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American democracy is dodging bullets

After November’s elections, many people hoped that claims of American democratic decay were overblown. The arrest of an election-denying candidate in New Mexico who allegedly spearheaded shootings at the homes of Democratic lawmakers shows that politics have not returned to normal. Instead, Americans have normalized a dangerous amount of violence in our politics — and our daily lives.

Solomon Peña ran as a Republican for the New Mexico state legislature. He lost. He is accused of hiring gunmen to shoot the homes of four Democratic New Mexican lawmakers, possibly pulling one trigger himself. Three bullets pierced the bedroom of Rep. Linda Lopez’s 10-year-old daughter, causing her ceiling to crumble as she slept. 

In just a few years, violence has become so expected in U.S. politics that many people breathed a sigh of relief after the 2022 midterms. After all, only one state’s election commissioner had to go into hiding with a security detail after credible threats. Local election clerks only faced strangers in tactical gear surveilling them and taking pictures of their license plates in Arizona. Despite more than 100 violent ads aired during the campaign, some showing candidates being hunted down with guns, no candidates were actually killed.

This ignores how violence and intimidation are already altering our politics. Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) lost her primary — was that because Wyoming didn’t approve of her anti-Trumpism, or because she didn’t hold pre-announced campaign events because she faced so many threats? Did the majority of Republicans really believe Trump should not face accountability for his incitement of the Jan. 6 riots — or were they afraid “in some instances, for their lives” as fellow Republican Rep. Peter Meijer (Mich.) described? 

Other casualties of violence are the people who are choosing not to run for office. Threats have not only risen 10-fold in the last few years against members of Congress — they have also skyrocketed against mayors and local office holders. A 2021 poll by the National League of Cities found 81 percent of local leaders have experienced threats or violence. The addresses of New Mexico’s state legislators are public, because they are elected officials. So troubled constituents and candidates like Peña can harangue them at their homes.

Parents may be particularly deterred from serving. Philadelphia’s Republican city commissioner in 2020 faced death threats against his kids credible enough that the state gave them a security detail. Many parents are propelled into politics through service on school boards after seeing the state of their kids’ schools. A former chairwoman of Virginia’s Loudoun County schools received repeated threats against her and her children. So did the school board chair in Rochester, Minnesota, whose kids implored her, “Mom, they’re going to kill you. They know where you live.” 

Who runs for office under these conditions?

Well, extremists are still willing. Peña was one of more than 30 candidates (as well as at least 21 state legislators) who took part in the Jan. 6 riots in Washington D.C.  They keep getting reelected: At least seven candidates gained state and local seats in 2021, and another nine took office in 2022. Multiple state politicians are purported members of the Oath Keepers militia, whose leader has been convicted of sedition — from David Eastman of Alaska’s state House to Wyoming’s GOP state chairman. The Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights found that 10 percent of all state lawmakers and 21 percent of Republicans were part of extremist groups on social media.

In other democracies, as candidates motivated by public service step away, others step in who are more interested in the rewards of legislative impunity and enrichment opportunities. In India, more than a quarter of state legislators have serious criminal cases against them, including rape, murder and attempted murder — numbers that rise to 29 percent at the national level. Brazil has seen similar rates of legislators facing serious charges. America has similar experiences with its quickly sinking quality of legislators: In the 1850s, pro-slavery elected officials began using violence and armed intimidation against their colleagues.

Americans are not helpless. Voters and donors from both parties must stop supporting candidates willing to lie and incite violence to win elections. So far, neither is taking seriously the major role we know elected leaders play in spurring aggressive followers to action.

The choices our government makes affect our kids, taxes, schools, roads and lives. They are in the hands of the people we elect — but who we pick is constrained by those willing to run. Our democracy is dodging bullets. We will not be able to do so forever.

Rachel Kleinfeld is a senior fellow of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where she advises philanthropists, government leaders and private actors internationally on how to stop political violence and how declining democracies can rebound.

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