as the trials and the primaries kickoff. But then there’s also the issue of mass collective violence like we saw on January 6th. I think that it’s true that law enforcement and some elements of the public are frustrated, they were expecting indictment for Trump might lead to mass violence like January 6th. I’ve never thought that. In fact, I’ve been telling a lot of the New York Times reporters, but when they call me that that’s not the most likely thing.

And they’re shocked because, “And why not?” It’s because Trump’s winning. Now, if Trump ends up going to jail, he ends up being gagged, that could be a different story. And it’s because we have a long-term shift that’s occurring, and there’s a lot of incentives for the fearmongers to make political gains and to make financial gains or become popular in the media. What’s missing is mobilizing the 80% in the center, that’s missing. Just mobilizing one side or the other, that’s not going to help things. And so what I’m saying is we really do need to have these more bipartisan approaches, and I think that’s something that we should all, as Americans, lean into and we can support that.

Matt Hodapp: Big Brains is a production of the University of Chicago Podcast Network. We’re sponsored by the Graham School. Are you a lifelong learner with an insatiable curiosity? Access more than 50 open enrollment courses every quarter. Learn more at If you like what you heard on our podcast, please leave us a rating and review.

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