Why Threats of Election Violence May Be Here to Stay


Ryan McMaken – November 3, 2020

Both private sector businesses and police departments believe there is a good chance there will be postelection unrest. Both groups are taking steps to protect themselves in case of riots. Some left-wing protest groups state they plan to do “whatever it takes” to make sure the correct candidate—i.e., Joe Biden—wins. The National Guard has mobilized in several states in anticipation of riots.

It remains to be seen if this apocalyptic rhetoric proves to be well founded. If Trump wins, we may or may not see anything more than a few flare-ups of violence in a small number of cities. In a nation of more than 330 million people, that wouldn’t exactly indicate a state of general upheaval. On the other hand, if Biden wins, we may never know if the Left’s plans for chaos would have actually played out.

Nonetheless, the fact that the threat of widespread violence strikes so many Americans as plausible is itself an indication that something is deeply wrong with the United States in its current form. Citizens within a functional polity don’t have to board up store fronts and brace for riots when there’s a national election. A country that’s not on the edge of upheaval doesn’t have to debate whether or not the losing side will regard an election’s outcome as legitimate.

[RELATED: “The Benefits of Secession Are Becoming Increasingly Obvious” by Ryan McMaken]

This sort of thing is to be expected, on the other hand, within a country that is dysfunctional. It’s a sign we live in a country where a sizable minority—if not a majority—of the population apparently regards the electoral system as rigged, unfair, or conducted for the benefit of an illegitimate ruling minority.

Americans have lived in this kind of country before.

In the decades following the Civil War, the United States was still dealing with the fallout of a devastating war that had killed more than 2 percent of the population—that’s nearly 7 million deaths if adjusted for today’s population.

The nation was deeply divided and fought closely contested elections in 1876, 1880, 1884, and 1888. In 1876, the warring factions even threatened to set up two rival presidents. In 1884, numerous American cities faced rioting if the Democrats lost. 

We may now be living through a similar period in which every four years the nation gears up for yet another acrimonious slugfest over the presidency. Now as then, however, this is not a sign of national strength or unity. This is a sign of great national fragility and disunity.

The United States’s ruling regime survived its post–Civil War divisions. This doesn’t mean it will survive the current crisis.

The Crises of the 1870s and 1880s

Immediately following the Civil War, the Republicans had dominated the presidency. But in 1876, the race produced no clear winner. Democratic candidate Samuel Tilden clearly won the popular vote against Rutherford B. Hayes. Hayes managed to win the electoral college by a single vote.((It should be noted that in the nineteenth century (prior to 1896), the Democratic party was the party of laissez-faire, decentralization, low taxes, and sound money.))

The response to the election from the general public was not especially serene. As described by historian Gregory Downs, predictions of general violence were widespread:

a southern Democrat worried about a “bloody revolution”; a West Point commander dreaded “anarchy”; a former attorney general feared that “the days of our republic are numbered”; a Texan pledged to recruit “hundreds + thousands” of fellow Union veterans to defend Hayes’s title; a Tilden supporter promised that if the Republicans wanted “‘blood‐letting,’ we will oblige”; a Virginia woman lived “in a lamentable state of uncertainty” as “war of the most deadly kind, is inevitable”; and Missouri’s governor dispatched two prominent men to tell Tilden that the state would “fight” to defend his inauguration.

Some suggested forming militias to march on the White House. Tilden “asserted a state’s right to forcefully resist a usurper’s inauguration.” This was followed by the pro-Tilden governor of New York “promising state resistance to the ‘revolutionary’ overthrow of ‘the time‐consecrated methods of constitutional government.’”

For two months—between the election and the meeting of the group that would create a compromise—an orderly transition of power remained in doubt. Downs continues:

Fear shattered the unitary vision of the nation and produced a series of fantastic but not wholly unrealistic doubled images, visions of dual presidents, dual capitals, and dual armies. One of the most provocative rumors was that Tilden planned to stage a counter‐inauguration in New York City. Backed by a line of Democratic state militias from Connecticut to Virginia, he would seize the federal Treasury Building in New York, fund his government through customs collections in the harbor, and force Hayes from the capital to his own shadow republic in the Midwest.

Even if this were all mere rhetoric, that in itself would indicate a serious problem for the legitimacy of the regime in Washington. Downs concludes these were not mere words:

While it is important not to overstate the meaning of overheated political rhetoric, the discourse was not mere hysterics. That these predictions turned out to be wrong does not prove that they were foolish.

Real officials with real power discussed strategies to “provide the physical means” of “seating [Tilden] in office.”

Ultimately, open conflict was avoided by the Compromise of 1877, a secret unpublished agreement which at least in part secured peace by having the Republicans abandon Reconstruction in exchange for the White House.

But 1876 was only the opening act of a long period of fierce competition and conflict over the White House. In 1880, the Republicans scraped out another electoral college win and won the popular vote by a mere eighteen hundred votes out of nearly 9 million votes cast.

In 1884, many Democrats were determined to not lose the White House yet again. As the votes were being counted it quickly became clear that New York was going to be a key state if Cleveland was going to win. As the returns came in, and as it became clear pro-Republican corruption could easily cost Cleveland the election, Democrat mobs began to form. As historian Alyn Brodsky describes it, when Republicans claimed victory in New York following the closing of the polls, “the opposition murmured ominously.”

Things only become more dangerous from there:

the behavior of predominantly Democratic crowds in all the major cities appears to have justified Blaine’s subsequent speculation that a contested election would probably have resulted in civil war….

Law enforcement people nationwide had their hands full. In New York City, Democrats gathered before newspaper offices and warned of dire consequences if Cleveland was cheated out of his rightful and lawful victory. That night an even greater throng moved down Broadway to Dey Street to threaten violence before the Western Union Building, while yet another mob marched up Fifth Avenue toward the Gould mansion singing “We’ll hang [ultrawealthy Republican financier] Jay Gould from a sour apple tree.”…

Indianapolis Democrats staged a gigantic rally that threatened to degenerate into a gargantuan riot. When the Boston Journal posted a bulletin “confirming” Blaine’s victory a horde of that city’s Cleveland supporters threatened to gut the building.

The margin of victory was ultimately razor thin. A mere 600-vote change in New York could have changed the entire outcome. Moreover, had Cleveland lost New York, he would likely have still won the popular vote, leading to a possible repeat of the unrest of 1876.

The close elections didn’t end there. In 1888, Cleveland again won the popular vote, but lost in the electoral college to Benjamin Harrison. 

The Age of Consensus Is Over

We find similar signs of division and regime weakness in recent decades. It’s been thirty-six years since Ronald Reagan managed to get 55 percent of the popular vote and an overwhelming victory in the electoral college. Most contests since then have been decided by much closer margins. Bill Clinton never managed to get more than 49 percent of the popular vote. The 2000 election was, like 1876, decided in favor of the loser of the popular vote. The same happened in 2016. Barack Obama was, by far, the most electorally successful president since George H. W. Bush in 1988, but Obama’s success never came close to matching the blowouts enjoyed by Reagan in 1984, Nixon in 1972, Johnson in 1964, or Eisenhower in 1956.

Indeed, these blowouts of old likely reflect a reality that is now long gone. The mid- to late twentieth century was a time when the US regime enjoyed unprecedented prestige and support among Americans in the wake of the Second World War and during the Cold War. Even in the case of close elections—such as the election of 1960—there was no serious talk of challenging the results. Americans were secure in their knowledge that whatever the outcome, the regime would reflect their values and keep America safe from communists, both foreign and domestic. 

The America of the past twenty years is a much different place, and it looks to have more in common with the period of unrest that followed the Civil War. 

Separated by more than a hundred years, many Americans might look back on that period and declare, “All’s well that ends well,” but the people of the time had few reasons to regard the situation with such confidence. Indeed, as Downs has noted, the American presidential system rests on a far weaker foundation than many assume:

The United States’ long‐term stability masks the institutional fragility of presidential democracy; absent effective power‐sharing, the prospect of a plurality‐ or even minority‐elected president frequently prompts violence in other single‐executive democracies.

In the late nineteenth century, there was no guarantee that the violence following elections would not indeed lead to widespread unrest or a new civil war. The imagined scenarios of national war and division could not be casually dismissed. While the electoral college is a valuable and important electoral mechanism, the fact remains that if the US repeatedly installs minority-elected presidents in the White House, this will ultimately undermine stability for the regime. A series of very close elections may produce similar results. 

It is therefore not shocking that in recent years threats of violence have accelerated. And this should not be brushed aside, even if no widespread violence materializes (for now). After all, a repeated pattern of close elections accompanied by threats of violence (or actual violence) is a sign that a nation’s political system is not likely to peacefully endure.

Originally published at Mises.org. Ryan McMaken is a senior editor at the Mises Institute. He has degrees in economics and political science from the University of Colorado, and was the economist for the Colorado Division of Housing from 2009 to 2014. He is the author of Commie Cowboys: The Bourgeoisie and the Nation-State in the Western Genre.

Image source: Zeferli via Getty

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