The sad fact of violence and abuse against politicians is nothing new, but the rise of social media now provides new avenues for psychological abuse and threatening behavior towards elected officials. In new research, Sue Thomas, Rebekah Herrick and colleagues use a survey to investigate experiences of violence and psychological abuse among American mayors. They find that 80 percent of mayors had experienced some sort of psychological abuse – much of it via social media – and 13 percent had experienced physical violence. They also find that female mayors were more than twice as likely to experience psychological abuse and almost three times as likely to experience physical violence compared to males.
Being a mayor in America can be a dangerous job. In July last year, Jimmy Matta, Mayor of Burien, Washington State was attacked at an outdoor party; this past February, the 71-year old outgoing Mayor of Abita Springs, Louisiana, Greg Lemons, was beaten up near his home. And in March, Mayor David Northcutt of Achille, Oklahoma was knocked unconscious at a highway convenience store.
To determine just how common this sort of violence is, we conducted the first US study to survey experiences of physical violence and psychological abuse (V/A) among holders of elective office. With a focus on mayors, we find that they face high levels of physical violence and psychological abuse and that social media are the most common channel for psychological abuse. We also find that although experiences of V/A acts are widespread across types of cities, overall, female mayors, younger mayors, mayors in strong mayoral systems (where they have significant appointment and veto powers), and mayors in larger cities are more likely than their counterparts to face episodes of V/A.
For this research, we defined physical violence as harm suffered to persons or property, and psychological abuse as exposure to threatening or disrespectful, uninvited behavior, attention, or verbal contact.
We chose to focus our study on mayors because they live in their communities full-time, which may make them more visible and accessible than other officials, and, as executives, they may be perceived as most accountable for actions of city government. The data we report comes from a 2017 survey of mayors in US cities with populations above 30,000.
“Office of Mayor Betsy Hodges – Closed Door” by Tony Webster is licensed under CC BY SA 2.0
Mayoral exposure to violence and abuse is widespread
Overall, 80 percent of mayors experienced some type of violence or abuse. The same percentage faced some type of psychological abuse, and 13 percent of mayors experienced physical violence. About one-third of mayors faced V/A rarely (10 or fewer instances). More than 20 percent were exposed to V/A often, and, approximately 12 percent suffered occasional V/A. On average, mayors experienced 2.2 types of V/A.
Thus, mayors encountered multiple types of V/A and suffered much more psychological abuse than physical violence. Though less frequent, experiences of physical violence were not rare: over the course of their careers, 12 percent of mayors experienced violence against property, 3 percent experienced minor physical violence, and 1 percent experienced significant physical violence, such as being shot at or assaulted with a resultant injury.
Social media is a key channel for abuse
Social media were the most common conveyers of abuse: about 70 percent of mayors reported such experiences compared to a third who experienced abuse through traditional media. Over 40 percent encountered abuse at a public meeting. These numbers are consistent with research in other western democracies.
Figure 1 – Mayors’ Exposure to Violence and Abuse
Factors associated with physical violence and psychological abuse of mayors
Holding other factors constant, several factors are significantly associated with more frequent experiences of violence and psychological abuse and with a greater likelihood of experiencing at least one instance of this type of treatment.
First, some characteristics of cities matter: mayors of larger cities faced higher rates of V/A and were twice as likely to endure V/A than mayors of smaller cities. Second, some political factors are important: those in strong mayor systems were more likely face V/A. However, city partisanship was not related to violence and abuse. Third, demographic characteristics showed differences. Younger mayors were more likely to endure V/A than their older counterparts. Additionally, female mayors were more than twice as likely to have these experiences as men.
We also separated the data to compare the factors that affected the likelihood of experiencing physical violence versus psychological abuse. Results indicate that different factors contribute to each type of experience.
Mayors who were more likely to experience psychological abuse were female mayors, strong mayors, younger mayors, mayors of larger cities, and mayors in places in which voters were less conservative than their mayors. Those most likely to face physical violence were female mayors, mayors from cities with low crime rates, and cities with lower levels of education.
In all, our most revealing finding was that only one factor, gender, had statistically significant relationships to both psychological abuse and physical violence. Female mayors were more than twice as likely as males to experience psychological abuse and almost three times as likely to experience physical violence.
Figure 2 – Comparison of female and male mayors’ exposure to violence and abuse
Why violent and abusive treatment of mayors matters for local governance
The results of this research matter because such experiences may affect mayors’ ability to focus on their jobs and continue their commitments to political careers. Indeed, 16 percent of our survey respondents said these experiences encouraged them to think about leaving office.
Second, female mayors in our survey faced more of these negative experiences than male mayors. Since, in 2019, only 21 percent of mayors in cities of 30,000 or above are female, efforts toward diverse representation may be negatively affected.
Third, experiences of V/A may deter newcomers from seeking public office in the first place. The personal costs of running for and serving may be calculated as exceeding the personal, political, or policy benefits of doing so.
Fourth, to the degree that law enforcement attention and resources need to be directed toward investigating threats against mayors and keeping mayors safe, less attention is available for protecting the wider population.
For the first time, this study brings into focus that the vast majority (80 percent) of US mayors face psychological abuse and a small but significant portion suffer physical violence – a set of findings that merit concern and further study.
- This article is based on ‘Not for the Faint of Heart: Assessing Physical Violence and Psychological Abuse against US Mayors’, in State and Local Government Review and ‘Physical Violence and Psychological Abuse against Female and Male Mayors in the United States’ in Politics, Groups, and Identities.
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of USAPP – American Politics and Policy, nor the London School of Economics.
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About the authors
Sue Thomas – Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation
Sue Thomas is a senior research scientist at the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation (PIRE) who specializes in research at the intersections of social science, policy, and law. Dr. Thomas has published books, journal articles, book chapters, and encyclopedia articles in her specialties: women, politics and policy, and American government.
Rebekah Herrick – Oklahoma State University
Rebekah Herrick is a professor of political science at Oklahoma State University. Her research focuses on issues of representation. She has written five books and numerous journal articles including for Journal of Politics, Politics & Gender and other academic publications.
Lori D. Franklin – University of Oklahoma
Lori D. Franklin is a clinical associate professor of Social Work at the University of Oklahoma. She has written two volumes of decision cases for use in social work practice courses and published several articles on ethics, clinical supervision, and applications of clinical practice.
Marcia L. Godwin – University of La Verne
Marcia L. Godwin is a professor of public administration at the University of La Verne. She is the coeditor of Local Politics and Mayoral Elections in 21st Century America and The Roads to Congress series. Her research interests include public engagement, local government innovation, budgeting, and public policy.
Eveline Gnabasik – Claremont Graduate University
Eveline Gnabasik is a doctoral candidate at Claremont Graduate University and a member of the government faculty at Coastal Bend College. She is researching women’s standing in Republican politics.
Jean Reith Schroedel – Claremont Graduate University
Jean Reith Schroedel is the Thornton Bradshaw professor of politics and policy at Claremont Graduate University. She has written or co-edited five books and more than forty journal articles. Her recent research has focused on voting rights issues affecting Native Americans and she has a forthcoming book, Native American Voting Rights: The View from the Trenches.