Extremism at Denison?

By Zach Broeren

For the four years I have been here, Denison has prided itself as being an institution where people can peacefully deliberate across differences, whether that be social values, political values, or whether you think Curtis or Huff is better. I have experienced this too – as an active member of the Denison Debate Society and the Denison Libertarians I have found that there are large numbers of students on campus who want to have these debates and learn from people unlike themselves. Unfortunately, not all students are like this.

One of the most worrying trends in politics is the rise in support for violence against those who disagree with you. At its very core, it is the antithesis of democracy, where you deliberately break the law and seek violence to intimidate, silence, and remove those who disagree with you rather than voting and debating. Only slightly better than those who deliberately carry out the violence are those who actively support those groups in conducting their violence. The January 6th insurrection may have only been carried out by a couple thousand people, but in the nearly two years since it has been supported by millions. Twenty years ago, it wasn’t worth the time of- American political scientists to ask questions about violence on surveys, but these days nearly four in ten Republicans support violence against people they disagree with and Democrats aren’t far behind.

How much different is Denison from the general population in terms of supporting violence? Are Denisonians blessed by the grace of a liberal arts education and see reason or do they fall to the same bloodthirsty habits of mind that millions of Americans have? In the October 2022 survey, we asked a number of questions using the ARIS scale (Activism and Radicalism Intention Scale) about whether Denisonians would support breaking the law and committing violence against those they disagree with.

There are many Denisonians who condone breaking the law and supporting violence on behalf of their political ends. When asked if they would still support an organization that fights for their group’s rights but sometimes breaks the law, 47.0% of Denisonains said yes while only 23.2% said no and 29.8% were unsure. Furthermore, if asked if they would support an organization that fights for their rights even if the organization sometimes resorts to violence, 18.8% of Denisonians said yes while 52.4% said no, and 28.8% were unsure.

Support remains high for active participation in potentially violent situations. When asked if they would participate in a public protest against oppression if they thought the protest would turn violent, Denisonians were pretty evenly split, 36.3% saying yes, 37.7% saying no, and 26% saying they were unsure. When asked if they would attack police if they saw them beating members of their group, a lesser but still sizable amount of Denisonians said yes, at 17.8% while 45.8% said no and 37.1% said they were unsure. The notion that Denison students would not support political violence at all is unfortunately a completely unfounded notion as many students have made it abundantly clear that they would support political violence. Fully 63 percent of students support at least one of these conditions. Are Denison students any different from the general population?

Using data from a recent blog post by Dr. Djupe we can see that Denisonians are somewhat similar or more likely to support political violence. Interestingly enough, the percentage of students who said yes to supporting an organization that sometimes commits violence and would attack security forces if they attacked their group was the exact same as the general population down to the tenth of a percentage point, at 18.8% and 17.1% respectively. However, Denisonians are much more willing to do the others – 47% of Denisonians are willing to support an organization that sometimes breaks the law compared to 24.3% of the general population and 36.3% would support an organization if their protests might turn violent compared to 22.2% of the general population. Furthermore, there is much more uncertainty for Denisonians, as for each question there was a higher percentage of Denisonians that selected “Not Sure” compared to the general population.

Partisanship has been at the core of conversations about political violence. Right wingers have been accused of violence at events such as the January 6th insurrection or intimidating voters in recent elections (26% of Americans think violence at the upcoming election is very or somewhat likely). Left wingers have been accused of supporting violence at many BLM protests in 2020 when some protests descended into violent and fiery riots with some fueled by police overreaction. Is political extremism linked to partisanship at Denison?

Yes. Those who lean to the left are more willing to support organizations that would turn to violence in pursuit of their goals than right wingers. Moreover, strong Democrats are more likely to support their organization even if the organization was to break the law. It should be noted that there are not enough strong Republicans to confidently compute statistics in this sample – only four people selected strong Republican on the survey.

This divide holds up for ideology as well, not just partisanship. When looking at different ideological groups, Lefties are more likely to support at least one extreme group position, with 88% of students who identify as socialist supporting one, 78% of progressives, and 70% of liberals. Support from the right wingers is much lower, with only 32% of conservatives saying they support one and 43% of Libertarians. The black sheep in this graph is the alt-right, where 80% (i.e., 4 out of 5 people) at least support one extreme group position, which isn’t surprising because of the culture surrounding the alt-right.

Generally speaking, political protests are started because there is some perceived injustice in the world and the group that generates the protest feels wronged. A classic distinction is socio-economic status, as those without economic and political power are more likely to be wronged. But do those that belong to the lower and lower-middle classes support violence more so than their wealthier classmates? Overall, they generally do. Denison students who identify with the lower-middle class are the most willing to support organizations that do violence (40%) and support mostly drops off as the upper-class students at Denison only support organizations that use violence 17.4% of the time. It is interesting that upper-middle class students would support a violent group at the same rate as members of the lower class (31%). Another trend from the lower to upper class is the decline in uncertainty. 27.6% of lower class students and 19% of lower-middle class students are unsure if they would support an organization that uses violence, compared to 10.9% of the upper class students that are unsure.

It unfortunately appears that Denison is not an exception from the general population in their support for political violence, whether it is outright breaking the law, potentially using violence, supporting an organization if their protests turn violent, or attacking cops. This is highly concerning, as no matter your self-righteous political aim nor how justified you feel morally, any type of violence is the antithesis to a functioning democracy. I actively encourage Denison students who see their friends taking extreme positions to talk to them about their views and see if you can de-escalate their extremism.

Zach Broeren is currently applying to graduate school and is hoping for one acceptance, or he fears he will have to become a consultant.

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