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How Radical Environmental Violence Impacts US Elections

Sat, September 2, 2:00 to 3:30pm, Parc 55, Davidson

Abstract

Recent studies show that disparate political organizations within the environmental movement are connected through electoral outcomes. When the Green Party repeatedly fails to win office, some other political organizations vent frustration and attempt to further their environmental agenda by committing acts of eco-sabotage. The violence, however could lead to voter backlash against the movement, inhibiting future Green Party success and creating a vicious cycle of failure and political violence. This has been a topic of extensive debate within the political psychology literature (Green et al 2001) and the social movements literature (Koopmans 1996, Kriesi 2015). We extend the dialogue by demonstrating the impact of a crucial conditioning variable: prior election results. If the movement’s moderates have been making progress, then violence is likely to generate a backlash from voters. If moderates have been unable to make progress, then frustration with democracy will build and the violence will be seen as more legitimate; thus changing how voters react to the violence. Combining data on election results with records of political violence over the last three decades in the US, we look at whether sabotage, arson, and other radical direct actions by environmentalists, have lead to an electoral backlash against the environmental cause. We find strong support for our hypothesis that prior electoral success is positively correlated with voter backlash. Thus, voters react differently to extremists depending on whether they perceive that violence as used as a first response or a last response. We also find that activists’ violence turns some voters towards Republican candidates; similar to the effect of terror attacks against Israel boosting the vote share for the Conservative bloc in the Knesset (Berrebi and Klor 2006; Berrebi and Klor 2008; Getmansky and Zeitzoff 2014). We draw out the implications of this in the psychology of retrospective voting, and for the study of political organizations and tactics.

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