Contentious Federalism: Sheriffs, State Legislatures, and Political Violence in the American West

  • Zoe NemereverEmail author
Original Paper


Despite the extensive literature probing individual motivations for committing political violence, little existing academic research directly examines the role of local governments in encouraging political violence. I use a federalism perspective to consider how subnational governments can decrease the perceived costs of high-risk political violence against the state. This paper introduces three novel datasets to substantiate my theories: political violence against Bureau of Land Management employees, land transfer legislation in state legislatures, and a roster of constitutionalist sheriffs. As emblems of the contentious relationship between rural land users and the federal government, employees of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) routinely deal with threats, harassment, and physical violence from civilians who are incensed by restrictions on the use of federal land. Counties with constitutionalist sheriffs are 50%  more likely to have violence against BLM employees than other counties, even when controlling for other factors. Additionally, levels of political violence are higher in years following the passage of land transfer legislation in the state legislature. Elected officials’ legislative activity, campaign promises, and law enforcement decisions all may promote political violence against federal employees. Incorporating federalism into the study of political violence uncovers how the actions of elected officials at the state and county levels can lower the perceived costs of violence against the national government.


Political violence Federalism Sheriffs Public land State legislatures 



This paper would not have been possible without Laura Dumais (Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility) and Tay Wiles (High Country News) who generously shared the political violence incident reports. I thank the three anonymous reviewers and editors, Thad Kousser, Seth Hill, Zoli Hajnal, Dan Butler, Charles McClean, Taylor Carlson, and Luke Sanford for invaluable feedback on earlier drafts of this paper. Replication files are available at

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of interest

The author declares that she has no conflict of interest.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Political ScienceUniversity of California San DiegoLa JollaUSA

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