A participant in a political rally in October 2021 organized by right-wing activist Charlie Kirk asked: “How many elections are they going to steal before they kill these people?“
Kirk, CEO of Turning Point USA, condemned the question. But a year after the insurgency on Capitol Hill that was fueled by Trump’s claims of a rigged election, Church, other commentators and politicians – and, of course, Trump himself – continue to fuel the false beliefs of widespread electoral fraud. Embrace of “Big lieâThat Trump really won the election has become an article of faith for many Republican politicians. It is also widely believed by American conservatives; in an October 2021 survey, 60% of republicans said the 2020 presidential election results should definitely or probably be overturned.
This creates a potentially dangerous situation for the United States. Acceptance of electoral defeat, what political scientists call “”loser’s consent, âIs essential for stability and order in democracies.
“Bad losers” can lead to terrorism
Democracy is based on a pact: The losers of the elections agree to accept the results and encourage their supporters to do the same.
In exchange, lose politicians get the chance to run and win in a future election.
However, the consent of the loser is fragile. And when it is broken, the risk of political violence increases. In a recent study that I publishedI conclude that when election losers in democracies reject election results, becoming “sore losers”, trust in political institutions erodes, political polarization and tribalism thrives, and mistrust thrives.
This produces a situation where political violence is no longer considered a taboo, especially among supporters of the losing political party. My research shows that when losing politicians in democracies refuse to accept election results, citizens begin to view terrorism as more acceptable and domestic terrorism is increasing.
Here in the United States, outrage over the Big Lie helped fuel violence on Capitol Hill on January 6, 2021. It has also led to domestic terrorism plots.
For example, federal authorities announced charges in July against two men who planned to bomb California Democratic Party headquarters. Both men were radicalized by the Big Lie and expressed on social media the hope that the attack would “launch a movement that could keep former President Donald J. Trump in power. “
Understanding the data
In my study, I looked at data on national terrorist attacks in over 100 democracies from 1970 to 2018. I also looked at public opinion on whether people view the use of terrorism as justifiable in 30 democratic countries from 2017 to 2020. I based my definition of domestic terrorism on that used by the Global Terrorism Database. Finally, I used The data to measure whether politicians who lost the recent national elections in democracies refused to accept the results. I have limited my analysis to democracies free from electoral irregularities.
I also took into account other factors that might make domestic terrorism more common or more acceptable in my analyzes. These include the economic state of the country, ethnic diversity and history of political violence, as well as the strength and stability of the government.
For public opinion on terrorism, I weighed the effects of factors such as age, gender, income, level of education, political ideology, and religious and ethnic identity of the respondent to l investigation and extent of terrorism in the country over the past three years.
When disputed outcomes lead to violence
Here is what I found.
First, when losing political parties in democracies reject election results, domestic terrorism increases and becomes more intense. By how much depends on the number and what types of political parties have been the big losers.
Countries where all political parties, including the losers, accepted the election results have seen only one national attack every two years or so. However, countries where one of the major political parties lost the elections but refused to accept the official results – the situation most closely resembling the one the United States currently faces – have subsequently suffered approximately five national terrorist attacks per year. Finally, countries where all losing political parties rejected election results subsequently suffered more than 10 national terrorist attacks per year.
Second, the âsore loserâ effect also stimulates acceptance of terrorism. Only around 9% of citizens in democracies where all losing parties have accepted election results consider terrorism to be justifiable behavior. This percentage rose to around 27% in democracies where the losing major opposition party (s) rejected the election – the category most closely related to the United States after the 2020 election. Finally, about a third of citizens in democracies where all losing parties rejected election results also tolerated terrorism as a tactic.
These findings show that when politicians refuse to accept the outcome of free and fair democratic elections, and instead choose to promote a popular narrative of stolen or dirty elections, they are putting their people in physical danger. Popular tolerance for terrorism is increasing, as is terrorist activity itself.
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