Transformation: Opinion

How to reduce political violence in America

Community-based solutions won’t solve the problems of extremism, but they can help to mitigate violent conflict.

Nathan Stock
18 August 2020
Charlottesville Unite the Right Rally, August 12 2017.
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Flickr/Anthony Crider. CC BY 2.0.

When I began working as a conflict analyst focused on the Middle East, it was impossible to miss the overlap of social and political identities. In Lebanon in 2008, competing political blocks were dominated by Sunni or Shia political parties. In the deeply divided Palestinian political system, loyalty to one of the dominant factions functioned more as a form of tribal affiliation.

It is difficult to look at the United States today and not be reminded of the same dysfunction. Here too partisan affiliation has become a form of tribal identity. Whether one identifies as a Republican or a Democrat is more than twice as likely as race, gender, education level, or age to predict one’s views on a range of policy issues. For many Americans, partisan affiliation now aligns with social identity.

The Republican Party is increasingly monolithically white and Christian, while the Democratic Party has evolved into a multi-ethnic and multi-confessional coalition. We are already experiencing the most immediate impacts of this merging of political and social identities: in the shape of profound polarization, including the dehumanization of opponents and paralyzed policy making.

This polarization is also driving a zero-sum politics that decrease American resilience to political violence. If their party loses the November Presidential election, 18 percent of Democrats and 13 percent of Republicans would “at least occasionally…approve of the use of violence” to advance “political goals.” In addition, President Trump has accelerated the “racialization” of American politics, with the Republican Party “becoming increasingly attractive to whites and especially whites…who tend to have less favorable views of minorities.”

This process has ensured that the political divide between left and right has become ever more tightly entwined with America’s centuries-old racial divides. Our social and political divisions are overlapping and reinforcing, making each one harder to resolve. In turn, violence that targets religious and ethnic minorities increasingly functions as a form of political violence, and that violence is rising.

On July 19, a former Trump campaign volunteer who left behind a trove of racist and misogynist writing is accused of killing the son of a Latinx federal judge. The Federal Bureau of Investigations has elevated violence from racially-motivated extremists to a “national threat priority” on par with the Islamic State. In Congressional testimony, FBI Director Christopher Wray warned that “racially/ethnically motivated violent extremists…were the primary source of ideologically-motivated lethal incidents and violence in 2018 and 2019.”

Violence that targets minorities is growing together with an increase in anti-government extremist activity. From 2013 to 2017 the Government Accountability Office documented at least 360 cases of threats or assaults targeting federal land management staff, including Parks Service and Bureau of Land Management personnel. In January, seven members of the white supremacist group ‘the Base’ were arrested and accused of plotting a series of attacks as part of a wider plan to spark a race war that would topple the government - and this was before the combined pressures of COVID-19 and national protests against racism and police violence.

A recent analysis of social media found that the pandemic is exacerbating “conspiracies with themes of an imminent civil war and revolt…against the police… [and] the “elite.” The Network Contagion Research Institute warned that these “groups and actors may now pose imminent and lethal threats to law enforcement.”

In May, adherents of the “Boogaloo” movement, a loose collection of anti-government, libertarian, gun enthusiasts, ambushed two federal security guards in Oakland, killing one. In recent months authorities in Colorado, Nevada, Texas, and Ohio have arrested Boogaloo affiliates accused of planning to incite violence. These developments come against a backdrop of high-profile incidents of politically and/or racially-motivated violence, including a shooting targeting Republican members of Congress, pipe bombs mailed to prominent Democrats, and mass shootings of Jewish and Latinx Americans.

What’s going on here?

According to the United Nations Development Program, “societies that are resilient to violent conflict are those where different groups can constructively interact with one another to address potential causes of tension, such as socio-economic, political, ethnic or religious differences, or unequal resource allocation.”

The U.S. political system has demonstrated such conflict resilience in the past. Importantly, the early twentieth century saw a series of constitutional amendments expanding suffrage and making the political system more democratic. Industrialization, strikes, and ultimately the economic collapse of the 1930s laid a foundation for New Deal economic policies. Civil rights protests in the 1950s and 1960s contributed to significant policy change, including the Voting Rights Act.

Recent weeks have seen what may be the largest protest movement in U.S. history. While the immediate trigger was police violence, the protests also are a function of the centuries-long struggle for racial equity in the United States. This struggle, in turn, is intimately connected to the anti-democratic movement that gave rise to President Trump. More than anything else, this populist wave is being driven by fear of demographic change.

The U.S.’s foreign-born population increased from 4.7 percent in 1970 to 13.7 percent in 2018, and a growing body of research suggests that racial resentment and perceptions of “white vulnerability” have stoked fear and resentment of immigrants and ethnic minorities. The percentage of Republicans or Republican-leaning independents who report that the U.S. risks “losing our identity as a nation” if the country is “too open to foreigners” reached 57 percent in July 2019, up from 48 percent in 2017.

These are not the views of the majority. Seventy percent of Americans want current levels of immigration to remain constant or increase, including 34 percent that would like to see immigration rise, the highest percentage since Gallup began polling the question. A record 69 percent of Americans say that African Americans and other minorities “do not receive equal treatment” in the justice system.

However, the conservative minority that is frightened by the “browning of America” enjoys advantages in the U.S. political system. The Senate and Electoral College afford disproportionate power to states with smaller populations that tend to skew conservative. By 2040, 70 percent of the population is likely to be represented by just 30 Senators. These democratic deficits come atop gerrymandering, voter suppression, and money in politics, further distorting policy outcomes and undermining the legitimacy of the political system.

This is a key difference between the economic and social upheavals today and those of the twentieth century: it is harder for the political system to generate policy responses to these demands because of the disproportionate power of conservative voters, to say nothing of the increasingly explicit opposition to democracy from some conservative intellectuals, driven in part by fears of the loss of white Christian dominance.

Even a sweeping Democratic victory in November will not mollify the substantial minority of Americans likely to have voted for a President so obviously hostile to democracy, and all of this increases the potential for political violence. In that case, what’s to be done?

There are numerous tools for evaluating a country’s propensity for internal armed conflict. The U.S. Agency for International Development has one, as does the United Nations. These instruments analyze how grievances intersect with contextual factors and triggering events to catalyze violence. As a first step, the U.S. needs to adapt these tools to conduct local conflict assessments.

While conflict resilience is declining nationally, there may be mechanisms for fostering resilience at the community level. Few Americans are likely to be insulated from socio-political polarization, but compromise may come more easily locally - after all, it’s harder for conservatives to demonize liberals when they are fellow members of a Rotary Club, and harder for liberals to denigrate conservatives when they attend the same church. Local leaders may be more integrated into an array of relationships that connect people across divides.

Once completed, local conflict assessments should be able to help religious leaders, elected officials, civic groups and others to understand how socio-political polarization is playing out in their communities; anticipate possible triggers for violence; and develop concrete plans to prevent violence or respond constructively in the aftermath of a violent incident.

Such assessments present a detailed picture of the structural factors exacerbating or mitigating conflict, as well as which local stakeholders have the credibility to foster resilience. Of course, this assumes that violence prevention is one of the few remaining sources of common ground in American political discourse; while political violence has a long history in the U.S., in the post-World War II era, most Americans have viewed violence around elections or mass shootings that target minorities as unacceptable.

Second, there’s value in ensuring that credible community leaders trust one another and are in regular communication. Networking these stakeholders can foster resilience. From there, local leaders can prepare for possible conflict triggers and develop mitigation plans, including how best to coordinate with each other, with local officials, and potentially with law enforcement -before a crisis erupts.

This includes medium range planning that outlines how the community would respond to a disputed election, a contentious police shooting, or an incident of mass violence. Messages could be developed as part of a media response plan designed to prevent an escalation. Local conflict mitigators should also advocate for policy changes that address the structural inequities that drive grievances and contribute to conflict in the first place.

There are no easy remedies for the fissures in American society, but just as we prepare for hurricanes in Louisiana or wildfires in California, communities can use conflict analysis and resilience planning to reduce the likelihood of political violence and manage it more effectively when it does break out.

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