by Maria J. Stephan, Candace Rondeaux and Erica Chenoweth
Political Violence at a Glance
Nationwide protests against police brutality following George Floyd’s murder are the broadest and most persistent in US history. They have laid bare the racism that pervades American society—and demonstrated the willingness of Americans to take to the streets and resist oppression, even in the midst of a pandemic. Americans must continue demanding an end to white supremacy and follow the lead of Black organizers to galvanize a similar flexing of civic muscle to help ensure democratic continuity come November. With elections four months away, and the rule of law under steady attack, people power could prove decisive in ensuring a constitutional transfer of power without violence.
Analysts have developed a number of doomsday scenarios for November. The election could be postponed or canceled. A state of emergency could be declared and polling stations shut down. Hostile foreign powers could ramp up their interference in the election—through the targeted spread of misinformation, cyberattacks on voting machines or databases, or political harassment of candidates—in ways that affect the outcome. Even if the elections go forward fairly smoothly, the results will likely take longer to process because of the anticipated higher volume of mail-in and absentee ballots. Disputes over mail-in ballots are only one of several triggers that could cause the outcome to be challenged or rejected altogether.
Well-armed paramilitaries could come out to the streets no matter which candidate is declared the victor. Lone wolf actors could set off a chain reaction of escalating violence. Indeed, experts on mass atrocities have cited risk factors—including widening social and economic inequality, persistent violence against racial minorities, a surge of inflammatory political rhetoric, the rise of paramilitary groups, and the polarization of political parties along mainly racial or religious lines—as being particularly worrisome in the leadup to the election.
While it is difficult to quantify the risks associated with various elections-related scenarios, the stakes could not be higher. In the event that there is evidence of widespread voter suppression in the lead-up to the election or on November 3, disgruntled or disenfranchised citizens who take to the streets in mass protests could be met with police or paramilitary violence, or both, resulting in mass casualties. Already, far-right militant groups and vigilantes have increased their public visibility and shown a willingness to go to battle with ideological opponents. If mass violence erupts—a distinct possibility in a country awash in guns and where a surprisingly high number of Republicans and Democrats have said that violence may be justified if the other party wins the election—the outcome could be civil war. If the results of the election are disputed or ignored, or the military is called on to suppress constitutionally protected protests and public gatherings, if martial law or emergency decrees are declared, and the constitutional transfer of power is not respected, mass violence or civil war could similarly result.
Lawyers are preparing for these contingencies. But in countries where institutional checks and balances and democratic norms are rapidly eroding, legal challenges and other institutional channels are usually insufficient to meet worse case scenarios. Extra-institutional pressure—through mass nonviolent civil resistance—may be required to protect and defend the vote while warding off the specter of mass violence. It would be foolhardy to assume that this country is immune from democratic backsliding. Scholars of authoritarianism have been warning of an erosion of democratic norms and practices in the US. The bipartisan Freedom House organization has charted a steady decline in the US “global freedom” score—its most recent ranking places 51 countries ahead of the United States.
Therefore, in addition to learning from our own civil rights history, Americans could also learn from experiences in semi-authoritarian contexts like Serbia (2000), Ukraine (2005), and the Gambia (2017), where sustained protests and other forms of non-cooperation, including boycotts and general strikes involving large segments of the population, challenged leaders who illegally kept themselves in power. In Serbia, in addition to building pressure through mass demonstrations, activists prepared for the election by setting up local election monitoring and verification networks, reporting local-level vote counts to an independent office in Belgrade. This allowed pro-democracy advocates to contest the false election results announced by the incumbent Slobodan Milosevic, preventing him from stealing the election. A modified application of parallel vote tabulation, now a standard tool of democracy promotion, could be useful for the US elections…