Naomi Schalit, The Conversation
Editor’s Note: Ore Koren is a scholar on civil conflict and political violence. Before the November 2020 election, he wrote a story for The Conversation about the likelihood of election-related violence in the United States. So we went back to him on Wednesday while a riot was taking place in the U.S. Capitol to ask him a perspective on the event. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: You are a scholar of political violence. What did you think when you saw what happened in the US Capitol?
Koren: First of all, I felt pretty stunned. I think that’s a natural answer to that. This is a new situation; It shows the power of misinformation and things that we are not really good at handling.
My research focuses on organized political violence, which often occurs in places where the state doesn’t have much power to prevent violence, where the economy is underdeveloped, where democratic institutions are weak, and where there is a history of organized violence gives. And usually, when we see events of this magnitude, they are accompanied by many victims, which fortunately was not the case today.
What happened at the Capitol was, as far as I can tell, a chaotic uprising that pissed the people at the heart of American democracy, but it remains unclear how organized that effort was.
Still, it’s kind of shocking. We have the largest economy in the world. Based on what we see in the research, poor economic performance is a strong predictor of organized political violence. The people who march on the Capitol have a lot more to lose than to gain from it, and to me that is a mystery.
Many people did not expect this to be the case with an incumbent campaigning for a strong law and order agenda. In a country with a strong internal security apparatus, militias and vigilantes are more likely to violate than to promote the rule of law.
What sets the US and other advanced and militarily capable democracies apart from other countries where deadly electoral violence takes place is the ability to get an effective state response and implement the rule of law very quickly, both the perpetrators and any groups they may face belong, be attacked hard with.
An example of a very effective state response was Michigan, where the militias attempting to kidnap the state governor were quickly arrested by federal authorities.
Q: How does this compare to political violence in countries you have studied?
Koren: Compared to other countries, I hope that it doesn’t reach the threshold of being more extreme. A lot of violence actually happens when one party refuses to give up power or one party accuses the other of cheating. That is exactly what we saw here, right, one party accused the other of cheating. Only here did we have much evidence to the contrary, and we had legal and institutional opportunities to check for fraud or lack of it.
In the United States, most of the electoral challenges came through formal legal channels. The main problem in places where violence occurs is that they don’t have such institutions to deal with, courts, all the things our legal system can deal with. But in countries where such institutions are weak, the state cannot deal with them and address electoral challenges through a peaceful process. In this case, we see many political leaders, and not just disgruntled citizens, saying that these political institutions are not valid.
In other countries, those who engage in such acts of violence are often pro-government militias, but these are not the pro-government militias that we see here. As we saw today, they are active against the police.
Q: But what you have in the US is a group of people who actually don’t believe that these institutions have handled it, that everything is corrupt, that everything is wrong and not real, and that fraud and conspiracies have taken place. And that’s what a president said.
Koren: Well, the president said he was betrayed, but he went through the legal channels. The president didn’t just go and say, “Okay, let’s attack the Capitol,” although Wednesday morning’s speech could definitely be interpreted as inciting something like this. So far, his rhetoric could be viewed more as a mobilization of support and an attempt to create enough reasonable doubts to then put pressure on the results through formal channels.
But we have a very unpredictable incumbent who breaks the legal framework during the worst pandemic in a century. What we see today, in my opinion, has a lot more to do with its unpredictability and with things that we cannot explain in models we use to study violent political events. It has been more than two months since the elections and we haven’t seen any serious violence yet, but when the legal options were closed the situation became more problematic. We don’t often see electoral violence months after an election.
Q: What do you think this means for the stability of the US government or the US elections?
Koren: I’m not an elective specialist, but it’s a bad precedent. We don’t have a recent history of electoral violence and now we can say we have it and that’s not a good thing.
What contributed enormously to all of this is misinformation. People who were mobilized because of a conspiracy with no evidence. I think this is a big problem that needs to be addressed – I don’t know how. However, it’s very important to address the underlying problem – that people believe in what they think is real, not what is real.
Once you engage in political violence, it becomes easier to do so again. However, if there is an effective government response to these events, it can help strengthen these institutions.
I think a lot of people will say, look, this is all going to have a negative long-term effect. But there is also the possibility that this can help in the long term by pointing out the grave consequences of manipulating democratic institutions for political gain. Here, too, it depends on how the state, politics and security and everyone reacts to it. A history of political violence, however, is a pretty strong predictor of future violence.
I think it’s really important for federal agencies to show their ability to address this. When it comes down to it, the government must show that it can protect American democracy, if necessary by force.
Naomi Schalit, Editor-in-Chief, Politics + Society, The Conversation
This article is republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.