American democracy dodges bullets

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After the November election, many people hoped that claims of American democratic decline were exaggerated. The arrest of an election-refusing candidate in New Mexico who allegedly spearheaded shootings at the homes of Democratic lawmakers shows that politics have not returned to normal. Instead, Americans have normalized a dangerous amount of violence in our politics — and our everyday lives.

Solomon Peña ran as a Republican candidate for the New Mexico state legislature. He lost. He is accused of hiring gunmen to shoot down the homes of four Democratic New Mexican lawmakers, possibly pulling the trigger himself. Three bullets pierced the bedroom of Rep.’s 10-year-old daughter. Linda Lopez, causing her ceiling to collapse while she slept.

In just a few years, violence has become so expected in American politics that many people breathed a sigh of relief after the 2022 midterm elections. After all, only one state election commissioner had to abscond with a security detail after credible threats. Local election secretaries were only confronted by strangers in tactical gear watching them and taking pictures of their Arizona license plates. Despite more than 100 violent ads airing during the campaign, some of which showed candidates being hunted with guns, no candidates were killed.

This ignores how violence and intimidation are already changing our politics. Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) lost her primary — was it because Wyoming didn’t approve of her anti-Trumpism, or because she didn’t hold pre-announced campaign events because she faced so many threats? Did the majority of Republicans really believe that Trump should not be held accountable for his instigation of the Jan. 6 riots — or were they “fearing, in some cases, for their lives,” as fellow Republican Representative Peter Meijer (Mich.) described ?

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Other victims of violence are those who choose not to run for office. Threats against members of Congress have not only increased tenfold in recent years, but also against mayors and local office holders. A 2021 National League of Cities poll found that 81 percent of local leaders have experienced threats or violence. The addresses of New Mexico state legislators are public, because they are elected officials. So that restless voters and candidates like Peña can harass them at home.

Parents, in particular, can be discouraged from serving. Philadelphia’s Republican city commissioner faced death threats against his children in 2020 that were so credible that the state gave them a security detail. Many parents are driven into politics by serving on school boards after seeing the state of their children’s schools. A former president of Virginia’s Loudoun County schools was repeatedly threatened against her and her children. So was the president of the school board in Rochester, Minnesota, whose children begged her, “Mom, they’re going to kill you. They know where you live.”

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Who is applying under these conditions?

Extremists are still willing. Peña was one of more than 30 candidates (as well as at least 21 state legislators) to participate in the January 6 riots in Washington DC. They keep getting re-elected: At least seven candidates won state and local seats in 2021 and another nine took office in 2022. Multiple state politicians are alleged members of the Oath Keepers militia, whose leader has been convicted of sedition – from David Eastman of the state house of Alaska to the GOP state chairman of Wyoming. The Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights found that 10 percent of all state legislators and 21 percent of Republicans were part of social media extremist groups.

In other democracies, as candidates leave motivated by public service, others more interested in the rewards of legislative impunity and enrichment opportunities step in. In India, more than a quarter of state legislators have serious criminal cases against them, including rape, murder and attempted murder – figures that rise to 29 percent nationally. In Brazil, similar numbers of lawmakers have faced serious charges. America has similar experiences with its rapidly declining quality of legislators: In the 1850s, pro-slavery elected officials began to use violence and armed intimidation against their colleagues.

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Americans are not helpless. Voters and donors from both parties must stop supporting candidates who are willing to lie and incite violence to win elections. So far neither takes the important role we know, elected leaders play in driving aggressive followers to action.

The choices our government makes affect our children, taxes, schools, roads and lives. They are in the hands of the people we choose – but who we choose is limited by those who are willing to run. Our democracy dodges bullets. We can’t keep that up forever.

Rachel Kleinfeld is a senior fellow of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where she advises philanthropists, government leaders and private actors internationally on how to stop political violence and how declining democracies can recover.

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