Fringe Constituencies: Threats and Violence Motivated by Hostile Political Partisanship

Philip Saragoza, M.D.
Spring, 2022

In this feature, our senior associate Phil Saragoza discusses an issue he has followed closely over the past few years – our increasingly dangerous politics and the implications for us threat assessors. Here he previews what he will present at ATAP in August as one of the keynote speakers on the opening day of the national conference.

The public hearings on the findings of the Congressional committee investigating the January 6th, 2021, Capitol riot are providing just one of the nation’s most recent displays of partisan hostilities boiling over to dangerous action. Indeed, a variety of national crises have seemingly only galvanized a political divide that is more bitter than ever. These include the pandemic and remedies for it, continued instances of mass violence – most recently the Buffalo and Uvalde attacks – and social justice movements. As we were “going to press” with this feature, the passionate opposing reactions immediately sparked by the Supreme Court overturning Roe vs Wade can be added to the list. Democrats and Republicans, now routinely assail each other in the most derogatory terms imaginable – the authoritarian insult of “Nazi” is lobbed in both directions. Accusatory characterizations of racism and pedophilia are now commonplace among American politicians at the federal, state, and local levels.

Partisanship can fuel disruption and violence in organizational settings. While this climate has created unprecedented security concerns for those tasked with threat assessment for targeted politicians and other appointed officials such as justices, it is perhaps unsurprising that a range of disruptive behaviors – intimidation, harassment, threats, and violence fueled by hostile partisanship – have also become more frequent in workplaces and college campuses. Extreme partisanship can serve as an instigator or motive for violence, either affective (impulsive) or predatory (planned) in work or educational contexts. To assess and mitigate any risk related to such beliefs, leadership may consider these macro-level and case-specific guidelines:

Mitigating the risk of partisanship-driven behaviors of concern in work and campus settings: Primary prevention.

  • Set the proper tone – proactively. Organizational messaging in response to charged political topics must be realistic and balanced. Acceptance of diversity of opinion must not violate established codes of conduct and civility. Review policies regarding permissible discourse. Consider proactive reminders about limitations on political “signaling” through clothing and paraphernalia, or expressing political views through work communications or public-facing online activity. These analyses and communication campaigns must recognize the increased potential for workers to synergistically provoke one another over politics, rather than only one individual generating the behaviors of concern.
  • Anticipate outside triggering events. Corporations and institutions of higher learning should stay attuned to unfolding political events in order to anticipate and more proactively respond to circumstances that might trigger inappropriate behaviors or, particularly on campuses, heated demonstrations with the potential for violence.
  • An organization may be a specific target for extremism. A company or organization’s very business or public positions on hot-button issues may place it in the center of political controversy (e.g. social media companies, health care organizations, law enforcement agencies, or K-12 school boards). We have seen how this has led to increased threats, violence, and other concerning behaviors from ideologically-driven actors, both from outside and within the organization. These conditions put a premium on the aforementioned policy review, internal and public messaging as well as security analysis cognizant of and responsive to extremism concerns.

Assessing individual cases: Focus on these indicators relevant to intense partisanship.

  • Extreme beliefs: Do the political beliefs of any individuals of concern fall within the relative mainstream of current discourse, or are they consistent with extremist strands on the left or right? One way to discern this is through the individual’s realized or desired affiliation or expressed sympathy or agreement with a known extremist group. Such groups often share and reinforce “extreme overvalued beliefs,” and may also hold adjacent or intersecting conspiracy theory views.
  • Radical Dualism: Does an individual identify with a defined in-group they morally idealize and simultaneously describe a villainous out-group? This distinction is often characterized by good-versus-evil language and dehumanizing of the outgroup. Dehumanization (e.g., “vermin…they’re animals”) is an important ingredient for violent ideation, as it may erode attitudes that naturally buffer against violence.
  • Violent ideation: Is there evidence that an individual of concern is contemplating violent action against individuals, groups, or the entire organization who represent opposing political beliefs? Does their belief system encompass the notion that the opposition poses an existential threat to their way of life, thereby justifying, or even requiring violent action? Has an individual endorsed publicized acts of political violence?
  • Fixation warning behavior: Is there evidence of deterioration or personal crisis in an individual of concern connected to his or her political beliefs? This can take the form of increasing fixation (time and energy) on political material, with more strident opinions leading to ostracization and other negative social dynamics in the workplace or on campus. A decline in job or academic performance may be a secondary indicator of fixation or associated with it. Individuals who are pathologically fixated on politics may file formal complaints, grievances, and/or make allegations of discrimination or harassment attributed to political affiliation – either correctly or based on misperception.

To illustrate these concepts and approaches, consider the following case vignette:

A tech company requested a threat assessment on “Bob,” an engineer who had been there for several years. During the few months leading up to the US Presidential election, Bob was posting intensely partisan messages on social media in which he often named his employer as one of the companies he associates with a corporate-government conglomerate working to control and destroy society. Bob’s posts were becoming more frequent and lengthy, and sometimes occurring late at night or even during the workday. Numerous coworkers reported concerns over these messages to management. During the same period, Bob’s performance was declining and his demeanor at work was more angry and despondent.

During an interview with Bob, he disclosed feelings of resentment towards his employer for the CEO’s recent public statements implying the company’s political leanings, which he perceived as trickling down through all of management and workplace culture. Bob decried his work environment as a “woke-place” that had been ruined by politics. Bob claimed that several managers and coworkers had been excessively critical of his work. He expressed feeling targeted by them due to their differing political beliefs. When pressed, Bob explained his belief that various managers and supervisors were engaging in misconduct by unfairly disciplining him because they had “discovered” his ongoing direct communications with several Presidential candidates. Bob described receiving special messages from “other important figures” via social media, encouraging him to publicly disclose some of the company’s algorithms in order to expose their “Deep State” machinations.

In this case, the individual of concern was exhibiting extreme political beliefs influencing his escalating inappropriate communications, and culminating in his consideration of retaliation against the company by leaking proprietary information. The investigation and interview produced evidence of fixation on politics, a decline in work performance and mental health, and as well, increasing direct incorporation of the employer and select coworkers into conspiratorial thinking. Moreover, he described experiencing symptoms likely indicative of clinical paranoia, requiring further evaluation. The threat assessment team elected to guide the employee toward a medical leave of absence in order for him to receive necessary mental health intervention, which fortunately he accepted. At a later time, if his provider deems him both fit to work and poses no risk of harm to others, he is to be reassessed by the employer’s own retained risk assessment mental health professional. The evaluation will consist of a standard assessment of all workplace-relevant risk factors, and in this case (and others like it) should also include whether the employee’s political beliefs and attitudes could lead to or pose a risk of violence or disruption to the workplace.

In summary, the current political climate is increasingly hostile. Extreme views and attitudes are becoming more widespread. Threat assessors must recognize hostile partisanship as a potential motive for behaviors of concern in organizational settings, and consider this when reviewing both organization-wide communications and safety initiatives as well as individual case assessments. Organizational leaders have shown that they can respect individual rights and beliefs while standing firm on the expectation to behave civilly. Safety first, always.