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Abstract or Description

Democracy cannot function without individuals stepping up to serve as representatives of their community. The presence and growth of threats and harassment directed towards elected representatives poses a direct risk to our democracy, weakening community cohesion and our ability to address collective challenges. While our research found threats and harassment to be present across political parties, it identified women as far more likely to be on the receiving end both in terms of quantity and severity. If under-represented groups are pushed out of the processes of debate and decision-making, solutions will not be oriented around the diversity of our society.

Without clear data on the scale of the problem, the rise in threats and ad hominem attacks are too easily discounted by public officials, the media and the public at large. Possible consequences range from an increased potential for physical violence and the resignation from public life of elected officials. The research outlined in this report helps to expose the scale of threats and harassment, while in turn providing recommendations from those directly impacted, concerned community members and scholars on how to reinforce safe and non-threatening local governance.

While several studies have shown that cities, counties and states across the country are experiencing an increased level of hostility towards elected officials, very few geographically designated areas are measuring incidents in any structured way. The research outlined in this report aims to set a clear baseline on the extent of aggressive behavior towards nearly all categories of elected office in San Diego County. Our research looked at all County School Boards, Community College Boards, City Councils, Mayors, and the County Board of Supervisors.

Using a mixed methods approach that included surveys, interviews, a traditional media review and social media review, our team was able to get a clear picture of the problem both objectively and subjectively. Our findings confirm that the rise in threats and harassments targeting elected officials identified in national studies is also occurring at the local level in San Diego County. This rise in hostile threatening behavior towards elected officials is having a measurable impact on a) the ability of elected office holders to effectively participate in the public policy process; b) the likelihood of elected officials seeking to encourage others to enter public life or remain in public life themselves; and c) the psychological and physical health of office holders and their families. The vitriol we are seeing risks significantly and negatively impact the vitality of local democracy, civic engagement and effective policy making on across the policy spectrum.

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elected officials, democracy, violence, civic engagement, inequality, threats, harassment


Civic and Community Engagement | Peace and Conflict Studies | Political Science | Politics and Social Change | Public Affairs, Public Policy and Public Administration | Sociology

“HOW SCARED ARE YOU?” Mapping the Threat Environment of San Diego’s Elected Officials