Political Competition and Right-Wing Terrorism: A County-Level Analysis of the United States

Published date01 June 2022
Date01 June 2022
Subject MatterArticles
2022, Vol. 75(2) 338 –352
Political Research Quarterly
© 2021 University of Utah
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/10659129211006791
In its 2020 Homeland Threat Assessment, the Department
of Homeland Security (DHS) identified domestic violent
extremists, specifically white supremacists, as “the most
persistent and lethal threat” to the United States (DHS
2020, 18). Part of the broader family of right-wing terror-
ism, this form of terrorism has become the most prevalent
form of terrorism in the United States over the past few
decades.1 The Center for Investigative Reporting identi-
fied 201 attacks and foiled plots carried out by domestic
actors in the United States between 2008 and 2016, find-
ing that 115 cases were carried out by right-wing extrem-
ists versus 63 that were motivated by Islamist ideology
(Neiwert 2017).2 Right-wing terrorists are also lethal,
responsible for 251 fatalities on U.S. soil compared with
90 by Islamists (National Consortium for the Study of
Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism [START] 2017b).3
Despite the relative frequency and lethality of this
form of political violence within the United States,
research on this topic has a more extensive pedigree in
the fields of sociology, criminology, psychology, and eco-
nomics than in political science. As a result, the extant
theory on right-wing terrorism primarily focuses on indi-
vidual- or organizational-level motivations. Past research
has examined the relationship between the perpetrator
and victim (Parkin and Freilich 2015), perceptions of
racial threat (Durso and Jacobs 2013; LaFree and Bersani
2014), or on identifying economic triggers of radicaliza-
tion (Blazak 2001; Michel and Herbeck 2002). Other
scholars analyze the internal operations of right-wing
extremist groups, including work by Chermak, Freilich,
and Suttmoeller (2013) and Asal et al. (2020) comparing
violent and nonviolent groups.
We seek to extend this research by arguing that right-
wing terrorism is responsive to environmental cues and
more specifically, to the political environment. After all,
right-wing terrorism can be defined as
Violence in support of the belief that personal and/or national
way of life is under attack and is either already lost or that
the threat is imminent. [It is] characterized by anti-globalism,
racial or ethnic supremacy or nationalism, suspicion of
centralized federal authority, reverence for individual liberty,
and/or belief in conspiracy theories that involve grave threat
to national sovereignty and/or personal liberty. (Miller 2017,
Therefore, right-wing terrorism is a response to political
fears as much as cultural and/or racial ones, and thus
should have strong political causes. We draw from
research on anti-minority violence in other countries to
argue that electoral competition creates incentives for
politicians to use exclusionary, threat-based rhetoric to
PRQXXX10.1177/10659129211006791Political Research QuarterlyNemeth and Hansen
1Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, USA
Corresponding Author:
Stephen C. Nemeth, Department of Political Science, Oklahoma State
University, 201 Social Sciences and Humanities, Stillwater, OK 74078,
Email: stephen.nemeth@okstate.edu
Political Competition and Right-Wing
Terrorism: A County-Level Analysis
of the United States
Stephen C. Nemeth1 and Holley E. Hansen1
While many previous studies on U.S. right-wing violence center on factors such as racial threat and economic anxiety,
we draw from comparative politics research linking electoral dynamics to anti-minority violence. Furthermore, we
argue that the causes of right-wing terrorism do not solely rest on political, economic, or social changes individually,
but on their interaction. Using a geocoded, U.S. county-level analysis of right-wing terrorist incidents from 1970 to
2016, we find no evidence that poorer or more diverse counties are targets of right-wing terrorism. Rather, right-wing
violence is more common in areas where “playing the ethnic card” makes strategic sense for elites looking to shift
electoral outcomes: counties that are in electorally competitive areas and that are predominantly white.
domestic terrorism, electoral competition, far-right violence

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