Election violence has in large part existed for some time, but with the present rise in election violence in democracies, scholars are trying to understand why election violence occurs, how to prevent it, and how it impacts democracies. We have seen recent examples of election violence all over the world from the most fragile of democracies, to election violence in the United States, a country that at one point was considered to be one of the strongest democracies in the world. It is important to note that election violence can be increasingly devastating to struggling and/or emerging democracies as well as the pursuit of democracy itself. If severe and frequent enough, election violence can contribute to democratic erosion.
Election violence comes in many forms and can occur before, during, and after elections. It is used by political actors to influence the course and outcomes of elections. Election violence can be classified as voter intimidation, attacks on candidates, attacks on campaigns, attacks on property, etc. It is important to note that electoral violence can be carried out by both state and non-state actors. Election violence is strategic and in most cases, undermines the democratic process of citizens being able to vote for their leaders in free and fair elections. According to Sarah Birch et al, “Violence, even at levels below that witnessed in the most egregious cases, undermines the democratic character of elections by substituting free choice with coercion and by deterring participation. When force intrudes into electoral processes, something is seriously amiss with democratic institutions” (Birch, 2020).
We have also seen an increase in polarization, especially in the United States, but also in many Western democracies. Polarization can be characterized as a process in which people increasingly perceive and describe politics and society in terms of “us” versus “them.”’ And according to McCoy, this type of polarization threatens both governability, social cohesion, and support for democracy. Polarization that causes people to have an “us vs them” outlook can be incredibly dangerous because when you view the political opposition as your enemy, as somehow less worthy, and you ignore their inherent dignity, you might do all that you can to keep them out of power. The “us vs them” dichotomy that McCoy et al discusses is one that causes partisans to view the political opposition as less human. This belief that the political opposition is the enemy and is evil can lead to electoral violence.
We have seen a recent example in the United States of how increased polarization and the adoption of the “us vs them” mindset has led to election violence. On January 6th, 2021 an armed mob stormed the United States Capitol Building in an effort to halt the certification of the 2020 Presidential Election results. The attack resulted in the deaths of 4 people and left many others injured. This example of election violence left many in the U.S. and abroad not only shocked, but concerned about the state of democracy in the United States. Investigations and trials are currently taking place, as well as a House of Representatives Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol, so it is not possible to make a definitive claim about the cause for the attack, however looking at the rhetoric and actions of former president Donald Trump and his allies in the days and weeks leading up to the insurrection can provide insightful context into the causes.
Donald Trump claimed the election had been stolen and urged his supporters to “stop the steal.” He waged legal challenges in multiple states, all of which failed to provide any evidence of a fraudulent election and even held a rally on January 6th, which many of the Capitol rioters attended, where he called on former Vice President Mike Pence to use his position as Vice President to intervene in the certification the 2020 Presidential Election. Trump convinced a large portion of his supporters that the election was stolen, with some polls showing that as many as 68% of republicans believing this. Some of his supporters so deeply believed that this “stolen election” constituted a need to do whatever possible to “save America,” even waging violence on the political elites, who they saw to be the ones responsible for this.
These Trump supporters were so convinced of election fraud and had completely bought into the “us vs them” rhetoric that Trump and his allies were espousing that they armed themselves and stormed the United States Capitol Building, the center of democracy in America. This tragic example reveals how increased polarization and the adoption of an “us vs them” mindset can lead to electoral violence. And as polarization continues to be heightened in the United States, the January 6th insurrection may unfortunately not be an outlier. In an effort to repair an eroding democracy, heal the divisions of polarization, and avoid potential future election violence, attention must be paid to efforts seeking to get partisans to reject the “us vs them” belief and view their political opposition as human beings, not the enemy.