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.
Muntaha Syedah Qadri
Hi Emily! Polarization is such an engaging topic. You can literally see it all across the world nowadays. The division between the groups is fascinating to learn about, but it ends up having many attributes, more so negative attributes. I feel as if, in the United States, polarization is becoming high. This ends up causing segregation between communities, more stress to occur, and the most common aspect, more violence to occur. As you put it, election violence is a real thing that many do not look closely at, as it comes in many forms. Polarization causes a strain on democracy as we can see in the United States. More violence occurs which can sometimes cause democratic backsliding to become a major thing.
It is interesting to see how much polarization can affect a country. Your blog post made me look at the topic from a different point of view. Election violence is a topic more people should look into as it probably occurred in other democratic systems across the world. It causes a conflict with people that associate themselves with a particular political party. This causes the “us vs them” aspect to be developed. There are probably aspects to avoid polarization and it should be used. I feel like the current leader of the democratic system to also be in charge of causing polarization to increase. As leaders influence their followers, this can essentially cause more chaos to occur if there are partisans involved.
I definitely believe that election violence is a primary threat to any democracy. Election violence is, in every case, an acceptance of the belief that those who share different opinions than you are the enemy, and are in and of themselves the destruction of the political system that you hold so dearly. I think that election violence is evidence of polarization. It is especially evidence to what extent polarization has become a problem in a given democracy.
One of the most destructive mindsets in any democracy is to make one side believe the other is the enemy, which you have noted. It is especially problematic when political officials promote this divide, considering that they are supposed to be the ones responsible for representing the values of the people, including the other side of the aisle. When political officials promote this discord that leads to polarization and later violence, such officials have lost their integrity in representing a democracy.
I think that the months of Black Lives Matter rioting that occured, which painted conservatives as the outright oppressor to be opposed at all costs, regardless of what they actually believe, definitely started the snowball that led to the avalanche that was what occurred at the The United States capital on January 6th. I think the months of deep division promoted by antifa and those who boasted intolerance and violence in the riots (I am in no way referencing or demeaning the selfless peaceful protestors who fought for equal rights for African Americans, do not misunderstand me) definitely were a huge contributor to the extreme polarization going on in the country, and the tendency towards violence to solve problems.
I think that various means of finding commonalities and finding ways to see the other side as human are the most productive and healing things that we can pursue as a country right now. In a lecture Dr. Mudde gave, he discussed how one of the most healing things for solving polarization, is for members of the two political sides to join together in a humanitarian effort, like cleaning of children’s playgrounds as an example, because it enables people to join around a common cause and also to see one another’s humanity.
Your blog post was engaging and I thought it had a nice flow. The combination of polarization and election-related violence is worrisome, to say the least. I think the example you used of the January 6th insurrection perfectly highlights the danger polarization and election violence pose to a democracy. And, I’m also anxious to see what the January 6th Select Committee discovers in their investigations.
You also note the concept of “Us v. Them,” which I think is really important. This is currently something plaguing the United States, in my opinion. I wonder how we can remedy that — do we try to elect more moderate candidates (whether moderate in their political ideology and/or tone)? Or do we try a different approach? In my class, all students engaged in a simulation called OpenMind. Basically, through individual lessons and exercises with small peer groups, OpenMind reminded us how to respectfully communicate with each other and remain unbiased even in difficult situations and when disagreement was present. Perhaps this is something that can be used in workplaces, or in other classrooms, or for the matter of this blog, for members of Congress themselves. I know that there are many ways we can deter polarization, and I’m curious to hear your thoughts about some other methods.
The blog also reminds me of an article I read for class in the Advances in Political Psychology Journal titled “The Strengthening of Partisan Affect” (1). The journal provides a good background of polarization and partisanship in the U.S. dating back to the 1970s. But perhaps the intensification point of partisanship began in the 1994 midterm elections. This is when Newt Gingrich’s Republicans regained control of the House of Representatives for the first time in several decades. I watched a video about Newt Gingrich’s partisan legacy for class and I’ll link it below (2). It’s an informative piece detailing Gingrich’s background as well as his effect on U.S. politics.
Again, great, thought-provoking blog!
I agree with your assessment of polarization as a major factor in increased political violence, especially when it comes to election violence. As you outlined, an “us vs. them” mentality pits citizens against each other based on their political party or candidates, which makes bipartisanship and cooperation difficult. This divisive mentality also fuels hatred for those who are viewed as members of the “outgroup.” Further, the attempted insurrection that occurred on January 6 of this year is a very poignant example of electoral violence that resulted from ideas of election fraud circulated by the outgoing President Trump following the 2020 presidential election. The events of January 6 are indeed a concerning symptom of democratic erosion in the United States, especially since the protests were not entirely peaceful and resulted in injuries, deaths, and the country’s capital being invaded. I also think it would be interesting to explore additional ways in which the United States is experiencing polarization, although I do think that the clearest example of such a trend is election violence given how controversial the past couple of presidential elections in the country have been. However, I also believe that polarization, as well as election violence, is in part fueled by partisan media coverage as both Republicans and Democrats have moved further and further to their respective sides of the political spectrum. Like you described, the issue of polarization can really only be resolved if both sides can start to view each other as sovereign, thinking individuals instead of foolish enemies.
Hey Emily! Although it is not exactly what everyone would like to hear, you are right that election violence is a viable threat to democracy, and there are more contributors to it than we may initially think there to be. I especially liked the attention that you called to the “us vs. them” mentality and how this can become so dangerous. Seeing the political opposition as the enemy is dehumanizing and it makes it easy for words and beliefs to be twisted a certain way. I think it would be beneficial to call attention to how leaders contribute to this. Populists leaders especially use their rhetoric to mobilize citizens into having a unified mindset, and oftentimes this mindset is so strong that it becomes dangerous. With the January 6th capitol insurrection, Trump’s rhetoric and ademancy of the election being stolen from him is what encouraged citizens to turn to election violence. He spoke so strongly that his supporters believed his words to be true, and, to them, this truth needed to be blamed on their so-called opponents. They truly believed that many democrats in this election were their enemies, simply because they were mobilized under this belief. These riots could have been avoided if it weren’t for a particular leader and this shows how easy it is to inspire citizens to turn to violence. Although cases of violence do appear to be rare, it is not so difficult for supporters to stand by a leader’s accusing side. We can place much of this blame of the “us vs. them” mindset on the increasing polarization in society, as it is what inspires individuals to remain firm in their stances. With this, healing polarization is a very crucial step in protecting against election violence. Acts like those that happened on January 6th leave a big dent in democracy, and we cannot afford for future acts of violence to take place.
Emily, your response was very well written and intriguing to read. The emphasis you placed on election violence and its effect on polarization in the United States was an interesting perspective. During my research of the 2016 election, specifically the Russian interference, I found that misinformation campaigns to create distrust of democratic elections were the most destructive to a democracy. You mention Donald Trump and his direct influence on the events that occurred on January 6th. I think that what transpired on January 6th were a direct result of the mounting pressures of polarization coupled with the spread of misinformation from President Trump. I believe that as the presidency of Donald Trump begins to fade into history the dangerous rhetoric that we saw in the government and throughout the citizenry will also dissipate. Hopefully the “us vs them” mentality that you wrote about in your response can be eliminated from the United States.
Hi Emily, I liked the points you brought up. I think many times the discourse around election violence centers more on “developing countries”, I really appreciated you talking about its increasing relevance in the United States context. Just one decade ago election violence like we saw on the January 6th insurrection would have seemed unfathomable, but unfortunately this is our reality now. I also liked your focus on “us vs them” logic. I think sometimes rhetoric around the insurrection can focus too much on Donald Trump alone. While I agree he absolutely holds the most blame, there was a lot of groundwork laid to make this attack possible. The polarization of the last few years is the fault of the American right as a whole, and I think that’s important to remember. It’s difficult to think of a way out of this “us vs them” binary. It feels so entrenched now but unfortunately, we are going to have to find a way out. It’s interesting to think that this might just be a pendulum of sorts. Considering this issue isn’t exclusive to the United States, lots of other “entrenched” western democracies are going through similar issues. Germany, Spain, and Sweden for instance all have right wing parties that are rapidly gaining support, and that’s just to name a few. It is even more concerning when you realize that those are the “entrenched” democracies. Do fledgling democracies around the world have any hope? It’s so easy to be doomsday about democracy’s fate around the world, but it is important to remember that we the people have the power. Thanks for the great analysis.
Hey Emily! I thoroughly enjoyed your blog post about how increased polarization can lead to increased election violence. It seems like an obvious conclusion but one that is not often considered when thinking about elections and polarization. Particularly I like how you pointed to election violence being before, during, and after elections as many times people forget to consider that election violence occurs after elections have occurred and not just during the actual act of participating in elections. Increasing polarization is an ever-present threat to democracies worldwide and one that does not have an obvious answer. With the introduction of social media and ever-increasing globalization, polarization has become a rampant issue that threatens democracies worldwide. The example you draw upon of the January 6th riots following the 2020 United States presidential election with many Trump supporters and Republicans believing that the election was “stolen” is a scary sight when considering election violence and polarization. This example showed that even in the United States, what is often considered the bastion of democracy worldwide, that polarization and election violence are ever increasing and that there needs to be steps taken to stop this. With the legal challenges Trump enacted across multiple states and those challenges failing to provide any evidence of a fraudulent election, it does not make sense on the surface as to why these riots happened. With all of the evidence pointing towards the fact that the 2020 presidential was free and fair, it goes to show how pervasive polarization can be and how harmful polarizing and violent rhetoric from leaders can be on a society. I thoroughly enjoyed reading and considering your post.
Hi Emily! Thank you for taking the time to write this piece. I share the belief that polarization is a major problem in America amongst other Western democracies, and this piece really helped me to better understand what election violence really means. The capitol riots on January 6th were the most blatant example of election violence in recent history, insurrected by Donald Trump’s “stop the steal” campaign. His unwillingness to acknowledge his loss and insistence that there was a way to overturn the confirmation of the electoral votes led to one of the biggest attacks on our democracy in modern day history. While I disagree with the people whose ideology allowed for this, I acknowledge it is important to view everyone as human beings and respect their right to their own beliefs and opinions. It’s when this aspect is lost that our democracy is truly damaged.