Seven members of the Michigan militia group, Wolverine Watchmen, were arrested on charges of plotting to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and overthrow Michigan’s elected government. According to authorities, the group targeted law enforcement officers and other state officials and planned “to instigate a civil war leading to societal collapse.”
Sadly, this news wasn’t as shocking as it would have been even a decade ago. Political polarization is increasing, and both sides of the aisle believe the other side is out to get them. The Michigan arrests should be a wake-up call to Americans across the political spectrum to lay aside their differences and work together to restore the fraternal spirit of our democracy. There is room in America for many different views, but there isn’t room for violence and the division that inspires it.
Recent polling from Braver Angels shows half of Americans do not believe the November elections will be “fair and honest.” Half of Americans believe that Americans will not “generally agree on who is the legitimately elected president of the United States,” and a majority of Americans — 55%— believe that we “will see an increase in violence as a result of the election.” If these numbers are right, the Michigan plot may only be a precursor to what will happen in November, especially if the election is close.
Data from a January 2019 study titled “Lethal Mass Partisanship” shows we are on the precipice of mass political violence. The survey showed that 18% of Democrats and 13% of Republicans believe that political violence is acceptable if the 2020 election doesn’t go their way.
But we don’t need university studies to show us the reality of social unrest in American cities from Portland to Kenosha, where partisan demonstrators have collided with fatal consequences.
Dig into the literature or just hang out on Twitter long enough and you learn there are frighteningly large numbers of Americas who entertain the idea that violence is an option should their opponents win the 2020 election, and we are beginning to see that in action. It is one thing to theorize about violence; it is another to see an anarchistic plot to overthrow a governor.
We need a countermovement of Americans who are willing to publicly say no, violence isn’t the cure to what ails our politics. My organization, Braver Angels, hopes to create this community by gathering Americans from across the political spectrum to sign a public letter stating in the event of a contested election, “We resolve to work together across this chasm for solutions grounded in the Constitution and guided by our democratic and non-violent tradition.” We are also providing interested Americans with ways to help keep the peace on Election Day and after.
If our divided response to a global pandemic, racial turmoil, economic decline and electoral integrity reveals anything to us, it should be that the major problem with American politics today is not necessarily one party or the other, as much as it is the relationship between the parties — from Main Street to Capitol Hill — and how that warps and challenges the relationship between all of us. If we commit ourselves to the work of reweaving the social fabric of American civil society, we commit ourselves to solving the fundamental problem undermining our democracy.
Events in Michigan show how deeply divided America is — there is no getting around that. But we aren’t finished. We, as a nation, must recommit to our tradition of nonviolence and the democratic norms that have allowed us to flourish for centuries. Even in these dark days, I see hope for a better tomorrow, and I believe we will rediscover our common ground.