The Carter Center — based in Atlanta, Georgia, and founded by the 39th president of the United States — observed over 110 elections in 39 countries before deciding to work on the 2020 U.S. elections.
The Center had spent decades doing pioneering work to strengthen democracy and reduce armed conflicts around the globe. Its decision to apply some of the methodologies learned abroad at home was informed by a number of factors, many of them long-running trends in American society that reached new highs in 2020.
These domestic factors included strife and unrest that were the result of racial inequities and injustice, increasing dehumanization of political opponents, rising political sectarianism, and the growth of partisan media ecosystems that were eroding a shared foundation of facts — challenges that we have seen in our work abroad in places as diverse as Syria and Myanmar. There was, too, deep concern about the potential for violence or other disruptions surrounding the November election.
The Carter Center embarked on a series of activities to support the election, including a specific focus on political violence. From September 2020 through January 2021, the Center, in partnership with Princeton University’s Bridging Divides Initiative and Cure Violence Global, implemented an experimental project that attempted to mitigate violence surrounding the November election in a few pilot communities. This article outlines what we did and what we learned.
We began by developing an analytical model that could help us better anticipate where election-related violence might occur. Working with an experienced data analyst at Cure Violence Global, the Center and our partners aggregated a variety of quantitative datasets — from socioeconomic indicators to incidence of protests to past election results — to help understand which communities might be at risk of unrest.
By early October, we had identified 27 counties as being at higher risk. Our analysis did not suggest that every listed community would experience violence, nor did it suggest that there would be no violence elsewhere. It did, however, serve as a reasonable guide for focusing our effort — and certain patterns were clear.
The most at-risk communities were smaller, liberal-leaning cities in close proximity to more conservative rural areas (e.g., Portland, Oregon, or Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina). Larger metro areas that were more politically heterogeneous (e.g., metro Atlanta or Dallas-Fort Worth) also registered as being at elevated risk. State capitals in swing states stood out as magnets for possible protest and violence. The largest urban centers in the U.S. (e.g., New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago), were at lower risk for political violence — as were more rural/conservative swaths of the U.S.
Lacking the resources to engage in all of these communities, we worked with project partners to share our findings with a dozen national networks with the potential to direct violence prevention resources to these communities.
In addition, we zeroed in on four metro areas and their surrounding regions, connecting directly with local organizations to understand how they viewed conflict dynamics in their communities and to help build local conflict resilience mechanisms. The selection of these communities was rushed and largely a function of where our team had existing contacts. More broadly, we were under no illusions about the challenges inherent in attempting to address drivers of political violence in the U.S. that were decades, if not centuries, in the making, working just weeks before an election.
Nevertheless, we were reasonably confident in our theory of change. We believed that, if we could identify and mobilize a range of trusted community leaders, positioning them to speak out in support of the electoral process and against violence, we could make violence less likely. In an era of declining social trust, we believed that it would be possible to identify local stakeholders who could be credible messengers, helping to strengthen fundamental democratic norms in their communities.
This theory was underpinned by three assumptions:
1) Violence prevention is one of the few remaining sources of common ground in American political discourse. While political violence does have a long history in the U.S., in the post-World War II era, most Americans have taken for granted that violence around our elections is not acceptable.
2) Few Americans are truly insulated from our sociopolitical polarization, but at the local level there are likely to be more overlapping networks of social capital, as well as “thick” and “thin” social trust, that could be leveraged constructively. It is harder for conservatives to demonize liberals when they are fellow members of a Rotary Club. It is harder for liberals to denigrate conservatives with whom they attend church. Local leaders are likely to be more integrated into an array of relationships that connect people across our divides.
3) We were not starting from scratch. Every community in the U.S. was likely to have existing, credible networks of trust and social capital that might be utilized for political violence mitigation.
By mid-to-late October, we had identified and convened dozens of community influencers, via Zoom workshops, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Raleigh, North Carolina; and Charlotte, North Carolina.
In each session, we began by sharing the risk profile for the community in question that our data analytical tool had produced. After explaining the key risk factors, staff facilitated a small group exercise. Drawing on tools produced by the nonprofit Over Zero, participants were encouraged to think through and discuss potential drivers of violence in their communities, as well as individuals, networks, and institutions with a track record of mitigating violence and fostering healthy community ties.
This very brief exercise was designed to whet their appetites. It was no substitute for the months that could be spent interviewing and convening stakeholders to understand local conflict dynamics. Rather, the purpose was to make the point that, with some advance planning, these community figures could take steps to help make their communities more resilient to conflict — before the election. We sought to empower these groups with the idea that they could build coalitions that could, among other things, prepare to issue targeted nonpartisan, pro-democracy and anti-violence messaging, drawing on basic talking points developed by The Carter Center and other nonprofits. The messages were valued as they provided basic facts that were nonpartisan. The apolitical nature of the material was especially important for faith leaders and others for whom direct engagement in politics was taboo.
After the presidential election, with Georgia’s Senate runoff elections looming, we shifted to focus almost exclusively on that state. The Center was concerned by the toxic combination of violent rhetoric and former President Donald Trump’s effort to undermine the credibility of the presidential election results in Georgia and nationally.
We convened dozens of faith leaders in two workshops in December 2020. These sessions were used to disseminate anti-violence talking points that we had created for use in religious sermons, op-eds, and in-person engagements.
We also developed Georgia-themed social media graphics highlighting pro-democracy, anti-violence messages as part of a broader Carter Center campaign to promote election integrity. These, too, were shared with faith leaders for dissemination on the social media pages of their institutions.
Finally, we developed a code of conduct, a set of basic principles related to the conduct of the election and the acceptance of the results, that we tried to persuade all four Senate candidates to sign off on, though the Republican candidates demurred.
Despite this project’s limited scope, we learned a number of lessons that will inform our domestic work going forward and may be of value to other organizations working in this space:
1. Recognize the risk factors that still exist. Going into this project, The Carter Center was concerned that years of dehumanizing rhetoric, hate speech, and disinformation had primed a minority of Americans to be open to political violence. We also were concerned about the potential for former President Trump’s rhetoric to directly or indirectly incite violence. These risk factors collided on Jan. 6 — and have only increased since.
According to Pew, over 56 million Americans believe President Trump legitimately won reelection. The narrative of a stolen election — however erroneous — is a profound grievance that will continue to animate other underlying fears of demographic change and status loss on the right. Left unchecked, these grievances, free to germinate in the right-wing media ecosystem and fueled by anti-government and white supremacist ideologies, are likely to spark further violence.
2. Tap into the growing appetite for strengthening communal resilience against political violence. We were humbled by the willingness of strangers to collaborate on this initiative. The Carter Center had no history of domestic programming in the majority of places where this project engaged. Even in Atlanta, where the Center enjoys positive name recognition, we did not start with a deep set of contacts within the city’s activist groups and community organizers. Yet the stakeholders the Center engaged — despite being extremely busy in their communities — were willing to volunteer their time to buffer their communities against unrest.
There was particular interest in the Center’s international perspective and technical expertise on elections. This suggests a real potential to broaden these community-based networks.
3. Engage faith leaders and a wide array of other influencers. The Carter Center deliberately sought out faith leaders as we developed our community conflict resilience networks for the project. In an era of declining social trust, faith institutions remain relatively trusted. They tend to have moral authority in their own faith communities but also, to a degree, with the public writ large, including conservatives and liberals. This makes them relatively well-positioned to influence the wider public discourse, including norms around violence.
The experience of this project also demonstrated that locally prominent faith institutions tend to have useful contacts with local government, law enforcement, and media, all of which augment their effectiveness as potential anti-violence messengers.
Beyond the faith community, some of the community leaders we engaged attempted to bring in local sports personalities, including figures associated with professional hockey, football, and NASCAR as anti-violence messengers. Ultimately, there was not time to secure their participation. But, the attempt to recruit prominent influencers — particularly individuals likely to have credibility with conservatives — should be replicated.
4. Be positive and empowering. During the October workshops in Pennsylvania and North Carolina, and again with Georgia-based faith leaders in December, The Carter Center sought to empower stakeholders by underscoring their agency. We argued that, as influencers in their communities, participants could proactively issue messaging that could reinforce norms and potentially make violence less likely. This approach seemed to resonate. Project interlocutors were eager to do something constructive and were looking for ideas.
5. Work with a conservative partner from the outset. While the Center was encouraged by the positive response from community stakeholders, it is important to note that most people the project connected with were left of center. This is not surprising. American society is highly siloed into politically like-minded communities.
It is possible to cultivate strategically interlocutors across the aisle, but the process requires deliberate trust-building and time that this project lacked. While the Center has some capacity to forge these relationships, it would be more efficient and effective to begin future community-focused conflict resilience outreach together with a right-of-center partner. A credible conservative partner — still committed to underlying democratic principles — would enhance bipartisan credibility, at least for some on the right.
6. Use data to open doors. We began several conflict resilience workshops by sharing the local political violence risk profile that our data analytical tool had generated. Displaying this simple graphic proved useful. It helped make people’s inchoate fears of election-related violence more concrete and constructive. It allowed the Center to frame trends in these communities in a wider national context, in a manner that participants appreciated. Such data analytics should be integrated into future programming.
7. Build conflict mitigation around codes of conduct. The code of conduct, endorsed by the two Democratic Senate candidates in the Georgia runoffs, was a valuable advocacy tool. It provided an impartial framework that was useful for engaging the private sector in Georgia in a conversation around the underlying principles at stake. Going forward, building local coalitions in support of codes of conduct could be a useful means of generating cross-partisan, grassroots support for violence mitigation and democratic norms. Especially if these efforts begin well in advance of the next election, it is possible to imagine broad-based coalitions that could influence the candidates and the wider environment.
A huge array of state and local officials, volunteers, nonprofits, activists, and even corporate leaders came together to help the United States make it through the 2020 election cycle. This project was a very modest contribution to that effort. Nevertheless, the results suggest that focusing locally to mobilize key influencers may help create infrastructure that can buffer U.S. communities against future political violence. Moreover, the positive response to the project suggests that there will continue to be an appetite for community participation in these efforts and that there should be the potential to expand this work to additional communities.
Nathan Stock is the Political Violence Mitigation Manager at The Carter Center.