One Earth Future Foundation has worked for more than a decade to foster solutions to end armed conflict around the world, but until now our work has been focused on political violence in countries other than our home base in the United States. Despite a steady level of interpersonal friction and even sporadic violence, the kind of large-scale organized political violence that is the target of our mission’s focus has been absent in the US since the close of the Civil Rights era. The violence at the Capitol building last week is a dangerous warning that we can’t assume this will be true anymore. One Earth Future is joining the chorus of experts and peacebuilding organizations calling for more work to be done on peacebuilding in the United States.
Explicit, planned violence by white supremacist organizations and American militia groups drove the intensity of the violence in the Capitol, as did attacks on the legitimacy of the electoral process, and related language from Republican leaders including President Trump and Congressional figures that stoked grievances and called for mass turnout. All of these specific pressures also happened against a backdrop of longer-term political polarization in the US, a flat or declining quality of life across a variety of indicators, and increasing public attention on issues of systemic racism, antisemitism religious bigotry, and misogynistic attitudes and attacks against women, along with a backlash of White racial resentment in the face of this attention.
The challenge we face in the United States is the same challenge peacebuilders face in other countries where violence is a possibility or a reality: no one of these drivers exclusively explains the violence. The long-term solution to violence is not going to come from fixing any one of them. Instead, the US must back away from the precipice of domestic violent extremism and commit to addressing all the drivers of violence in all its forms. If not, then the risk of political violence will remain and the likelihood is very high that, even if peace is maintained in the short-term, then we will see future situations as bad or worse than what we witnessed on January 6.
In the short term, we must fix the damage done to the legitimacy of our democratic institutions. Trust in institutions is a critical part of systemic peace and we cannot, as a society, safely tolerate unfounded claims of electoral fraud or allow public figures to call in overt or coded ways for insurrection. Courts and law enforcement have repeatedly and definitively demonstrated that the claims of election fraud are false, and it is imperative that politicians face formal censure for repeating these unfounded claims. Similarly, any politician found to have provided support to the insurrection on January 6th or to be providing information to actors who openly commit to violence must face legal consequences. Allowing behavior that explicitly undermines our institutions or calls for violence against them to be a part of American political life will inevitably lead to escalating violence. When people feel that they can’t trust their institutions to resolve their grievances then violence is often seen as the only other option. In addition, law enforcement agencies need to follow through on their own conclusion that violent right-wing and white supremacist organizations in the United States are the most significant threat to peace in the United States and ensure that any planned violence is prevented before it takes place.
In the longer term, the US will require much more than just recommitting to our institutions or even building trust and mutual respect between local law enforcement and the communities they are meant to serve and protect. The last decade has been characterized by increasing political polarization, increasing calls to address widening racial inequality in issues ranging from police violence to wealth and education access, and an increasing backlash by White Americans against these calls. The US must find a way to recommit to a national identity that is authentically inclusive and respectful of all Americans, and find ways to discuss the real systemic issues positively and with less factionalization.
Other countries have, however imperfectly, responded to similar challenges: Kenya, for example, responded to ethnic violence around elections in 2007 & 2008 with a call for ongoing commitment to a unified national identity. Achieving this is difficult and often emotionally unsatisfying, as the experience of many countries demonstrates, but in many ways the commitment to try is itself significant.
In parallel, the US must also address the real declines in quality of life and human security that have characterized the last decade or more. While the attacks on January 6th were characterized more by the immediate triggers of mobilization by violent groups and calls for turnout from political elites, the background pressures of declining quality of life probably created the conditions for these immediate triggers to capture and direct existing grievances.
OEF calls for the United States government, civil society in the US, and our population as a whole to commit to an awareness of all of the multiple pressures leading to violence and the need for all of them to be addressed as part of a systemic response. Failing this, it is our genuine fear that the violence we saw on January 6th may possibly be suppressed for a week or a month or a year, but is likely to return in some form.
Related Reading from OEF
OEF’s theory of peace is built on the recognition that political violence has multiple causes and will require multiple interventions to address
Society’s treatment of women is the greatest indicator of the likelihood of state violence--an even greater indicator than democratization--which means we need to put more attention on advancing gender equality at home and abroad if we truly want a peaceful and secure nation.
Good governance, including both a widespread perception that governance is legitimate and governance that provides good social service, is a critical part of sustainable peace.
The Conversation | Was it a coup? No, but siege on US Capitol was the election violence of a fragile democracy
The U.S. didn’t have a coup, but this Trump-encouraged insurrection is likely to send the country down a politically and socially turbulent road.
Political instability, including coup, is the result of multiple identifiable pressures that can be used to predict where and when crises may happen.