Updated: Dec 15, 2022
The increasingly hostile nature of American politics today would likely give anyone pause before considering running for office. In the past, those reticent to consider state or national politics may have turned to local office in hopes of a more civil environment. However, local government, mirroring higher levels of government, has increasingly become a platform for uninhibited expression of hostility toward elected officials.
A nationally representative survey of local elected officials by CivicPulse—which it intends to conduct on a regular basis going forward to track trends—asks a random sample of municipal and county elected officials whether they experienced insults, harassment, or threats in the last three months. The survey—conducted in partnership with Princeton University, Bridging Divides Initiative, and Anti-Defamation League —presents some sobering results.
Almost half (47%) of public officials reported being insulted verbally. Additionally, almost a third (30%) reported being harassed, and 15% reported receiving threats.
Comments about these incidents highlighted the impact that insults, harassment, and threats were having on public officials with some even reconsidering whether they want to continue working in the public sector.
“What's worse is that this harassment makes my family very fearful to the point of asking why am I even choosing to serve.” - County councilmember in the South
Respondents acknowledged that an increase of online engagement has made it easier for people to insult, harass or threaten public officials.
“[Social] media has empowered individuals to spout off and make assumptions with little regard to fact-finding or seeking the truth, saying things they'd not have the courage to say in person.” - City councilmember in the Midwest
While this online behavior seems more common, the threat of poor online interactions moving to an in-person interaction was a worry for many respondents. Hot topic issues such as land use or abortion seem to push people to show up in person to express their opinions to public officials. One of the indicators of growing partisanship is that people of one political party are increasingly likely to view a candidate from an opposing party to be more immoral than other Americans. When looking at political affiliations, Independents were the least likely to report experiencing insults, threats, or harassment.
Historically, white men with higher education have been much more likely to say that they have sought public office compared to women and people of color. The experience that women and racial or ethnic minorities have while in office may be a contributing factor. In this survey, comments from some respondents indicate that the insults, harassment, or threats focused on the public officials' identity characteristics such as gender, race, or sexual orientation. The demographic breakdown of threats and harassment indicates that such attacks may be serving to further entrench historic inequities in representation among publicly elected officials.
Public officials that identified as women or racial or ethnic minorities were much more likely to report being insulted, harassed, or threatened compared to men and non-minority officials.
Public officials often enter public service out of a desire to serve their communities. The data from this survey suggests that, for many in public service, this is not only a thankless job but also one that may compromise their safety. That this is true more so for women and minorities suggests that there are great barriers to having a truly representative democracy.
“I resigned last month one year early due to constant harassment.” - Elected official in the Northeast
Better coordination between law enforcement agencies, elected officials, and civil society in how reports are made, cataloged, and followed up on can help address them when they do arise. Elected officials should feel that their voice matters in addressing this concerning trend. That is why CivicPulse, Bridging Divides Initiative, and the Anti-Defamation League are partnering with the National League of Cities to launch a self-reporting tool for those who have experienced threats and harassment. New efforts in creating meaningful data on this topic should include existing community experience and responses. Whether training in de-escalation, healing, or community safety, communities across the country are already working to reduce space for threats and harassment. These efforts complement stronger state and federal statutes currently being considered to protect elected officials and election workers which can help prevent and deter threats.
The research underlying this brief was built on data from the combined data of two national random-sampled surveys of local elected leaders and governing board members. Responses for the first survey were collected between August 12 and September 21, 2022. Responses for the second survey were collected between November 16 and December 5, 2022.
The sample frame draws on Power Almanac’s continuously updated contact list of government officials from counties, municipalities, and townships with populations of 1,000 or more. The survey was developed in collaboration with the Bridging Divides Initiative at Princeton University and the Anti-Defamation League. The survey was implemented by the CivicPulse Team.
Below are the key survey items used to generate the results:
Please provide any specific examples of insults, threats, harassment, or attacks directed at you or other local public officials that you would like to highlight. Please do your best to avoid including any information that might identify any particular individual.
In your capacity as a public official, please indicate whether you have experienced any of the following types of incidents in the last three months or so. If you have held your office for less time than that, please answer for the amount of time you have held your position. If appropriate, you may select ‘Yes’ to multiple items for the same experience.
In the last three months or so, have you been...
Insulted verbally, in writing, or online
Harassed verbally, in writing, or online
Threatened verbally, in writing, or online
Answer choices: Yes, No
Nathan Lee, PhD
Managing Director of CivicPulse