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Why voters must rally over rally violence

Democracy's purpose

Citizens can deter confrontation at campaign events by being peaceful themselves toward political opponents. Democracy, after all, was invented to resolve differences without violence.

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    Protesters stand across the street from a Donald Trump rally holding signs for "Muslims for Peace," March 5, in Orlando, Fla.
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Democracy was invented to use peaceful means rather than violence to resolve differences over a society’s governance. This is hard work. It requires voters to bring a peacefulness to elections even when a political campaign tries to inflame passions over issues that suggest a lack of peace in people’s lives. When violence does erupt in a campaign, as during recent rallies for GOP candidate Donald Trump, citizens must ask again what they can do to ensure peacefulness.

It is not enough to point fingers over campaign-related violence. Yes, a candidate’s rhetoric of fear may stir hatred of others. Mr. Trump is not the only candidate to do that. Or a candidate may threaten physical retaliation, as Trump has wrongfully done. Protesters, too, may simply be disrupting a rally with the aim to trigger a confrontation for the publicity, as has happened to several of the candidates. 

Such tactics are reflective of a widening dislike among Americans for those of different political beliefs. A recent Pew survey found most voters see political opponents as “so misguided they threaten the nation’s well-being.” A large minority of Republicans and Democrats would even be upset if one of their children married someone of a different party.

The causes for this gulf are many. But perhaps the main one is that threats to peace are seen differently. The 2016 presidential campaign, with its non-establishment candidates, has focused on a wide range of threats, such as income inequality, foreign Muslims, free trade, and loose border controls. The election, as it should, will determine which issues will be addressed by the next president.

But a campaign’s portrayal of threats should not unsettle the calm goodwill of citizens in sustaining a democracy rooted in the peaceful resolution of differences. This lesson was brought home last week by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during an official state visit to the White House.

Mr. Trudeau said in elections in Canada – where one in five citizens was not born in the country – the people find it hard to sustain anger and fear for very long, as they generally like their neighbors.

“Fear is easy. Friendship? That takes work,” he said. His words echo a recent comment by German Chancellor Angela Merkel about Europe’s debate over Muslim migrants: “Fear is not a good adviser.”

Voters must bring their own peace to an election, more so than seeking peace from its result. They can be respectful, listening, or even conciliatory toward political opponents – and demand the same of their preferred candidates. Democracy has been around long enough to show most people operate from such qualities. A few minor cases of campaign violence are a reminder why they must constantly be expressed.

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