Shooting By Sanders Supporter is a Harsh Reminder of the Vitriol in Politics

“The growing vitriol between increasingly partisan Americans may be encouraging a climate of violence.”

By now, you already know that Republican lawmakers were the target of a brutal and unjustifiable shooting in Virginia. House majority whip Steve Scalise was shot several times and has been hospitalized. He appears to be in critical but stable condition. Several other Republican lawmakers witnessed the carnage.

The shooter, “socialist democrat” James Hodgkinson, wasn’t so lucky, succumbing to wounds received in a shootout with police officers. This shooting is a harsh reminder of the growing vitriol in American politics where violence between liberal and conservative hard-liners is only becoming more common, with both sides committing inexcusable violence.

The shooting occurred during an early morning baseball practice. The shooter, Hodgkinson, appears to have been an ardent Bernie Sanders supporter and opposed President Trump. His choice of targets was almost certainly not random and was likely premeditated. Hodgkinson is from Illinois but has been staying in the DC area for at least six weeks.

Besides Scalise, two police officers were wounded during the shooting. Senator Paul Rand, who witness the event, has hailed the police officers and credited them for preventing a far worse tragedy. The police officers present were there to guard Scalise.

Hodgkinson already had a track record with the police before the shooting. He had previously been charged with assault and battery for punching a woman in the face with a closed fist. He also confronted that woman’s boyfriend with a shotgun, reportedly firing one shot in the air. Apparently, he also physically abused his daughter, and police were called when he started shooting several pine trees on his property. Neighbors were worried that bullets would strike nearby homes.

Hodgkinson also claimed to be a “democratic socialist” on his social media profiles. Writing to the Belleville News-Democrat, he stated, “I don’t ever again want to hear how great a president [Ronald Reagan] was. All he did was give tax breaks to the rich and put the rest of the country (or at least 13.1 percent) out of work.” He added, “To think the Republican Party can call this man their idol is un-American. It’s all about the money.”

Hodgkinson was very active on Facebook as well. Online, he called President Trump a “traitor” and stated that “it’s time to destroy Trump & Co.” He also expressed hatred for Hillary Clinton and was an ardent supporter of Bernie Sanders. Apparently, he also volunteered for Sanders’ campaign.

Bernie Sanders harshly denounced the attack in a tweet:

Americans Increasingly Polarized

This violent outburst comes as Americans have grown more politically polarized over the past several decades. This is true both for voters and politicians as well as liberals and conservatives. Once upon a time, many Americans were relatively moderate, believing in a mix of centrist liberal and conservative ideals. Increasingly, we are becoming hard-lined liberals (like Hodgkinson) or hard-lined conservatives.

There has been a ton of research into this area. For the sake of brevity, I’ll let some Pew Research data sum it up:

More Democrats Take Liberal Positions, More Republicans Take Conservative Positions
Notice how Americans have steadily become more liberal or conservative in their views? The starkest contrast is between 1994 vs. 2015. Research elsewhere points to polarization starting even earlier, back in the 1960s and ‘70s. One way to visualize this is with presidential approval ratings by presidential party and voter party (again by Pew). Notice how the gap between Republicans and Democrats widened over the years?

Polarization and presidential approval: supporters stay loyal, opposition intensifies

In line with this trend, clashes between protesters and counter-protesters have seemingly grown more violent over the years. While the ANTIFA vs. White Nationalist clashes in and around Berkeley have dominated headlines, anger boiling over is being felt nationwide. Meanwhile, extremist liberal groups such as “Anti-Fascists” (ANTIFA) and hard-line “Alt-Right” groups seem to be attracting more supporters and becoming more bold.

Left- and Right-Wing Whackos Are Resorting to Violence

To be clear, Scalise and the other victims of today’s shooting were not the first politicians to be targeted by ardent, possibly mentally disturbed political partisans. This is not simply a “liberal” or “conservative” phenomenon. Hodgkinson’s actions were likely inspired more by some type of mental disturbances rather than his support for Sanders. Further, it’s important to remember that mentally disturbed “right-wingers” have also carried out similar attacks.

In 2011, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was the target of an assassination attempt, which saw her shot in the head and left her with brain injuries. Sadly, six people were killed, including a nine-year-old child. The shooter in this case, Jared Lee Loughner, appears to have held radical right-wing, anti-government views that inspired him to carry out the shooting. Perhaps more importantly, Loughner also appears to have suffered from mental disturbances, having been kicked out of university for class disruptions.

His behavior raised concerns among fellow students and friends of the family. Some students even expressed fears that Loughner would carry out a mass shooting at school. Despite these incidents, Loughner was able to legally acquire his gun, and despite red flags regarding his mental health, he passed all background checks.

As already noted, Hodgkins drew attention to himself as well.

Ultimately, the shootings likely aren’t solely “right-wing vs. left-wing,” but at the same time, the growing vitriol between increasingly partisan Americans may be encouraging a climate of violence. Americans are forgetting how to respectfully disagree with one another, and increasingly, politics is being treated as a “team sport” of “liberals vs. conservatives.”

We Have to Remember That We Are American—and Human—First

The increasingly hostile “conservative vs. liberal” climate will only encourage whackos like Hodgkinson and Loughner to perpetrate violence. By doing so, they can secure fame, kill politicians they don’t like, and try to intimidate their political opponents. Liberal or conservative, this should disturb us all. We need to remember our humanity, and while we won’t all agree on every single issue, we need to learn how to discuss our issues pragmatically and also empathetically.

Until then, our politicians probably need and deserve more protection from police officers. As horrible as Scalise’s injuries were, his presence likely prevented a far worse tragedy from unfolding. Police were on the scene providing security because Scalise is a leader in the House. Had he not been there, the outcome may have been drastically different.

Brian Brinker

Brian Brinker is a political consultant and has an M.A in Global Affairs from American University.

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