As 2020 drew to a close, we and our partners at Over Zero prepared for what we knew would be a challenging 2021. Where many commentators proclaimed success in getting through Election Day without violence, we watched with growing alarm as public figures called the integrity of the electoral process itself into question. Spurious fraud claims, threats and attacks on election officials, and refusal to accept well-documented outcomes blew through norm after norm that had (since the civil rights movement, though certainly not consistently throughout American history) formed guardrails for observance of election outcomes. The American public got to see what experts have long documented: When we talk about election violence, we’re not looking at a single day, but a period that begins when election rules are written and extends through campaigns and voting until new officials are seated.
That’s why insurrection at the Capitol was not a surprise. But it was still a shock. The violence that resulted in five deaths and injuries to 140 police officers (two of whom died by suicide in the following days) hit close to our homes. Starting in 2018, researchers and practitioners from around the world—survivors of Kenyan election violence, transnational justice activists from Northern Ireland, and leaders of U.S. immigrant and Muslim communities—warned that the United States was heading down an all-too-familiar path. Political violence, they warned, is not random and does not flow from the bottom up. Instead, it is a tool set in motion by elites under particular conditions. We saw four of those conditions intensifying in the United States.
Elites had become factionalized, seeing politics as a winner-take-all contest in which, increasingly, norms could be cast aside and previously unthinkable maneuvers condoned. In parallel, the general public had become polarized. The process was asymmetric, driven by a decade of the elevation of sensationalist media figures and extreme rhetoric as the authentic voice of conservatism. That dynamic spiralled into large factions of the left and right seeing the other as a direct, personal threat. Over the same period, incidents of hate speech and violence grew dramatically. The primary targets were racial and religious minorities, but the extensive media coverage and the embrace of hate groups and symbols by established political figures began to lower taboos that had kept such groups out of mainstream political life. And Americans across the political spectrum had begun to lose trust in the functioning of our national institutions, and of democracy itself.
Our work at New America’s New Models of Policy Change project points to factors that build resilience to violence at the community and national levels and explores how the pandemic could accelerate the potential for violence. We are marshalling New America’s expertise in 2021 to partner with community leaders and researchers to face the reality that the threat of domestic right-wing extremist violence will not go away any time soon. We’re helping state governments and civic leaders prepare to stop cycles of violence in their communities. We’re advising funders and shaping government responses. And, as Heather and Candace Rondeaux wrote in the New York Times, we are connecting state-of-the-art online tracking with work at the local and national levels to enable community resilience and, where possible, healing.
Some strategies we can learn from global experience include empowering community leaders to promote norms against violent and hateful language within their own groups, elevating the voices of targeted communities, and protecting members of the media from becoming targets of violence themselves, while also providing training to the media to reduce harmful practices and reach different segments of a polarized public. We must also train Americans to discern and reject disinformation. We will explore the experience of transitional justice and accountability internationally and in U.S. communities. And we will continue both to inform our New America partners of what global and local lessons have to teach us, and draw strength from our participation in a community that aims to renew American promise, even when that means redefining what American limitations are.
We do this work because, though some may find it challenging to recognize how much the United States has in common with democracies we perceive as flawed, we see this as a reason to hope. We can learn their lessons, and adapt these proven ways to prevent and mitigate political violence to our own social context.
But we and our partners also do this work because it’s personal. For some Americans, the threat of violence may still seem abstract, even after January 6. But everyone on our team feels personally vulnerable to heightened extremism and violence—because we or our families had fled violence abroad, lived with the threat of violence against our American communities, or both. Because we live with fear about our safety in our houses of worship, our skin colors, gender identities, and disabilities. And because we don’t just believe that all our diversity can be a source of strength; we believe that we as individuals, and we as New America, are called to make it so. Even, or especially, in the face of violence.
image: Thomas Hengge / Shutterstock.com