The Justice for J6 rally on Capitol Hill on Sept. 18, 2021 in support of those charged in connection with the January 6 attack on the US Capitol was a bust as police outnumbered rally goers. The threat, however, has by no means abated. The House Select Committee investigating the attack recently instructed telecommunication and media companies to preserve the records of those who may be connected to the attack, including some members of Congress and close associates of former president, Donald Trump. On Thursday the committee issued subpoenas to several former Trump aides and advisers and asked that they appear for close-door depositions in October 2021. The committee is also seeking the testimony of participants in the attacks who have pleaded guilty.
The protests, rallies, and investigation may all seem like they don’t belong in the United States. Post-election violence here? Yet, these are warning signs of post-election violence, and are similar to the signs seen in emerging democracies in Africa. More significantly, these signals are America’s wake-up call — and the United States can look to programs it has championed in African democracies to learn how to effectively deal with its own post-election crisis.
THE TROUBLING PATTERNS
Post-election violence involves acts of intimidation, coercion or physical harm to life, and property in response to undesired/unwanted election results. There are three patterns in Africa’s emerging democracies that have experienced post-election violence, which are now present in American politics. The first is a legitimacy crisis: The rules of electoral politics are no longer universally accepted and are being questioned midway into the game. The second pattern is the use of exclusionary mechanisms to disenfranchise certain groups of voters. The third, and final, pattern is leaders who refuse to accept electoral outcomes deemed free and fair. Instead of litigating their concerns through legal processes or accepting the verdict when they have done so, they instigate their supporters to forcibly overturn election results. Investments in violence prevention and voter education programs at all levels of government are needed to effectively counter the threat of post-election violence.
Some may argue that the United States is not at much risk for post-election violence because of the strength of its institutions. Yet, from recent history, we know our institutions are only as strong as the people guarding them.
An electoral process has legitimacy when all involved agree to a set of established rules that govern the electoral process and trust that electoral outcomes are in line with the agreed-upon rules. For example, in Côte d’Ivoire’s disputed 2010 presidential election that resulted in a post-election civil war, both leading candidates claimed victory, drawing legitimacy from either the electoral commission, which conducted the election, or the Constitutional Council, which was supposed to certify the results. Even though the institutional context in the United States and Côte d’Ivoire are vastly different, recent polling shows that up to 67% of Republicans do not believe Joe Biden is the legitimate president. The 2020 presidential election was fully litigated but these numbers suggest lingering grievances for which violence may be seen as a viable next option. During the Jul. 4, 2021 holiday weekend, a pro-Trump group marching and chanting “the election was stolen” clashed with residents in Philadelphia.
Another recent poll showed that 15% of Americans and 28% of Republicans believe that things have gone too awry that they see violence as a legitimate course of action to save the country. We saw this on Jan. 6, 2021 — and the persistence of this sentiment months later is troubling. This portends danger for the upcoming midterm elections, especially if they are viewed as a proxy for the 2020 presidential election, and even worse, for the 2024 election, should Trump be on the ballot. We already see threats to election officials across the country, and to local elected officials, especially school boards.
The second pattern of exclusionary mechanisms is not new in US society, which has historically disenfranchised Black and Native American communities (and others), but this is the first time such measures are being used to delegitimize a general presidential election. Exclusionary mechanisms in some states, including in Pennsylvania, are now being enacted as laws in response to the claim that the election was stolen. Several states have enacted laws that proponents say will curb voter fraud. These laws, however, disproportionately disenfranchise minorities, who make up a significant portion of Biden’s winning coalition. In emerging democracies, these exclusionary mechanisms have often been enforced by state repressive violence or violence by state-supported or party-supported militia, resulting in forced displacement and expulsions of the excluded group, such as Blacks in Mauritania or northerners in Côte d’Ivoire. A US intelligence community threat assessment and current terrorism advisory bulletin warn of the threat of domestic violent extremists aggrieved by a narrative of fraud in the 2020 presidential election.
A third worrying pattern is a leader who refuses to accept the outcome of an election in defiance of court findings. A hallmark of established democracies is the loser of an election accepts the loss, congratulates the winner, followed by a peaceful transfer of power. For the first time in living memory, the United States did not have a peaceful transfer of power. Though unsuccessful, the violence at the US Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 was meant to disrupt the transition and resulted in five deaths. It has been called an attempted coup, a self-coup, an insurrection, and a riot. These descriptors are accurate, but it should also be understood as post-election violence. After all, the rioters claimed they were there to “stop the steal” of the presidential election and overturn the results in favor of their preferred candidate. More worrisome is that Trump still refuses to accept the election result and reportedly told associates that he would be reinstated, which many of his supporters now believe. When that doesn’t happen, they might resort to more violence. Recent data from the Chicago Project on Security and Threats at the University of Chicago shows that 9% of Americans believe “use of force” is justified to reinstate Trump to the presidency.
IS THE RISK REAL?
Some may argue that the United States is not at much risk for post-election violence because of the strength of its institutions. That may be true, but if we learned anything from recent history, it is that our institutions are only as strong as the people guarding them. Many norms that we took for granted were broken. These norms need to be codified into law. Above all, it is time to reinvest in American democracy.
We need investments at the federal, state, and local levels of government in voter education programs that emphasize electoral violence prevention. Currently, US voter education is on how and where to vote and on protecting people’s right to vote, but it must also incorporate violence prevention and the fundamentals of democracy, such as accepting the winner even if you did not vote for them. Similarly, the National Endowment for Democracy, which receives congressional appropriation to promote democracy around the world, should also invest in promoting democratic values here in the United States. Finally, some of the funds for countering violent extremism, which has tried to target religious extremism in American Muslim communities, should also go to programs targeting white supremacy and right-wing extremism. The violent protests that followed the November 2020 election, and the siege on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, were conducted by pro-Trump supporters with largely white supremacist and right-wing tendencies. Furthermore, about a third of those who believe in violently reinstating Trump also support such extremist groups. In other words, US voter education takes democracy for granted and is based on the assumption that American democracy is advanced. It may be advanced, but it is not immune to post-election violence and upheaval.
These kinds of voter education programs in partnership with civil society will also help reinforce the fundamental democratic idea that there are winners and losers in elections and everyone accepts the results. Not accepting a confirmed election result after losing was unheard of in American democracy until the 2020 presidential election, but is becoming increasingly common. For example, in the lead-up to California’s recall election earlier this month, Larry Elder, the leading challenger, claimed the elections would be rigged and would not commit to accepting the results. Candidates should take public pledges to respect election results. Public pledges have been used in some African countries to ensure peaceful electoral outcomes. For example, in Ghana in 2012, the leading candidates signed the Kumasi Declaration, committing to accept the election results and to seek redress through the legal system if disputes arose. The election was close and followed by litigation all the way up to the country’s Supreme Court but the candidates kept to their pledges. Nigeria experienced post-election violence in 2011, but in 2015, the leading candidates took public pledges, to which they adhered. This helped avert the kind of explosive post-election violence of 2011.
DON’T TAKE DEMOCRACY FOR GRANTED
Post-election violence is a process that begins long before we see a violent response to a disputed election outcome. Countries that invest in measures to preempt or interrupt the process have been successful at having peaceful elections, and curbing the occurrence of violence over time. Ghana is a prime example, and has had successful transfers of power between presidents and ruling parties since transitioning to democracy in 1992, despite close elections with razor-thin winning margins. Given the concerns about democratic backsliding across the world, it is time to do the same here.
We can no longer take US democracy for granted.
Faith I. Okpotor is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Moravian University and a Security Fellow at the Truman National Security Project. Her current book project examines the dynamics of post-election violence in Africa.