After the political violence in the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, governors in at least a half-dozen states have activated the National Guard. The FBI warns of more unrest at state capitols in coming days. In Washington, thousands of troops have been deployed in the run-up to the Jan. 20 inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden. Yet amid this display of firepower against extremists, one invisible and largely unrecognized force cannot be ignored: The vast majority of Americans expect to resolve their differences peacefully, not by attacking property or persons.
That key pillar of democracy – peaceful deliberation – remains a mighty armor against violent protests. Even though 72% of Republicans don’t trust the results of the Nov. 3 presidential election, according to a PBS NewsHour-Marist poll, 80% of them oppose the actions of those who broke into Congress.
The truth of President Donald Trump’s election loss may be doubted by a third of the U.S. population but not the bedrock principle of civil discourse and nonviolent freedom of assembly. In the public’s mind, protesters who physically attack agents of government quickly lose legitimacy.
Peaceful politics is also practical. After the Jan. 6 insurrection, Republican Sen. Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming – who tried to contest the election results – tweeted: “Today we are trying to use the democratic process to address grievances. This violence inhibits our ability to do that.”
Peace is not passive. It really can produce results and is an antidote to violence. According to a study of insurgencies worldwide from 1900 to 2006 by scholars Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan, campaigns of political resistance that remain nonviolent are more than twice as effective as their violent counterparts. One reason is that nonviolent tactics carry moral power against the violence of an opponent. “We should meet abuse by forbearance,” as Mahatma Gandhi said. “Human nature is so constituted that if we take absolutely no notice of anger or abuse, the person indulging in it will soon weary of it and stop.”
Creating safe spaces for Americans to listen to each other is now more important than ever. “We have seen more mass mobilizations and mass demonstrations in the United States than in any other period of recorded history in the United States,” says Dr. Chenoweth. Last year, for example, an estimated 8% of Americans participated in rallies after George Floyd’s death in police custody in May. In 97.7% of those events, according to research by Dr. Chenoweth and others, protesters did not destroy property or harm others. While some violence did mar the Black Lives Matter movement, most Americans are still open to its pleas for racial equity.
Curbing political violence will take more than holding perpetrators accountable. It requires Americans to recognize that peaceful persuasion and deliberative democracy have been a longtime norm. They are vital expressions of patience, love, and strength. The bright light of peace can help melt the hate and fear behind violence.