What’s new? As the U.S. presidential election approaches, the ingredients for unrest are present. The electorate is polarised, both sides frame the stakes as existential, violent actors could disrupt the process and protracted contestation is possible. President Donald Trump’s often incendiary rhetoric suggests he will more likely stoke than calm tensions.
Why does it matter? Beyond the implications for any Americans caught up in unrest, the election will be a harbinger of whether its institutions can guide the U.S. safely through a period of socio-political change. If not, the world’s most powerful country could face a period of growing instability and increasingly diminished credibility abroad.
What should be done? Authorities should be ready to counter voter intimidation and continue polling in the event of disruption. Domestic leaders should make bipartisan calls for a clean election. Foreign leaders should press U.S. counterparts to respect democratic norms. The media and foreign governments should take care not to recognise a winner prematurely.
As the 3 November U.S. presidential election approaches, the country faces an unfamiliar danger. While Americans have grown used to a certain level of rancour in these quadrennial campaigns, they have not in living memory faced the realistic prospect that the incumbent may reject the outcome or that armed violence may result. That has changed in 2020 because of the emergence of risk factors that would spell trouble in any country: political polarisation bound up with issues of race and identity; the rise of armed groups with political agendas; the higher-than-usual chances of a contested outcome; and most importantly President Donald Trump, whose toxic rhetoric and willingness to court conflict to advance his personal interests have no precedent in modern U.S. history. The risk of unrest may ebb and flow as the final days of the campaign unfold, but it is almost certain to remain, and it will increase if either side forms the impression that the vote has been rigged.
Americans have not in living memory faced the realistic prospect that the incumbent may reject the outcome or that armed violence may result.
At some level, it should not be surprising that the United States now faces the spectre of electoral violence. The U.S. has seen slavery, civil war, lynching, labour strife and the ethnic cleansing of indigenous peoples. The wounds of those legacies have never fully healed. The country is awash in firearms, has gun homicide levels unmatched by any other high-income country, and is home to a white supremacy movement that, as discussed below, is growing in virulence. Racial injustice, economic inequality and police brutality are chronic sources of tension, which periodically bubbles over into large-scale peaceful demonstrations and, sometimes, civil unrest. By way of recent example, the police killing of an unarmed Black man, George Floyd, in Minnesota state’s largest city of Minneapolis on 25 May generated a wave of protests and counter-protests that has diminished but not fully subsided five months later.
Even so, it is rare that U.S. elections threaten to go off the rails in a way that calls into question the capacity and resilience of the country’s democratic institutions, or that suggests the use, or threat, of force might influence the outcome. Journalists and historians commonly cite two previous elections that the 2020 contest could come to resemble. The 2000 election was so close that the winner was not apparent on Election Day. The Supreme Court halted a recount in Florida, handing the presidency to George W. Bush. The 1876 election was so contentious that four states sent rival slates of electors to Congress. In neither case, however, did the dispute wind up violent: Bush’s opponent Al Gore accepted the Supreme Court decision, while in 1876 one candidate basically traded the White House to the other for an end to federal occupation of the South after the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865) – preserving the peace but ushering in the segregationist Jim Crow era.
Foreign heads of state should refrain from offering their congratulations until the institutional process has run its course.
Under the circumstances, the responsibility of all officials at every level of government, of foreign partners, of civil society and of the media should be to anticipate sources of friction and grievance within the voting public and move quickly to address them. In the limited time that remains before the election, state and local governments should acquaint themselves thoroughly with the legal tools at their disposal and, with support from civil society, use them as needed so that voting and ballot counting can proceed in an orderly fashion without duress. Traditional and social media should take extra precautions not to pronounce winners prematurely, particularly in “battleground states” where margins are likely to be thin. They must not provide a platform for candidates to declare themselves victors before the outcome is known, or proliferate pernicious disinformation; some have taken steps in this direction, but the challenge will require constant management.
For their part, foreign heads of state should refrain from offering their congratulations until the institutional process has run its course, regardless of any potential pressure from the U.S. to do otherwise. If events take an ugly turn, both domestic political and foreign leaders with easy access to Trump and his inner circles should tell them privately and publicly that they will have no support if they try to interfere with tabulation of results or, should they lose, the peaceful transfer of power. In the interim, U.S. political leaders at every level should follow the lead of the two Utah state gubernatorial candidates, who recently recorded a public service announcement in which they jointly commit to peacefully upholding the democratic process. Ideally, more leaders representing the country’s two major political parties – Democrats and Republicans – would get together ahead of the vote to make similar public pledges.
The failure of democratic institutions to deliver a peaceful election and, depending on the result, transfer of power in the United States would be bad for the American people, for the country’s governance, for the nation’s credibility and thus its influence abroad, and for foreign partners who (even after four years of Trump) still turn to the U.S. for a measure of stability and security. With luck, and perhaps a little help from its friends, the U.S. could still avoid election trouble and emerge ready to begin repairing the social fractures that have helped bring it to this dangerous place.
Washington/Brussels, 28 October 2020