Americans used to talk about election-related violence and contested balloting in other countries with a degree of smugness, confident that it couldn’t happen here.
Not anymore. This year’s presidential race not only has seen the thin veneer of civility torn apart, it has also raised the disquieting specter of something less than a peaceful transition of power — giving new meaning to “the war of politics.”
Recent polls reflect the concern of election-related violence — and the rising fear that the voting will be rigged as a supposed reason for a violent response. USA Today on Oct. 26 published a poll that found “a 51 percent majority of likely voters express at least some concern about the possibility of violence on Election Day; one in five are ‘very concerned.’” Meanwhile, the same report concluded, “more than four in 10 of Trump supporters say they won’t recognize the legitimacy of Clinton as president, if she prevails, because they say she wouldn’t have won fair and square.”
These numbers are cause for significant concern. But if history is any guide, there will likely be a peaceful acceptance of the results of Nov. 8, and a peaceful transition on Jan. 20. Indeed, just 16 years ago, in the wake of a heated election that was “too close to call,” and in the midst of recounts and a court battle, the 2000 election did not precipitate a constitutional crisis, a resort to violence or any interference with implementation of the result.
But there is an element to this year’s race that presents a far more immediate concern: How will we as a nation emerge from the scourge of uncivil discourse that has plagued the run-up to Election Day? As we have learned this year, civility has two levels. One is politeness and respect among people and a belief that one’s opponent’s motivations are good, no matter how wrong her or she may be. That kind of civility has largely been ignored in this year’s race and has frustrated the free and open exchange of ideas and views in our election process. That loss is significant, and weakens our social construct.
There is a deeper level of civility, however, that most of us never actively consider: that the durability of our larger social contract is only as strong as our faith in it. One president turning over power to the next is not an automatic thing. The Constitution is not necessarily the animating and guiding force of our republic. But when we lose faith in these and other things we have taken for granted, the ugly threat of violence may move in, and we are all the worse for it.
And so we call for a return to both levels of civility on Election Day and beyond. The system is not rigged, and the results of the vote must be accepted. The continued success of our democratic enterprise requires that we unify behind the result of our process — no matter which way it comes out.