Sean Jeremy Westwood - Measuring Rare Attitudes

Encina Hall West, room 400

Political scientists, pundits, and citizens worry that America is entering a new period of violent partisan conflict. Provocative survey data show that a large share of Americans (between 8% and 40%) support politically motivated violence. Yet, despite media attention, political violence is rare, amounting to a little more than 1% of violent hate crimes in the United States. We reconcile these seemingly conflicting facts with four large survey experiments (n = 4,904), demonstrating that self-reported attitudes on political violence are biased upward because of respondent disengagement and survey questions that allow multiple interpretations of political violence. Addressing question wording and respondent disengagement, we find that the median of existing estimates of support for partisan violence is nearly 6 times larger than the median of our estimates (18.5% versus 2.9%). Critically, we show the prior estimates overstate support for political violence because of random responding by disengaged respondents. Respondent disengagement also inflates the relationship between support for violence and previously identified correlates by a factor of 4. Partial identification bounds imply that, under generous assumptions, support for violence among engaged and disengaged respondents is, at most, 6.86%. Finally, nearly all respondents support criminally charging suspects who commit acts of political violence. These findings suggest that, although recent acts of political violence dominate the news, they do not portend a new era of violent conflict.


Sean Westwood is an Associate Professor in the Department of Government at Dartmouth College. He studies political behavior and public opinion, examining how partisanship and information from political elites affect the behavior of citizens. His work focuses on understanding where partisan biases originate, where they manifest (inside and outside political domains), and their bounds.

His work has been covered by The New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Slate, Vox, Foreign Affairs, New Republic, Newsweek, ABC, CBS, CNN, Fortune, Financial Times, Bloomberg, NPR, New York Magazine, USA Today and other local outlets.