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New survey shows that local officials are experiencing increased hostility


There's been a dangerous breakdown in civil discourse in this country. A new survey shows that local officials are experiencing increased hostility as they do their jobs. NPR domestic extremism correspondent Odette Yousef is covering this. Hey, Odette.


SHAPIRO: Tell us more about the survey. What does it show?

YOUSEF: Well, the survey asked more than 1,300 local officials whether, in the last three months, they had experienced insults, harassment threats or even attacks in doing their job. So think, Ari, mayors, city council members and people on county governing boards. And what the survey found is that we continue to be at an elevated baseline for those kinds of hostile interactions. Nearly half of the respondents had been insulted within the previous three months. A third had been harassed, and nearly 1 in 5 had been threatened.

And if you break it down further, you find that those numbers are actually even higher when we're talking about local officials who are women or racial or ethnic minorities. And interestingly, you know, this is actually happening in all kinds of places - small places, big towns and big cities. It tends to be more common in the more populous locations. And these types of events were experienced by Democrats, Republicans and independents.

SHAPIRO: Can you give us some context? Like, how bad has this harassment and hostility gotten?

YOUSEF: Well, for some local officials, it's actually gotten to the point where they don't feel physically safe in their communities. I spoke with Shannon Hiller of the nonpartisan Bridging Divides Initiative about this. That's housed at Princeton University. And she says that the hostility toward racial and ethnic minorities in particular is often accompanied by dehumanizing language.

SHANNON HILLER: I think sometimes it can be easy to dismiss that just as words. But you have those same officials saying, I don't shop at the grocery store in my home. I'm telling my daughter to go out of state to school - you know, that kind of real change in their behavior and their feeling of safety and their community.

YOUSEF: Ari, Hiller's group worked with the nonprofit survey group Civic Pulse on this research, and they've been doing these surveys quarterly over the past year. And in interviews with survey respondents, she said that this feeling of elevated and pervasive hostility is fairly new in that it really started just during the last three years during the pandemic, and it hasn't decreased since then.

SHAPIRO: What sorts of grievances are behind these incidents of hostility?

YOUSEF: Hiller says that respondents have shared that the issues have mostly been related to local matters like housing, utilities and zoning. And that's interesting because it adds to the reporting that we heard earlier today from our colleague Miles Parks, where he looked at high turnover among local election officials. You know, we're seeing that now because of increased threats. And it appears to be distinct from threats also that are happening on hot-button issues like LGBTQ and abortion rights. I think what's most troubling is that many who responded to the survey said that they believe that the most severe of these threats - so the harassment and even attacks - will only increase the closer that we get to the election.

SHAPIRO: Just briefly, any suggestions for reducing the temperature?

YOUSEF: Yeah. Hiller's group is looking into that, and she says it's key to help your local officials feel less isolated when this kind of hostility occurs - so public supports of statement - public statements of support for them or even chalk messages outside their offices with encouraging words.

SHAPIRO: NPR domestic extremism correspondent Odette Yousef. Thank you.

YOUSEF: Thank you.


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Odette Yousef
Odette Yousef is a National Security correspondent focusing on extremism.