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As We Approach the Big Day, Can America Step Back from the Brink?

Large majorities of the American people believe that Election Day could result in violence. More alarmingly, roughly 40 percent of both self-identified Democrats and Republicans believe that violence could be justified if their preferred candidate is defeated.
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November 1, 2020
Image by John Lund/Getty Images

Benjamin Disraeli once said “I am prepared for the worst, but hope for the best.”

Mel Brooks once sang “Hope for the best, expect the worst.”

The words of both Jewish icons may be especially helpful to us in the days ahead, as we wait to learn the outcome of the presidential election. With any luck, this column will turn out to be completely unnecessary. Maybe the results will be so obvious that the defeated party will concede: maybe a closely-fought race brings out the best in us rather than worst.

But just in case…

Large majorities of the American people believe that Election Day could result in violence. More alarmingly, roughly 40 percent of both self-identified Democrats and Republicans believe that violence could be justified if their preferred candidate is defeated. (https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2020/10/01/political-violence-424157) Across the country, stores are boarding up their windows, local and state law enforcement authorities are preparing for unrest and activists on both sides are organizing to take to the streets.

This election year has unfolded under the most difficult of circumstances. We have experienced a devastating economic recession, a merciless pandemic, and a historic racial reckoning — on a political landscape already roiled by historic polarization and unremitting animus. If the election is close, all the ingredients for potential unrest are at hand.

So please let us take a step back from the breach. Let’s take a deep breath and realize that even a presidential election with stratospheric stakes should not require violence to resolve.

Panic and fear are contagious. But so are courage and calm.

Let those of us who care deeply about our nation’s future set an example for our friends and neighbors, for our colleagues and our co-workers and our families and loved ones. Let us resist the understandable temptation to take to the streets if the election results are not trending in our preferred direction. Let’s remind the people we care about –  and each other – that a democracy is only as good as its people.

I promise you that I care just as deeply about the outcome as the most committed partisans on both sides of the aisle, that I will be just as relieved if my candidate wins and just as revulsed if he should lose. But maybe we can find ways to exhibit our excitement or our anger without breaking and burning things.

A useful lesson from last spring’s demonstrations is that small numbers of troublemakers can use large gatherings of peaceful protestors as cover to avoid being identified and apprehended for violent acts. Our normal and commendable impulse is to gather to raise our voices against injustice, but the boarded-up storefronts in our nation’s cities should serve as a reminder that well-intentioned crowds can unintentionally create an environment for destruction.

Our normal and commendable impulse is to gather to raise our voices against injustice, but the boarded-up storefronts in our nation’s cities should serve as a reminder that well-intentioned crowds can unintentionally create an environment for destruction.

If you feel obligated to join demonstrations, please do so during daylight hours and return home when the sun sets. If you feel anger and frustration, there are ways to exhibit those feelings without adding to the rancor that has balkanized our society. Be careful on the re-tweeting, unless you are comfortable with the reliability of the source. I am confident in the strength of the constitutional guardrails designed to guide us through a bitter and unresolved elections. But I worry the path that gets us to that outcome could be a difficult one.

In his magnificent poem “If”, Rudyard Kipling wrote:

“If you can keep your head when all about you

Are losing theirs and blaming it on you…

“If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,

Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,

Or being hated, don’t give way to hating…

“If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster

And treat those two impostors just the same…”

Then, as Kipling may have concluded had he been writing about this election rather than the Boer Wars, then maybe our democracy can withstand even the most punishing blows we are determined to inflict on it.

I hope this column will be irrelevant by Wednesday morning and can be replaced by a conventional election analysis. But if not, then the need for each of us to set an example, and to keep our heads when those about us are losing theirs, becomes more necessary than ever.


Dan Schnur teaches political communications at UC Berkeley, USC and Pepperdine. He hosts the weekly webinar “Politics in the Time of Coronavirus” for the Los Angeles World Affairs Council & Town Hall.

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