Medved: Overstating the dangers to Democracy

Jun 23, 2023, 4:48 PM | Updated: 5:19 pm

danger to democracy...

Supporters of US President Donald Trump storm into the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, in Washington, DC. (Photo by Stringer/AFP via Getty Images)

(Photo by Stringer/AFP via Getty Images)

An alarming new poll suggests that more than 10 million Americans feel ready to use violence to achieve political goals, but carelessness with language greatly overstates the danger to democracy.

The National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago is one of the most respected operations in the world when it comes to sampling public sentiment, but their latest “Dangers to Democracy” survey falters – badly – when it uses the words “violence” and “force” interchangeably.

In asking questions of some 50,000 respondents, they inquired how many adults would agree with the statement “Force is justified to restore Trump to the White House” or “Force is justified to restore abortion rights.” Their numbers indicated that some 12 million adults favored force to bring Trump back to power, while nearly twice as many (22 million) endorsed force for the sake of rebuilding the guarantees previously assured by the Supreme Court.

These responses may shock more moderate observers and conjure fears of brutal civil conflict, but the context in which the organization presented its data qualifies as seriously misleading.

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All the questions about justifying force appeared under the inappropriate heading “Support For Political Violence,” even though the word “violence” never appeared in any of the statements for which the pollsters solicited a reaction. Force and violence are, emphatically, not the same thing. While they might find 32 million who agree with the proposition that “force is justified to coerce Congress or government officials,” chances are the number ready to use “violence” for that coercion would have proved far more modest.

The government, for instance, employs force to lay down the law on speeding, shoplifting, or public nudity – that’s why we use the phrase enforcing the law. But violence on these issues occurs only when something goes terribly wrong, on the part of the citizens or the authorities. Resorting to force can involve peaceful protests of every sort, from strikes and boycotts to mass demonstrations, as well as the actions of the duly designated authorities. The language that describes the purpose of such organized action as to “coerce Congress or government officials” suggests just that sort of forceful persuasion — not a violent effort to overthrow the government itself or to lurch toward anarchy and disorder.

Dictionaries recognize the crucial distinction between force and violence. The most common synonyms for the noun “force” (according to Oxford Languages) are coercion, compulsion, constraint, duress, threats, pressure, and influence. The term “violence” never appears as a common substitute for “force.” Meanwhile, the list of words that equate most closely to “violence” includes brutality, ferocity, savagery, cruelty, sadism, barbarity, inhumanity, and ruthlessness.

Does anyone actually believe that a significant share of Americans would authorize the deployment of those characteristics in order to facilitate Trump’s return to power or the restoration of abortion rights? In that context, the press release associated with the University of Chicago survey clearly overstates the danger of civil strife when it trumpets its results with the sentence: “More than two and a half years after the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capital, a new study estimates some 12 million Americans would support violence to restore former President Donald Trump to power.”

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Since the language of the survey never mentioned violence at all, it’s a dispiriting slander to assume that all those who would like to bring about Trump’s return, or changes in abortion regulation, are ready to inflict death or injury to accomplish such purposes.

Without question, the present polarization in the country counts as troubling and regrettable, but exaggerating its brutal and violent nature will only exacerbate, rather than heal, the divisions that dismay us.

Listen to Michael Medved weekday afternoons from 12 – 3 p.m. on KTTH 770 AM (or HD Radio 97.3 FM HD-Channel 3).

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Medved: Overstating the dangers to Democracy