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A Three Step Solution to Prevent Future Election Violence

I’ve spent my entire career on peacebuilding after conflict. Here’s how we avoid becoming a failed state. 

A Trump supporter in Washington, D.C., draped in the Confederate battle flag. (Photo: Shutterstock)

A Trump supporter in Washington, D.C., draped in the Confederate battle flag. (Photo: Shutterstock)

I have spent my entire career working to end election-related conflicts, mostly overseas. Unfortunately, this experience is now increasingly relevant at home.

Ahead of the Capitol insurrection, the U.S. met several criteria that increased the likelihood of election violence: pay-to-pay politics, weak electoral management bodies, ongoing conflict and division, and civil unrest and violence against protesters.

Meeting even one of these criteria would have been concerning. We met them all.

The successful inauguration demonstrated a moment of hope. But those of us who work in peacebuilding know that we have a lot of work ahead to ensure election violence doesn’t happen again.

There are important lessons to be learned from countries that have weathered similar crises and come out on the other side. Here’s what we know about how to restore stability and keep a country running after an attempted insurrection.

First, both sides must denounce the incumbent’s violent attempt to stay in power.

Without this, countries can remain in protracted conflict or in a fragile state for years. Existing divisions can intensify, which further undermines trust in democratic institutions and normalizes violence.

Following the Capitol attack, one of the most alarming signs was how many Republicans still voted against certifying President Biden’s election victory. This will prove to be a difficult hurdle to overcome but is absolutely necessary to address if we are to move forward.

Still, we also saw Republican governors, senators, and election officials cross party lines to affirm the election results, placing the integrity of our democracy over partisan politics.  This is an important step towards de-escalation.

Second, there needs to be accountability.

When there is no accountability after violence, it can decrease political participation and trust in public institutions.

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There are a number of strategies to prevent this. One is enhancing election management infrastructure. Another is establishing bipartisan commissions designed to build national cohesion by addressing the conditions that enabled violence.

In our case, a bipartisan consortium will need to acknowledge the harms caused both by these attacks and by the country’s long history of violence and oppression — and then take action to remedy these harms.

The process of accountability has begun with investigations and impeachment proceedings, which have support from Democrats and Republicans. This won’t be a cure-all, but it’s an important step.

Finally, the country needs a community-based process to address racism and build national cohesion.

The U.S. needs to begin a process to better understand and prevent radicalized violence and white nationalism.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there’s been a 55 percent increase in white nationalist hate groups since Donald Trump took office. The unabated growth of this movement is deeply troubling, and it should not have taken an attack on the Capitol to finally take right-wing extremism seriously.

Around the globe, there are many success stories of community-based processes to unite countries following unrest. And during previous violent periods in the United States, we have made progress through grassroots organizing, community dialogues, and courageous actions from community leaders and policy makers.

To confront these issues, President Biden should appoint a Cabinet level position, a Secretary of Peace, with the budget and authority to address our legacies of violence.

This position should lead a Truth and Reconciliation Commission and develop specific policy recommendations that address our societal fragmentation. Then we need government-led programs to strengthen our democratic institutions.

A country that experiences post-election violence is not doomed to become a failed state. But it does need to proceed deliberately to end the conflict and overcome existing divisions.

At this crossroads, we must call on leaders of both parties and all levels of government to pledge their support to peacebuilding, bridge divisions, and commit to strengthening our democracy.

Kerri Kennedy

Kerri Kennedy, Associate General Secretary for International Programs at AFSC, has 18 years of experience managing international development and emergency response programs in areas of conflict and post conflict environments with a focus on inclusive governance systems, civic education and advocacy campaigns, gender, and rights-based policy development.

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