Today and the days ahead are the most consequential period for the United States in at least a generation. Many around the world are watching with us to see who we are and what our choice could mean for their own struggles for responsive and inclusive democracy. Many of us watching should be looking not only to see who wins, but to monitor the risk of post-election violence and take action to prevent it.
When I served as a senior analyst for the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, I developed frameworks to evaluate the risk of election-related instability overseas. As a National Security Council staff member at the White House, I relied on similar tools to help prepare for and organize U.S. government support for nine elections in West Africa.
Evaluating the likelihood of violent conflict requires considering a variety of factors including the context, indicators of risk, potential triggers, and sources of resilience. The U.S. election is happening in a context defined by irresponsible political leadership, entrenched polarization, systemic racism and inequality, and concurrent health and economic crises that have brought into focus underlying risk factors for political violence. Despite these risks, the United States still has comparatively substantial resources and a long but deeply imperfect history of commitment to governing ideals that provide resilience.
The risk indicators below span five categories: political leader responses, perceptions of electoral and judicial legitimacy, armed actor use of force, public sentiment and media, and external influences. These variables interact and change, and they should therefore be considered together. They should also be used to identify potential triggering events that usually precede a turn to widespread violent conflict. For example, government security force abuses can be a trigger, and these indicators could help signal an elevated risk if the president directs federal forces to crack-down on protests over judicial action that a portion of the public views as illegitimate.
Political leader responses are likely to have the greatest influence over many of the other actors and factors that follow, including how the public, media, and foreign actors respond.
● Presidential candidates and surrogates: The degree to which the leading candidates respect the process and accept the results is the single most important indicator of how the post-election period will go. President Trump, as both head of state and candidate, can direct executive branch departments and federal security forces to act. Trump and Vice President Biden each will shape their supporters’ way of thinking about the election and how best to respond.
● Other senior political leaders: Whether top Congressional leaders, former presidents, current and past cabinet officials, and governors amplify or challenge the views of their party’s candidate will be a secondary but important element to watch. There are various imaginable permutations of alignment or divergence, but the most destabilizing scenarios would be those in which senior political leaders are divided along party lines over the validity of the election process and results. Intraparty discord that isolates a candidate who would provoke destabilization would reduce risk while internal divisions that leave a powerful and radicalized faction condoning violence would increase it.
Perceptions of electoral and judicial legitimacy could directly increase the risk of instability if electoral procedures break down or court rulings are seen to decide the outcome. They could also indirectly increase risk as a by-product of how political leaders, the public, and the media interact with these institutions immediately after the election.
● Electoral authorities: Public confidence in voting and counting processes, especially in competitive states, is a key variable in evaluating the risk of unrest. The president has repeatedly questioned perfectly legal processes and taken advantage of the pandemic environment to sow doubts about the process by asserting that any result unfavorable to him would be fraudulent. Whether election administrators can respond quickly and transparently to concerns will be determinative.
● Judiciary: Extensive recourse to the courts in the post-election period would likely be a by-product of troubling developments related to other indicators. This could include political leaders questioning the process and results for purely political reasons or because of well-founded claims that the electoral administration process broke down. Court involvement that has the real or perceived effect of disenfranchising voters or changing outcomes poses the greatest stability risks. Alternatively, judicial action that defends the process, preserves majority voting outcomes, and adjudicates disputes independent from political considerations can calm tensions and further delegitimize calls for violence.
Armed actor use of force would most likely be an accelerant and potential tipping point in a post-election environment teetering on the edge of widespread violence.
● Security forces: Police and Federal law enforcement responses to civil unrest that aim to protect constitutional rights and deescalate difficult situations will reduce danger. However, more commonly, aggressive responses by government forces inflame tensions and abuses can trigger a rapid escalation and spread of conflict. Public perceptions of security force partiality toward a particular political leader, party, or platform can compound the risk. Military involvement in politicized domestic security operations jeopardizes its legitimacy and marks a grave turn toward internal conflict.
● Non-state armed groups: Increased post-election activity by individuals or groups using threatened or actual violence for political ends is synonymous with the emergence of violent instability. The scope and scale of their activities, degree of guidance from political elites, and cooperation with any level of government security service determines how much they would be responsible for increasing violence.
Public sentiment and media will provide the most direct and continuous measure of the likelihood of violent upheaval.
● Partisans: How the leading candidates’ ardent supporters respond to the election outcome is another variable that can be independent but is most impactful when it interacts with others such as how the candidate and the opposition responds. On their own, restive partisans acting collectively can be disruptive. But they are most likely to create instability with the explicit or tacit endorsement of the candidate, in response to government action they perceive as illegitimate, and in concert with violent elements such as heavily-armed groups almost exclusively on the far right. This especially applies to those on the losing side, but winning constituencies can also drive violence with divisive and retributive activities targeting a recently defeated opposition.
● Popular discourse and narratives: The degree to which a society’s shared components of identity have eroded in public conversation can reveal susceptibility to violence. Applying dehumanizing labels to opponents is an especially dangerous component of intercommunal violence and atrocities. It is both a late-stage symptom and driver of polarization that reduces psychological and social barriers to violence by stripping away any remaining element of mutuality.
● Media: Whether most of the public turns to a press that actively strives for independence and accuracy will determine how much misinformation can drive violence. Highly fragmented media environments can amplify provocative falsehoods, contribute to political polarization, and undermine civil discourse necessary to preventing violence.
● Influencers: When and how civil society and professional organizations, cultural and religious leaders, and other influential voices across the political spectrum speak publicly about the election will help shape perceptions and expressions of public opinion. This category of groups and individuals, especially acting in concert to uphold clear election outcomes and reject calls for violence, can isolate bad actors and limit their ability to recruit supporters. Faced with legitimately contested outcomes, they can use their visibility and influence to model responsible behavior or ignite partisan divisions.
External influences probably will function as compounding factors, to the extent that they play a role. There are improbable but imaginable scenarios in which a broad coalition of foreign actors or a unifying wildcard event could temporarily halt a descent into conflict.
● Foreign actors: Well-intentioned allies and shrewd adversaries could influence the likelihood of election-related instability, but they are most effective when they magnify what is already present. Foreign actors can add onto domestic efforts to narrow or widen rifts. Their success is likely to be proportional to whether they are pushing in the direction a situation is already heading, how much they invest, and how many of them are working together.
● Wildcard events: Unexpected developments during highly charged political moments can be another source of acceleration or deceleration toward violence. For example, a major terrorist attack, natural disaster, or foreign incursion that threatens U.S. interests may cause a degree of collective attention shift. Depending on the circumstances, these wildcard events could enhance partisan recriminations or inject a new source of national solidarity.
In the coming days if not hours, I will rely on these indicators to assess the risk of political violence in the United States and identify opportunities to prevent it. I invite you to suggest refinements to the indicators, share how you evaluate the current situation, and offer ideas for reducing the probability of violence.