Mid-term elections in US under shadow of unprecedented political violence
Attack against Nancy Pelosi's husband on October 28, once again turned the discussion of political violence into the headlines of the world's media. In general, political violence in most of the modern societies is the result of social tensions, which develop due to different reasons: Ideology, religious and ethnic conflicts, political conflicts between different groups of elites, economic conditions and the concept of relative deprivation.
Mid-term elections in US under shadow of unprecedented political violence – However, in this particular case, I propose two new hypotheses and this is how the American electoral system and its participation in the Ukraine war led to the reproduction of political violence.
U.S. electoral system and the reproduction of political violence
Since the end of the Cold War, a global movement has transformed how democratic elections are conducted, with many democracies holding freer and fairer elections than at any time in their history and American organizations such as the International Republican Institute (IRI) and the National Democratic Institute (NDI) have played critical roles in this global transformation.
Paradoxically, the United States is a democracy that seems immune from this transformation. Unable or unwilling to professionalize their election management, they lack uniform, capable, independent, and non-partisan election bodies. Instead, they rely on a crazy patchwork quilt of partisan state officers, well-meaning but amateur volunteers, and outmoded equipment to help administer elections in what has become one of the most polarized democracies in the world. America’s electoral exceptionalism almost caught up with it in the disputed 2000 presidential election between Al Gore and George W. Bush, famous for its “hanging chads” and Supreme Court decision that ended vote recounts that could have changed the election’s result. That election ended without violence and American electoral legitimacy alive but gravely wounded.
The 2020 election season was an inflection point that led to a step-change in acceptance of violence as a political tool, particularly among Republicans. The post-election to inauguration period is a unique period of the U.S. electoral calendar. January 6 was the highest-profile act of political violence in this period, a confluence of violence and an attack on U.S. democratic system. These worrisome trends in the United States that portend the potential of large-scale post- midterm election violence in November. The very legitimacy of democratic elections in the United States may disappear.
How does U.S. electoral system lead to the reproduction of political violence?
For democracy to work, political parties must believe in the potential for rotational power; that is, the losing party must feel it has a chance to meaningfully compete in future elections. Trouble begins when parties believe they are facing an impending exile from power, either because of long-term trends or because they believe their opponents will change the rules to permanently rig the system against them. Without the prospect of future victory, there is little incentive to stay within the bounds of the democratic system—after all, why keep playing a game when you know you’ll lose?
For many years, the majority of Republicans and Democrats believed in democracy as a long game. When parties lost electoral contests, there was a sense of “oh well, we’ll win the next one.” However, from 2016 election have emerged signs that attitude may be shifting, with deeply troubling implications, despite President Trump’s Electoral College victory in 2016, his vote margins in key states were razor thin, and he lost the popular vote by millions. Increasingly statements by GOP leaders and the President reflect the belief that demography is not on their side and creating barriers to vote is essential to staying in power. Witness President Trump’s comments that shifting to voting-by-mail would lead to political ruin: “you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.” A GOP leader’s re-election, however, could cause similar despair among members of the Democratic Party and many Democrats view Republican-backed restrictive election rules as efforts to suppress likely Democratic voters, undermining their political chances.
Although in 2000 political polarization in America was real but had not reached the fever pitch of the past several years. A national poll by the Democracy Fund found that an astounding 21 percent of Americans felt some level of violence would be justified to achieve political goals if the opposing party wins the presidency. And the poll revealed few differences between members of either party. The loathing, it seems, is mutual.
The most consistent survey data comes from scholars Lilliana Mason and Nathan Kalmoe1, who have been tracking public opinion on political violence using identical questions and methods for the last five years. From 2017 when their tracking begins, support for political violence rises across several measures prior to the midterm elections and declines after the elections. Support for violence from 2017 through the summer of 2020 is generally quite close across parties but somewhat higher for Democrats, though as I’ll show later, actual incidents of violence are far higher for Republicans.
Ukraine war ignited political violence in America
Although a century has passed from the bloodiest period of political violence in United States since The Great War which thousands of Americans were imprisoned for things they had written or said. With the blessing of the Justice Department, vigilante groups roamed the streets of major cities, arresting leftists and alleged draft-dodgers. Army troops patrolled the streets with machine guns and, in one case, a tank. Government press-censorship banned more than 400 issues of American newspapers and magazines from the mail, and they shut down many others entirely. More Black Americans were murdered by white supremacists and mob violence in 1919 than in any year since the end of slavery. We are witnessing the rekindling of the political violence in U.S. There is same commonality between old and new violence and that is “war”.
Adam Hochschild discussed what ignited this almost unparalleled storm of repression and violence: the U.S. entry into the World War I in April 1917. That, he argues, took the lid off a number of conflicts that had long been simmering in American life – conflicts between business and labor, racial identities, and nativists and immigrants. Currently, part of the political violence in the U.S. is the result of their participation in the proxy war in Ukraine.
The U.S. was initially cautious during the fall and winter as Russia, a nuclear country with veto power at the UN Security Council, amassed more than a hundred and fifty thousand troops along the Ukrainian border. It didn’t want to poke the Russian bear—or provoke Vladimir Putin personally. Two days after long convoys of Russian tanks rolled across the border, on February 24th, the U.S. Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, still claimed that America’s goal—backed by hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid—was simply to stand behind the Ukrainian people. The White House sanctioned Russia—initially targeting a few banks, oligarchs, political élites, government-owned enterprises, and Putin’s own family—to pressure the Russian leader to put his troops back in their box, without resorting to military intervention. “Direct confrontation between NATO and Russia is World War Three, something we must strive to prevent,” President Joe Biden said, in early March.
Yet in just over nine weeks, the conflict has rapidly evolved into a full proxy war with Russia, with global ramifications. U.S. officials now frame America’s role in more ambitious terms that border on aggressive.
The U.S. Congress approved $13.6 billion in emergency spending in March to help Ukraine in its fight against Russia’s invasion. The money includes weapons, military supplies and one of the largest infusions of U.S. foreign aid in the last decade. the war will fuel already high inflation and slow growth in consumer spending. Even before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, commodity prices were surging globally owing to four factors: supply-chain disruptions; adverse weather events; new waves of the coronavirus pandemic; and recovering global demand. The further, war-induced rise in global commodities price comes at a time when U.S. inflation is already at a 40-year high (of 7.9% year on year in February). This will weigh on consumer spending and real GDP growth. As a result, U.S. has lowered our forecast for real GDP growth this year from 3.4% to 3%.
Historically, periods of elevated geopolitical risks have been associated with sizable negative effects on global economic activity. Wars destroy human and physical capital, shift resources to less efficient uses, divert international trade and capital flows, and disrupt global supply chains. Additionally, changing perceptions about the range of outcomes of adverse geopolitical events may further weigh on economic activity by delaying firms’ investment and hiring, eroding consumer confidence, and tightening financial conditions. So, we expect divisions to grow as the war drags on, in line with our long-held view that the American society in parallel global geopolitical landscape is becoming increasingly polarized.
Today democratic institutions in the U.S. have become sites of contestation rather than impartial pillars. This makes them more likely to become flashpoints for violence, and none more so than the institutions that administer elections. As of July 14, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, “Eighteen states have already enacted 30 laws this year that will make it harder for Americans to vote.” During the 2021 legislative sessions, 49 states introduced “more than 400 bills with provisions that restrict voting access.” Some of this legislation “create[s] the serious prospect of an election crisis by giving state legislatures the opportunity to overturn election results they don’t like.” Restrictive laws also include measures that collectively make it more difficult to vote by mail and in person, including stricter ID and signature requirements for mail-in ballots, stricter in-person voter ID requirements, limits to early voting days and hours, shortened deadlines to request and submit a mail-in ballot, limits on access to mail ballot drop boxes, and more. Additionally, certain states have also enacted measures that undermine voting and elections, including expanded power for partisan “poll watchers,” increasing opportunities for harassment and voter intimidation and imposing “criminal penalties on election officials.” Critically, these newly enacted measures appear to fall below internationally accepted standards for free and fair elections, which call for voters to be able to participate in elections without coercion or intimidation.
All these factors have caused America midterm election on November 8 to be combustible. Growing fears of political disenfranchisement; increasing partisan animosity; rising unemployment; coronavirus’s disruptions to election administration; partisan distrust of mainstream media coverage; domestic strategies of disinformation; and the likelihood of foreign interference in the electoral process all add fuel to the pyre.
1. Kalmoe, N. P., & Mason, L. Radical American Partisanship: Mapping Violent Hostility, Its Causes, and the Consequences for Democracy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2022), 88.