The election was almost entirely peaceful. What happened?
Did America dodge a bullet? Or were warnings of post-election violence always overblown?
Mid-morning on Election Day, a Cambodian restaurant near my house boarded up its windows. So did other businesses in cities around the country. Chicago had snowplows and salt trucks standing ready for use as barricades. "Coming off of the summer, seeing the looting that occurred, there's a lot of anxiety," Elliot Richardson of Chicago's Small Business Advocacy Council told NPR. "There's a lot of nervousness about what might happen now, what might happen during the election."
Business owners weren't the only ones worried. Forecasts of potential violence after the election were widespread. But a month later, with President-elect Joe Biden's wins now officially certified in the key states of Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, that violence has yet to materialize.
We've weathered four weeks of uncalled races, recounts, lawsuits, and allegations with relative calm. There was some rioting in Portland, where a Molotov cocktail was thrown at police, but tumultuous protests have been a fixture there for half a year now. In Michigan, some chanting Republicans attempted to force their way into a vote counting center but were restrained by police. Demonstrators assembled in other cities, too, and certainly some scuffles broke out. Yet the "dozens" of arrests reported nationwide are hardly the envisioned catastrophe.
To be clear, I'm not complaining. This quiet is a great relief. The unseasonably warm weather on Election Day here in the Twin Cities was unsettling — it's so nice out, we worried, that anyone inclined to do damage could comfortably do it long into the night. But the night came and went, and all was well. And then the week did, too, and then the month. What happened? Why were so many expectations of violence wrong?
I decided to revisit the forecasts. One of the most notable came from the International Crisis Group, a think tank that seeks to prevent war by "sound[ing] the alarm to prevent deadly conflict." Usually this work concerns places that are, well, not here, but for the 2020 election, the group issued its first report about the United States. "The 2020 U.S. presidential election presents risks not seen in recent history," the report said. "It is conceivable that violence could erupt during voting or protracted ballot counts."
The Crisis Group identified 11 risk factors, which it condensed to four larger themes in the executive summary: "political polarization bound up with issues of race and identity; the rise of armed groups with political agendas; the higher-than-usual chances of a contested outcome; and most importantly President Donald Trump, whose toxic rhetoric and willingness to court conflict to advance his personal interests have no precedent in modern U.S. history."
The first of these four is impossible to dispute. We are increasingly polarized and that polarization does involve identity as well as related issues of misinformation, information segregation, epistemic crisis, and institutional distrust spelled out in the longer risk list. With the benefit of hindsight, we also know the outcome has indeed been contested and Trump has missed no opportunity to spread division and undermine public trust and goodwill. The president still has supporters — as many as half of Republicans, per a mid-November poll, the most recent I could find — who believe he "rightfully won" the election and is being defrauded.
That leaves the second factor: "the rise of armed groups with political agendas," by which the Crisis Group primarily means white nationalists considered the "most persistent and lethal" domestic threat by the Department of Homeland Security, per a report from October of this year. Also included here are armed right-wing (like Oath Keepers) and left-wing (like antifa) groups which have aligned themselves for and against Trump. An unidentified far-right militia leader interviewed by the Crisis Group said he expected, should Trump win, "the violence [from the left would] make what has been going on look like kindergarten."
Other analyses of possible post-election violence hit on near-identical points. One from Just Security, created by a former senior intelligence officer for the Defense Intelligence Agency, added escalatory behavior by law enforcement to the "armed groups" category. It also considered the possibility of "wildcard events," like "a major terrorist attack, natural disaster, or foreign incursion that threatens U.S. interests," resetting our national attention for better or worse. An election night follow-up on that framework deemed undetermined the effects of every indicator but the self-evidently exacerbating behavior of Trump and some of his GOP allies.
This all sounds very plausible, but I see at least three reasons the violence didn't happen. One is that some of the proposed conditions went unmet: Trump didn't win; there wasn't a wildcard event; and the election contestation — the real procedure of it, as opposed to vivid nonsense the president and his surrogates have spouted on television and Twitter — has been fairly mundane. We've seen nothing so exciting as Bush v. Gore in 2000. Biden won the closest state races by margins of tens of thousands, not a mere 537 votes.
A second reason, as I wrote before Election Day, is that most Americans (including most Republicans) were prepared to wait for results. Everyone knew this year would be weird. How could we not? Trump's claim that any delay was a sign of cheating and a Democratic attempt to "creat[e] havoc" never made sense, so when the expected delay arrived, nobody panicked.
Or, at least, they didn't panic in real life. Maybe they panicked online, and maybe that, as New York Times columnist Ross Douthat has theorized, served as a way to "playact extremism, ... to approach radical politics the way they approach a first-person shooter game — as a kind of sport, a kick to the body chemistry, that doesn't put anything in their relatively comfortable late-modern lives at risk."
That brings me to my third and most significant reason: Whether because we're getting our extremist impulses out online (or by donating to Trump's still-fundraising campaign) or because we're among the plurality of Americans who don't align with either partisan extreme, most of us are not actually interested in participating in civil strife.
We have strong, albeit violated, norms against political violence in America, and there is little post-election rioting in our national history. Worries about civil war cycle with each election, but that's not the same as an appetite for street fighting, for making your hate tangible enough to shoot your neighbor for putting out the wrong yard sign. Even the alarming willingness to say violence may be "justified" to advance a political cause — which has risen in recent years, though much less than a Politico report initially suggested — is not the same as readiness to personally enact that violence.