The threat of escalating political violence has hung over the United States since long before the January 6 insurrection. Will we see worse things to come within the next two years or so, or is there hope that we can avert that ugly future and return to a relatively peaceful political environment as we move forward?
Before discussing this question from a broader perspective, I should note that the threat of violence around the midterm elections has been on my mind in a very personal sense. When I made plans to spend the Fall semester abroad as a visiting scholar in Austria, I decided to err on the side of caution and not return home during the week of the midterm elections. It seemed at least possible that things could reach a boiling point in the heat of these fiercely contested elections, making mid-November a particularly dangerous moment to return to the United States.
Thus far, those extreme possibilities have thankfully not been realized, and I will be happy to be back in the US soon. Even though voting is now over, however, there will still be plenty of controversy over recounts and court challenges, and it is still possible that things will boil over before too long. After all, we were being told two years ago that allowing Donald Trump to rage about the 2020 election was merely a harmless matter of indulging a fragile ego, only to discover that the worst was yet to come.
In any event, although the US remains peaceful enough for day-to-day life to continue in something resembling a normal fashion, we do need to ask whether political violence is going to become more likely as we move forward.
The Short Term and the Long Term
Yesterday, I noted that I had not yet looked at the midterm results before writing Part One of this column. My arguments there simply did not hinge on immediate political results, because I was focusing on long-term political violence in the form of one-party autocracy playing out over the course of generations. In contrast, having lifted my self-imposed news blackout, today’s Part Two is focused on the current situation and its implications for the immediate future; so although much of what I am saying here is also independent of the midterm results, I will argue below that the Republicans’ surprisingly narrow victory might not be the silver lining that liberals and progressives have been celebrating since Tuesday evening.
As I argued for the umpteenth time yesterday, the United States might be a “dead democracy walking,” that is, a country whose constitutional democracy will not survive beyond the next two years. If that is true—and I am more fearful than ever that it is—then the long-term outlook is in fact relatively easy to predict: the US government will become a sham democracy (most likely still going through the motions of holding elections, solely to keep up appearances), with disfavored groups of people increasingly oppressed and potentially brutalized by their government. That is generally how one-party rule works, with varying degrees of awfulness, and the Republicans who are trying to guarantee that they will never lose another election are certainly indicating that they are learning from their earlier failures.
How things will go from here to there, however, is much less easy to predict. Will the transition to one-party rule be accompanied by the equivalent of brownshirts terrorizing the “others” in America who are deemed not to be worthy of respect and autonomy? Or will the death of democracy be bloodless, with the long-term outcome not in doubt even as the country follows a path that looks relatively civilized?
Perhaps most surprisingly, it should be clear that Democratic politicians and non-Republican observers were quite wrong to say in advance of Tuesday’s elections that “democracy is on the ballot.” It was not crazy for them to say so, of course, because hundreds of Republican candidates, both incumbents and newcomers, insist to this day on rejecting the result of the 2020 election, with shockingly large numbers of them saying in no uncertain terms that they will categorically reject any future election outcome that shows that voters have backed a Democratic candidate.
Even so, I have been predicting democracy’s long-term death in the United States because I never thought that that outcome was still in doubt—not in 2022, not even in 2020. To mix metaphors, that ship has sailed. Most pertinently, it seems clear that the Supreme Court will soon rule in favor of the so-called Independent State Legislature theory (which my Verdict colleague Vikram Amar thoroughly debunked again two days ago), allowing gerrymandered Republican state legislatures in swing states to override the will of their voters in 2024 and award electors to Donald Trump (or whoever is the Republican presidential nominee).
More broadly, the moving parts in our constitutional rules for presidential elections have so many weak points that we cannot trust that they will all hold next time, given how sorely tested they were in 2020—and how assiduously Republicans have been trying to learn their lessons from that very close call.
In reality, then, democracy was not on the ballot this week; but did the outcome change the prospects for short-term political violence?
Back to Beschloss: Short-Term Threats of Violence
In Part One, I quoted extensively from an interview that the historian Michael Beschloss gave to MSNBC’s Chris Hayes on November 2, six days before Election Day and the same night that President Biden warned about the “path to chaos” onto which he said Republicans have launched the United States.
My overall point there was to emphasize that when Beschloss argued that “our children” could end up being killed in a post-democratic authoritarian America, he was not saying that future Republicans would actually kill children but that our children and grandchildren as grownups will live in a world in which their government—like many autocratic regimes—might well be willing to resort to politically motivated murder to keep people in line.
Therefore, no matter what one thinks will happen next month or next year, to read Beschloss’s words is to be reminded that although lost democracies are not entirely irretrievable, we should not want to wish upon our children and grandchildren the decades-long battle that reviving democracy requires.
Even so, Beschloss did say at the end of his remarks that the US is “on the edge of a brutal authoritarian system, and it could be a week away.” Moreover, earlier in that November 2 conversation with Hayes, he said: “Six nights from now, we could all be discussing violence all over this country. There are signs that that may happen. May God forbid. That losers will be declared winners by fraudulent election officers or secretary of state candidates or governors or state legislatures.”
Thankfully, although we saw plenty of credible threats of violence as the elections neared, with dangerous extremists cosplaying in paramilitary gear near ballot drop boxes, reports to date indicate that nothing out of the ordinary has yet happened. As I noted above, I seriously considered the possibility that I would be returning from abroad to find my country at least figuratively in flames, and I am relieved that my fears have not been realized (yet?). Beschloss was unquestionably alarmed, but he was not being an alarmist. Those threats were real, so we should be happy that they did not manifest in widespread violence.
The Next Two Years
Notwithstanding my oft-stated belief that the 2024 elections will be “won” by Republicans through exploitation of the holes in US election laws (both constitutional and statutory), Democrats will gamely—and quite rightly—now proceed as if that is not true. They will try to win the presidency two years from now, either with President Biden again topping the ticket or after going through a process that results in a new nominee.
But given that the threats of violence that we have seen over the last few years have become more numerous, as well as more worrisome, there is a real possibility that the very fact that Democrats will try to win in 2024—and that they might seem capable of doing so—could soon provoke vigilante violence by Republican extremists, perhaps stoked (or at least cheered on) by Donald Trump and those who make no apologies for January 6 or the other transgressions against the rule of law that they have perpetrated.
And this is where the somewhat paradoxical part of the story comes in. Although some full-MAGA candidates for governor and secretary of state are now unlikely to take office after this week’s votes are counted, Republican-fueled death threats against the people who administer elections have succeeded in driving out those who will not buy into false claims of voter fraud, meaning that the threat of violence over the next two years has certainly not been extinguished. If anything, it has increased.
In fact, precisely because Democrats seem to have won some key races, the chaos will be worse than it would have been if Republicans had won in a sweep this week. There will, of course, be mixed results in these elections, as there always are. Still, because Tuesday’s results included some pivotal wins for Democrats in state-level races in swing states, the future will not be pretty.
If voters had defied the pre-election polling trends and delivered every seat that Democrats had been hoping to win, chaos would have been even more likely. The most obvious reason is that we should believe Republicans when they say that they will not accept losing. That means that some of them will respond to announced losses by drumming up large demonstrations to try to reverse the results. Such gatherings could easily and quickly get out of hand. Stay tuned, for example, for what happens in Arizona when “final” 2022 results are announced later this month.
Moreover, we are talking about two different time frames: the immediate future and the next two years. As I just noted, widespread Republican losses this week would have very likely been followed by immediate violence, but we sidestepped that (again, I hope). Even so, violence over the next two years will be more likely if the most extreme Republicans’ feel that extra-legal actions will be required to win in 2024, which now seems more likely than before. There are always the most extreme violence-prone hotheads who will say, “Let’s be absolutely sure,” but when the situation overall looks less certain from their standpoint, more and more people will be willing to join them.
In addition, I should acknowledge that there is always the possibility of simply gratuitous violence. Earlier this year, for example, a group of extremists were arrested before they were able to brutally disrupt a Pride event in Idaho. Why would they be willing to do that, even though there was simply no strategic political reason to do so? Hatred is as hatred does, and with Republicans whipping up anger about so-called “groomers,” there are more and more people on the right who are eager to visit violence upon vulnerable people, solely for the sake of doing them harm.
And this is where the path from short-term violence to long-term violence connects. As the right-wing paramilitary groups that have been “standing back and standing by” decide (quite reasonably, given the facts on the ground) that they now have a green light to step up and brutalize people, we could see the dystopian possible long-term future become an ugly immediate reality.
Despite everything that I have said here, it would of course have been much better if voters this week had emphatically given Democrats the ability to protect and extend the life of American constitutional democracy. To a large degree, they did not do so because they were stymied by voter suppression tactics and gerrymandering; but in any case, the die is now cast. And given that it is, we can only hope that at least this will result in a bit less violence for the time being—even though we will probably spend our dying years trying to help our children and grandchildren recapture what we have lost.