This year’s election is making many Americans nervous for reasons that go beyond the possibility that their favored candidate might lose. If the result of the election is disputed—or even just unclear for a period of time—the risk of political violence is significant. A number of researchers are warning that the level of inequality and polarization in the U.S. today puts it at particular risk for political violence. Recent events, ranging from minor clashes at protests, to the disturbing trend of drivers plowing into rallies around the country, to the uncovered right-wing militia plot to kidnap the governor of Michigan, do not exactly inspire confidence. This week, Walmart announced it is removing guns and ammunition from store displays, citing the risk of “civil unrest” and stores in downtown Washington have been boarding up their windows.
To make sense of this trend, I spoke with Rachel Kleinfeld, an expert on conflict and fragile societies, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and the author of the 2018 book A Savage Order: How the World’s Deadliest Countries Can Forge a Path to Security. Most of Kleinfeld’s work has focused on other countries, but she’s also lately used that experience to warn of the very real risk of political violence here in the U.S. Kleinfeld doesn’t downplay our situation, but she also suggested that treating violence as inevitable may only make it more likely. The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Joshua Keating: So what I’ve been wondering is, if we forget that the U.S. is the U.S. for a minute, and imagine we’re looking at a country in South America or the Caucasus, what would be the factors we’re seeing right now that would trigger alarm bells for you, if there are any?
Rachel Kleinfeld: Basically, when you analyze this in other countries, you look for risk factors and resilience factors. We have, in America, a number of the risk factors. Our resilience factors have been weakening, but they’re nowhere near as weak as they would be in some other countries.
But we do have risk factors. The main ones for political violence are things like income inequality, a highly divided society, significant polarization, and a history of political violence. We have all of those. In fact, we’re one of the most polarized societies around the world.
And then when you look at resilience, you look at questions like, do the political parties keep the violent or really problematic leaders out of gatekeeping abilities? Ours clearly did not. You look at institutions like courts and parliamentary bodies to see whether they have deliberative functions that are seen as nonpartisan or seen as above the fray. Are there ways that people can bring grievances and feel like the process itself is fair? And ours again are better than a lot of other countries but obviously have been weakening quite a bit.
Another thing you look for is whether you have an entrepreneurial politician, who’s looking to stoke violence. We do. You can draw a very clear line between some of Trump’s statements and people’s actions, in terms of threats against officials and so on.
And you look finally at law enforcement and security forces, which really are kind of the last line of defense. Do they stand on the side of the people, or do they protect the regime? And there, I think, the U.S. is on pretty strong footing. Our military is extremely professional. Our National Guard is extremely professional. And while law enforcement at the local level may have more problems, when push came to shove, I think our military would certainly support people over any leadership.
I found your book to be a pretty good antidote to exceptionalist thinking. You demonstrate that most deadly violence around the world actually happens not in war zones but in countries we consider “at peace,” including in the U.S. Do you think in light of recent events, Americans might be starting to reconsider just how exceptional or immune from political violence we may be?
America is funny in that we accept a huge amount of political violence. We accept a level of just normal violence in our society that would be stunning in Europe, or Australia, or Canada. These tropes in America that conflate patriotism with the ability to use violence run very deep in our society and make it hard for us to see just how much violence we tolerate as a matter of course. And I come from Fairbanks, Alaska, which is a heavily gun-wielding society.
Are there examples from recent international elections that stand out to you as having some lessons for us?
If I gave them to you, I don’t think your readers would believe me. And that’s because Americans are used to thinking of our democracy as the oldest and strongest democracy in the world. And we are the oldest democracy in the world. On the other hand, we never incorporated our African-American population. And the moment that we tried to incorporate the African-American population as a voting population, after the Civil War, we had just over a decade until the most violent and conflictual election up until today, 1876, which was decided in a backroom deal. And then we saw almost another hundred years of disenfranchisement.
So, yes, on the one hand, we’re a very old democracy. On the other hand, we are quite new and we share a lot in common with the democracies of postcolonial countries in Africa and Asia, in terms of taking a divided society that has had real problems, incorporating a major portion of that society, and doing that democratically. That means that we need to look at other postcolonial democracies as potentially where we could end up.
So, you can look at places like South Africa. You can look at places like Kenya. You can look at also places like Northern Ireland that have had real divided societies.
A Savage Order focuses on countries that pulled back from the brink, places like Colombia and Georgia that had very high levels of violence but became more peaceful. Do those countries have some lessons for our situation?
Yeah. So, the first step was for societies to find some way to come together. It doesn’t have to be around the issue of polarization. In fact, it can’t really be. You have to sort of do an end run and say something else isn’t working. In our society, you could imagine saying, “Look, we don’t want to have violent elections. We don’t want to worry about that.” And then you need to be able to elect politicians who agree with those viewpoints in our system.
It’s hard for that to happen at the national level for a lot of reasons. And so I think a first step is probably changes, like what I hope we’ll see in Alaska and Massachusetts, moves toward ranked-choice voting or similar systems that are very depolarizing.
So that kind of structural change at the state level, combined with humanization at the personal level, can start allowing people to see the desire for interacting across the divide, see the ability to make a compromise and actually get things done. And then I think that can percolate up.
I wanted to ask you about something I heard you say recently, which is that in a situation of high polarization, “We need to think of those followers on the other side more as believers than as regular political citizens and not try to fight with rational arguments, not try to convince with data and so on.” How do you adopt that mindset without just sort of accepting the current level of polarization?
I was actually quoting from a Polish activist who said something that I thought was very prescient. From psychological research, we know two things: When people move into the idea of affective polarization, which is where we are now, it’s not that they disagree on policy, it’s that they dislike the other side so much that it’s not about policy anymore, it’s about tribe. And it’s about helping their tribe win over the other tribe.
You can see that in all sorts of indicators, like far more people don’t want their kids to marry across the political divide than care about race and marriage, for instance. So, when you have that kind of society, what happens is … issues that used to be things you could compromise on become moralized in their form and therefore uncompromisable.
More and more of our policies are moving into that ground: abortion, immigration, and so on, instead of these being questions of, well, should we let in 5,000 people a year or 15,000? Should we use this or that scientific decision about the beginning of life? These are moral issues on which there can be no discussion. And that creates true believers. And true believers are not susceptible to rational argument, cognitively. But that doesn’t mean that they’re irrational people. It means that that’s how our psychology works. And to break through that divide, we need to do a couple of things.
First, we need to humanize everybody. The level of misunderstanding is vast in America, when you poll people on what they think the other side thinks or who they think the other side is. But at the broader level, you need structural change so that the political incentives aren’t to further the kind of polarization that we have right now.
So, all that makes sense in terms of long-term change. But in terms of what’s happening next week, if there are disputes involving this election, a lot of Americans are going to feel like democracy itself is at stake. It seems hard to look across the aisle and find what unites us when you’re trying to push back against something like that.
You’re right. I mean, the long term and the short term don’t match up perfectly well. I think what a lot of us are doing—and by us, I mean there’s over 1,000 community groups working on planned community resilience. There’s groups scouring the internet to make sure that militia and other violent activity is uncovered and gotten in the hands of people who can do something about it.
There are groups of senior former officials and really knowledgeable experts like the National Task Force on Election Crises. There are all these groups working to make sure we count every vote, trying to make sure this election’s free and fair.
And we’re all saying pretty much the same thing, which is: take a breath. The process is basically working. We’ve had, despite these incredible levels of polarization and some technical glitches, a pretty good early voting season. I mean, there’s unprecedented numbers of people voting early. And that gives a lot of reason to be hopeful for the future.
We’ve had a summer of extreme levels of protest. And yet actually, when you look at all the protests happening all around the country and how high tempers have been, there’s been very little violence.
Ninety-five percent of those protests have been peaceful and the violent activities have been not good but were minimal. And so I think just trying to remember that the vast majority of Americans want a peaceful election on both sides of the aisle. They don’t want political violence to happen. If we normalize that and act as if it’s something that’s likely to happen, there’s a self-fulfilling prophecy and nature to this sort of thing.
I suppose I might be contributing to that by doing this interview, but I guess that brings me to another question, which is what role do you think the media has to play in denormalizing violence, as you said?
So I wrote a media guide actually with Amanda Ripley, who’s an amazing journalist, drawn from the guidance of a number of journalists from overseas in countries where they’re used to elections that are more conflictual. There are all sorts of things that they do. They don’t report rumors. They triple check. They have sources in the states, with the National Guard units, with law enforcement, so if they hear a rumor that involves state actors like that, they can call and check right away.
They make sure to always situate their stories within the larger picture. So if there’s electoral intimidation happening at one poll in Virginia, they say there’s intimidation at one poll in Virginia, out of 5,000 polls in Virginia, or whatever the number is. These are all steps to make sure that the media doesn’t serve as an instrument of voter suppression. Because really what a lot of violence is meant to do is influence the conversation and use the media to do that. And frankly, media in other countries are often much more aware of how to do this than America, where we just don’t have a track record of it yet.
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