The incoming Biden-Harris administration is positioned to serve as a no-nonsense clean-up crew and a bridge to the demographic future of the U.S., their most significant impact on the future course of the country, will be in the area of electoral reform. Their greatest challenge lies in restoring trust on multiple levels. Their legacy will be in how they stem the wave of resurging domestic terrorism. International experience in conflict resolution and supporting democracy abroad offer important lessons on all three of these game-changing agendas.
Electoral reform is a double-edged sword. On the one hand are those reforms needed to level the playing field and end widescale disenfranchisement. The long list includes addressing campaign finance reform, inconsistent voter eligibility and registration restrictions, gerrymandering, polling site accessibility, inequality of the electoral college system or even the first-past-the-post electoral system itself. On the other hand, nearly three-quarters of Republicans believe the election was not free and fair.
While integral to reform, preventing voter fraud and secure technology can no longer be used as excuses to inhibit more inclusive elections. Strategic Republican voter suppression must give way to the tidal pressure changing American demographics. Biden-Harris’ ability to free American democracy from these chains and re-enfranchise the population will permanently change the course of leadership.
The distortion of democracy currently embodied in American electoral practice is similar to that seen in electoral authoritarian states, where multiparty elections are rooted in structural exclusion systems. In response, U.S. lawmakers can borrow a page from the strategies they use to overcome electoral authoritarianism abroad. Specifically, international experience teaches us how to leverage electoral reform for greater political equality and diversity in representation. This includes topics infrequently discussed in American political conversations, such as gender-sensitive campaign finance reform, procedural practices to enhance minority/indigenous representation in legislatures, gender-sensitive electoral administration practices and tactics to protect the participation of persons with intellectual or psychosocial disabilities in political and public life.
The new administration inherits a crisis of national trust unlike anything since 1860. Joe Biden must spearhead re-establishing trust in democracy, government, science, media and at the community and family levels, as well as the confidence of American international allies (and foes). OECD research and Pew surveys find that trust in government and trust in others correlates with perception of institutional performance.
To date, the COVID-19 pandemic is the only national tragedy in modern memory that failed to bolster at least a fleeting sense of national unity. While the 400,000+ American lives lost can never be recovered, Biden has an opportunity to plant new seeds of trust by demonstrating institutional performance in reining in the pandemic quickly. Here again, lessons from efforts underway in Asia, Europe, the Arab states and other global regions can offer insight. Likewise, an institutional response is needed that addresses both the racial injustice and economic stagnation at the root of current popular grievance.
Finally, the Biden-Harris legacy will be marked by their response to the cloud hanging over them on their inaugural day: the breakthrough of long-simmering domestic terrorism. The failed insurrection on January 6 drew a line in the sand, demarcating this fringe element as a terrorist movement. Through this lens, we can more clearly anticipate threats to come.
While the massive security deployment on Inauguration Day is likely to force potential “spoilers” to recalculate the costs associated with their activities and deter violent mass action, tactics going forward may shift. Violence against women in politics in the US has never been a greater danger and violence targeting political leaders who are visible minorities. Recent threats against Michigan Governor Gretchen Witmer, the congresswoman known as “the Squad” (Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Talib) and other political women are consistent with global patterns in similar contexts. They could conceivably arise in the weeks and months to come.
Where threats are consistent with global patterns and so must be the responses. Fields of practice usually only seen abroad can find their place in the menu of response options, including conflict resolution and women, peace and security (WPS). Viewing the January 6 insurgency in the US through a conflict resolution lens defines key groups of actors and possible responses. “Hardliners” classically refuse any form of compromise and are not open to persuasion or negotiation. In the U.S., hardliners are likely to reject electoral outcomes, no matter the nature of reform, because they fundamentally believe that only white votes are legitimate. Indeed, conflict resolution shows that hardliners may not want to reach a solution but are simply itching for a fight, whether for profit, religious or nationalist fanaticism or hyper-masculinity.
Their anger is fueled by “persistent experiences of oppression, insecurity, or humiliation” and enflamed by leaders, such as Donald Trump, who “capitalize on these adverse conditions and reward extremism in order to gain power for themselves.” Responses to deal with hardliners range from containing and excluding them from negotiated paths forward in favour of moderate voices to including them to avoid further violence to “humanization” strategies.
The Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda can also be leveraged for a more effective response to domestic peacebuilding and reconciliation. WPS recognizes that solutions to political conflict are more effective and lasting when diverse members of society – especially women – are part of the solution. Likewise, WPS strategies recognize the distinct threats to women leaders and offer tools to mitigate them.
Joe Biden and Kamala Harris inherit a country on the brink. American democracy can no longer rest on its laurels but must once again actively fight to preserve and advance the republic. Looking to the lens of international security and democracy support is a jarring but potentially instructive exercise at this juncture.