The current political backdrop includes a climate of possible violence, with a growing number of threats aimed at individual lawmakers. It includes threats against local officials and volunteer citizens who administer elections. It includes the intimidation of individual voters dropping ballots into ballot boxes in Arizona.
All of this comes as confidence in the integrity of the electoral process itself wanes, the reluctance of some candidates to expressly say they will accept their election results, and the possibility that many 2020 election deniers will be elected to important positions this year, potentially jeopardizing future elections. A majority of Republicans on the ballot for the Senate, House and major statewide races denied or questioned the 2020 presidential election, echoing the baseless claims of former President Donald Trump. All of this is on top of what has been said repeatedly over the past two years: democracy itself is in danger in this country.
Politically inspired violence was directed against leaders of both parties. Last week, three men were convicted of conspiring to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer (D). Earlier this year, Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, a member of the conservative Supreme Court bloc, was threatened and a gunman was arrested near his home. In 2017, House Republican Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) was seriously injured when a gunman opened fire on Scalise and his GOP colleagues at a baseball field in Northern Virginia.
During the Scalise attack, it was later revealed that the shooter had a hatred of Republicans. But the most consistent threats come and go from the right, white supremacists and other groups, those who helped organize the January 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol. Trump’s continued and baseless claims that the 2020 election was stolen have spawned a sea of Holocaust deniers, some of whom may become elected officials who will oversee future elections — a noxious mix at a perilous time for the country.
The intruder who attacked Paul Pelosi with a hammer reportedly said, “Where’s Nancy?” when he was inside the couple’s home in San Francisco. When and where was this first heard? Few will forget that it was chanted by rioters marauding the Capitol in an attempt to disrupt, delay and possibly undo Joe Biden’s victory over Trump.
Pelosi staff were hiding that day, terrified. She was transported to a safe place by security. On Friday, her husband – devoid of Capitol Police security when the speaker is not at home – was unable to hide from his intruder. The chants on “Where’s Nancy?” were scary on January 6; they must have been scary for Paul Pelosi in the middle of the night. After the attack, he was taken to hospital, where he underwent surgery for a fractured skull and injuries to his arms and hands.
Is there an American politician, other than Hillary Clinton, who has been as demonized and for so long as Pelosi? She was at the center of a costly and relentless Republican campaign in the 2010 election, four years after she first became president. In every campaign since, Republicans have singled her out for criticism. Tens of millions of dollars have been spent on political ads this year in which she is named. The ads include photographs showing her in the worst possible way.
Was it any surprise that the rioters who invaded the Capitol were talking about her the way they did? There’s no way to know what impact all of this had on the man who attacked her husband early Friday morning, but the long process of demonization is also dehumanizing, with obvious possible consequences.
The attack on Paul Pelosi has been widely condemned by elected officials across the political spectrum, just as Democrats joined Republicans in condemning the attack on Scalise five years ago. This is the necessary and easy answer. But some Republicans put an addendum to their remarks, unable to stay on the high road.
Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) was campaigning for GOP congressional candidate Yelsi Vega within hours of the first reports of the attack on Paul Pelosi. “There’s no room for violence anywhere,” he said, “but we’re going to send it [Nancy Pelosi] back to California to be with him. It comes from a Republican touted by many in his party as an antidote to the vile and demeaning politics practiced by Trump.
The demonization of Pelosi is an example of how the practice of politics seeks to destroy individuals. The same goes for the democratic system. The more Trump and others baselessly claim that the 2020 election was stolen, the more his supporters adopt a similar attitude and the more the foundations of democracy are weakened.
The electoral process depends on the collective goodwill and trust of the American people. Trump peddles conspiracy theories and lies. The more he does, the more his followers take it as gospel. Confidence in the electoral process has declined among Republicans since the last election. Does this raise the possibility of violence? January 6, 2021, provides a big data point.
The problem exists in many forms, some of which are now entrenched. The vernacular of political campaigning today is almost entirely negative. Read press releases from national political committees of both parties or reactions from individual candidates after a debate or after primary campaigns that select candidates for legislative elections. Opponents are regularly portrayed as radical, extreme and dangerous liars. Appeals for funds are formulated in serious and often dishonest language. It is now routine, a pattern of negativity.
Courses in apocalyptic rhetoric across the system; it’s a we-must-win-or-the-country-will-lose mentality. This amplified rhetoric reflects the nature of politics today, the need to supersize everything to get the attention of voters focused on their jobs, families and friends.
The news media also contribute to this. Politics as combat is the metaphor of routine. Debates described as boxing matches are the norm: “It’s fight night!” Politicians are “targeted” by their adversaries. It seems like small things, and all of us who write about politics have succumbed. But for many citizens, this kind of language contributes to the deterioration of democracy.
But there is the question of proportionality and there is no doubt that the greatest contributor to the decline in confidence in the electoral system and the related threat to democratic processes is Trump and those who spread his lies. The 2020 election was held safely and counted fairly, regardless of how often Trump and his cronies — elected officials, candidates, and ordinary citizens — have claimed otherwise. No credible evidence has been presented to support Trump’s allegations of widespread fraud.
The fact that so many Republicans still accept his version of events, however, increases the possibility that this election will face challenges from disgruntled losers or allegations of impropriety from overzealous citizens. This can happen when state leaders complete the certification process or it can happen with unfounded challenges in a local constituency. It can happen this year and it could certainly happen after the 2024 election.
As shocking as the attack on Paul Pelosi was, there is a risk it could happen again. As repugnant as Trump’s claims of a stolen election are and are, there is a danger that this too will happen again. The balance of power in Washington could change with the results of this year’s election. The responsibility for safeguarding democracy — and elected officials — should not rest with any party.