- A small minority of extremists on both sides of the political spectrum express willingness to use violence to meet their political ends.
- The most consistent predictor of lethal partisanship is generally trait aggression.
- Previous research has found that people with extreme left-wing views tend to be higher on neuroticism than anyone else on the political spectrum.
Extreme partisanship is increasingly a feature of the American political landscape. A small but significant minority of extremists on either side of the political spectrum express willingness to use violence to meet their political ends. However, some research shows that violence is considered acceptable by a larger number on the left than on the right (Kalmoe & Mason, 2019). Authoritarian views are linked to support for violence on both the left and the right. Although authoritarians on the right and the left have much in common in terms of their psychological makeup (Costello et al., 2022), higher neuroticism among those on the extreme left may help account for their somewhat greater propensity for violence.
Research has attempted to understand the psychological basis of what can be called lethal partisanship (Kalmoe & Mason, 2019). This encompasses polarized political views in which ordinary citizens display moral disengagement (i.e., rationalizing harm to political opponents), political schadenfreude (deriving pleasure from an opponent’s suffering or wishing them harm), and support for actual violence, up to and including willingness to kill one’s opponents. A nationally representative American survey in 2017 found that while moral disengagement was fairly common (endorsed by over 60% of Republicans and Democrats), schadenfreude and acceptance of violence were endorsed only by small minorities (mostly, about 5-10%). Overall, Democrats were more willing to express schadenfreude than Republicans; for example, 17% of Democrats vs. 7% of Republicans reported ever wishing that someone would injure one or more politicians from the other party. For actual violence, there were mixed results: Asked whether, in general, violence is at least occasionally acceptable, 9% of both Republicans and Democrats agreed; however, regarding whether violence would be justified if the opposing party won the 2020 election, 18% of Democrats vs. 13% of Republicans agreed.
Importance of trait aggression
Kalmoe and Mason’s study also examined relationships between lethal partisanship and several other factors, including partisan social identity, ideological identity strength, age, sex, and trait aggressiveness (personality traits indicating proneness to verbal and physical aggression). The most consistent predictor of lethal partisanship was trait aggression, i.e., more aggressive individuals were more likely to show moral disengagement, schadenfreude, and approval of violence. Although partisan social identity was the strongest predictor of moral disengagement, it was a much weaker predictor of violence, and did not predict schadenfreude. Additionally, ideological identity strength was a moderate predictor of moral disengagement and schadenfreude but did not predict violence at all. Furthermore, although the researchers expected that younger rather than older people, and men rather than women would show more lethal partisanship, neither age nor sex predicted any of the variables.
Trait aggression is associated with violent and antisocial behavior in general, so it makes sense that it would also predict lethal partisanship. In terms of general personality, trait aggression is associated with low levels of the traits of agreeableness (prosocial concern) and conscientiousness (socially appropriate impulse control), and with high levels of neuroticism (distress proneness and emotional vulnerability) (Ang et al., 2004). It therefore may be interesting to examine whether these traits might be relevant to left vs. right differences in lethal partisanship. To understand this better, it may be helpful to look at research on authoritarianism, a set of ideological views that have been linked to political violence.
Left-wing vs. right-wing authoritarianism
People with authoritarian views in general advocate pressuring other people to conform to their own values, are intolerant of and prejudiced against different others, advocate coercion, aggression, and punitive measures against dissenters, and have a strong sense of moral absolutism. For a long time, psychologists largely equated authoritarianism with having right-wing views, yet more recent research has provided evidence that left-wing authoritarianism also exists (Costello et al., 2022). Where right-wing authoritarianism advocates coercion and punitive measures to enforce traditional values and defend the established order, left-wing authoritarianism does so to impose progressive egalitarian values and violently overthrow the capitalist system. Costello and colleagues performed a series of studies to shed light on the psychological characteristics of both left- and right-wing authoritarians. Despite their ideological differences, both right-wing and left-wing authoritarianism advocate autocratic, anti-democratic attitudes. However, left-wing authoritarians reported higher levels of lethal partisanship, including moral disengagement, partisan schadenfreude, and willingness to engage in partisan violence, as well as greater political intolerance and willingness to ban speakers with opposing political views.
In many respects, both groups were similar in personality and cognitive traits, for example, both groups showed similar levels of antagonistic traits that tend to be associated with violent behavior, such as psychopathic meanness, as well as similarly low levels of agreeableness and conscientiousness. On the other hand, left-wing authoritarians showed higher levels of neuroticism than their right-wing counterparts and were also more likely to believe that the world is a dangerous place. Costello and colleagues suggested that, compared to their right-wing counterparts, left-wing authoritarians may be more sensitive to threat and uncertainty.
Neuroticism as a risk factor for political violence
As I noted elsewhere (see here and here), previous research has found that people with extreme left-wing views tend to be higher on neuroticism than anyone else on the political spectrum, including the extreme right (Fatke, 2017; Gerber et al., 2011). Hence, it is not surprising that left-wing authoritarians would differ from their right-wing counterparts in this personality trait as well. As I noted earlier, trait aggressiveness predicts lethal partisanship, including violence, and is associated with low agreeableness and conscientiousness, and high neuroticism. Left-wing and right-wing authoritarians in Costello and colleagues’ research generally did not differ on agreeableness and conscientiousness, but did differ on neuroticism. This latter factor might help account for why people on the left may be somewhat more likely to advocate and engage in political violence than those on the right, perhaps because they see the world as a more threatening place and therefore find it easier to justify extreme measures. Of course, this would need to be tested with further research, but if true could have implications for interventions to prevent political radicalization and subsequent violence, as somewhat different approaches might be needed for those drawn to different ends of the political spectrum.
Ang, R. P., Ng, A.-K., Wong, S.-S., Lee, B.-O., Oei, T. P. S., & Leng, V. (2004). Relationship Between Big Five Traits and Aggression: A Comparison Between Undergraduates from Australia and Singapore. Journal of Psychology in Chinese Societies, 5(2), 291–305.
Costello, T. H., Bowes, S. M., Stevens, S. T., Waldman, I. D., Tasimi, A., & Lilienfeld, S. O. (2022). Clarifying the structure and nature of left-wing authoritarianism. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 122(1), 135–170. https://doi.org/10.1037/pspp0000341
Dam, V. H., Hjordt, L. V., da Cunha‐Bang, S., Sestoft, D., Knudsen, G. M., & Stenbæk, D. S. (2021). Trait aggression is associated with five‐factor personality traits in males. Brain and Behavior, 11(7), e02175. https://doi.org/10.1002/brb3.2175
Fatke, M. (2017). Personality Traits and Political Ideology: A First Global Assessment. Political Psychology, 38(5), 881–899. https://doi.org/10.1111/pops.12347
Gerber, A. S., Huber, G. A., Doherty, D., & Dowling, C. M. (2011). The Big Five Personality Traits in the Political Arena. Annual Review of Political Science, 14(1), 265–287. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-polisci-051010-111659
Kalmoe, N. P., & Mason, L. (2019, January). Lethal Mass Partisanship: Prevalence, Correlates, & Electoral Contingencies. National Capital Area Political Science Association American Politics Meeting. https://www.dannyhayes.org/uploads/6/9/8/5/69858539/kalmoe___mason_ncap…