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Sunday, May 26, 2024

Democracy and political violence can’t coexist

Recent attack on Paul Pelosi is an example of how democracy is being threatened by extremist ideology


By CLAIRE SCHAD — cfschad@ucdavis.edu 

There is no denying that violence is intricately woven into the history of the U.S. In times of transition, those who oppose radical change lash out. This can be done through protest, showing up at the ballot box, or if all else fails, resorting to violence. And, unfortunately, violence gets attention. Or, at least it used to.

Former president Abraham Lincoln was assassinated just eight months before the ratification of the 13th Amendment, which aimed to abolish slavery in the U.S. Many Southerners opposed the amendment causing political unrest. John Wilkes Booth claimed that in assassinating Lincoln, he was acting for his country, standing up to the supposed “tyranny” promoted by Lincoln that was tearing America apart and doing what he thought was right. “Tell Mother I die for my country” were his famous last words

This use of violence in the name of “protecting the country” might seem familiar. Maybe because we saw it from those who participated in the insurrection at the Capitol on Jan. 6, the men in Michigan who planned to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer or more recently from David DePape, the man who had plotted to hold House Speaker Nancy Pelosi hostage. These individuals all had something in common. They all believed that attacking political figures would help save the country from the supposed danger those politicians posed. 

When DePape entered Paul and Nancy Pelosi’s San Francisco home in the early morning hours of Oct. 28 he had one goal: to send a threatening message to Democrats in power. “Where is Nancy?” DePape called out repeatedly when entering the home. 

He had planned to hold the Speaker of the House hostage and interrogate her about her political decisions and motives. According to a federal affidavit, DePape planned to break Pelosi’s kneecaps if he had reason to suspect she was lying, in order to send a threatening message to other members of Congress that there were consequences to their actions.

DePape had a history of following fringe right-wing conspiracy theories online. He had a blog where he frequently shared QAnon conspiracy theories and memes that showed support for far-right media personalities. Many of these posts were hateful towards Black, Jewish and transgender people, Democrats and the news outlets. He also had demonstrated support for the idea that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from former President Donald Trump —  a commonly-held belief among individuals committing acts of political violence. 

The House Speaker was fortunately not home when DePape broke into her house, but her husband, Paul, was. After a struggle to calm the intruder, Paul Pelosi was able to slip into a bathroom and call 911. But he wasn’t able to escape without injury. DePape struck him in the head with a hammer, fracturing his skull and leaving him incapacitated on the floor. Thankfully, after undergoing surgery and remaining in the hospital for multiple days, he is expected to recover.

While the attack on Paul Pelosi was appalling, it was clearly not an isolated incident. This is yet another act of political terrorism that is increasingly plaguing the U.S. Terrorism, defined as a violent act aimed at attaining an ideological goal, with an intention to coerce or intimidate, has increased dramatically in the U.S. in recent years. More specifically, in the years since Donald Trump was elected president, the U.S. has seen the number of recorded threats against elected officials increase tenfold since 2016, with over 9,600 threats in 2021. These acts of threatened or attempted violence have become expected.

While violence is woven into every corner of U.S. history, the nature of the violence has changed in recent years. Extremist groups and individuals no longer see elections as valid, resulting in individuals feeling compelled to forcefully intimidate or remove elected officials from seats of power.

 In recent years, attempted attacks on political figures and candidates have become normalized. Even more concerning, elected officials are spreading rhetoric of violence against their own colleagues, providing motivation for violent individuals to step in.

Each planned, attempted or successful attack threatens our democratic system. Political violence cannot continue to rise and, more importantly, all political figures must reject the violent rhetoric of their colleagues outright.

Whether you support them or not, all elected political officials deserve to live free of targeted violence. Representatives in the U.S. government must work together to dismantle dangerous extremist groups before it is too late.


Written by: Claire Schad — cfschad@ucdavis.edu 


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