The 2020 election may not have been fraudulent, but the fact that millions of Americans think it was requires action.
“Accept and move on” is a phrase that rears its head every time Kenya has elections. It is an ugly, dismissive phrase that tells people that regardless of the problems they may have with the officially declared outcome of an election, they should just suck it up and carry on. For a country that has always been deathly afraid of elections and the chaos and violence they bring, the legitimacy of polls has always played second fiddle to the impetus to maintain the peace and not rock the boat too much.
Today, I’m hearing something disturbingly similar coming from the US media in its insistence that the conduct of the election must not be queried. Those who raise issue with the conduct of the poll, even when they are politicians who opted to certify the result, are easily accused of fanning the “Big Lie” about electoral fraud that led to violence. It is all too reminiscent of how Kenyan media shut down dissent in the aftermath of the last two elections.
Of course, there are crucial differences. Where in Kenya, it was the opposition claiming fraud by the government in favour of one candidate, in the US it was the incumbent president making claims that were refuted even by his own officials. His claims of rigging have been thrown out of dozens of courts, undermining their credibility, while in Kenya’s case, only the Supreme Court has jurisdiction to hear a dispute over the presidential election.
Yet two similarities stand out: the fact that millions of people believe the election was stolen, and that this presents an escalating probability of violence. This is not how election systems are supposed to work. The goal should be to deliver not just truth, that is they should be free and fair, but also legitimacy, that is they should leave people, especially those on the losing side, convinced that they were free and fair. When a significant portion of the electorate is convinced elections have been stolen, however kooky one may think that belief is, then to that extent, the system has failed and there should be a serious effort undertaken to address the failure.
However, this is not the narrative coming out of the US. One common argument is that the people claiming fraud are bad faith actors who have essentially managed to convince hordes of gullible and stupid folks into regurgitating a bunch of lies. There is thus no convincing these people with facts and argument and therefore little point in trying. Yet, when one has to share a country and institutions with “these” people and their increasing alienation can lead to violence, simply writing them off is not an option. For those interested in preserving future peace, regaining the trust of the disaffected must be a priority.
In Kenya, in the aftermath of the 2007 elections, there was a recognition that the problems could not be resolved merely by technical fixes to the election – though these are indispensable. The distrust was rooted in historical grievances that were inflamed by opaque election practices. Commissions were established to inquire into these and develop recommendations. However, once the crisis passed, the momentum for change was lost and many of those reports and recommendations are gathering dust while elections continue to be arenas of terror and death.
There’s a lesson here for the US. Strike while the iron is hot. Fix the real kinks in the system – gerrymandering, voter suppression, and partisan management of elections, to name a few. However, also recognise that disputes over the outcome and conduct of the election are rarely only about the actual numbers, but also about deeper societal fractures that need to be healed, and that opportunities to do that do not last for very long. By all accounts, the US has a deeply polarised population. “We live in two universes. One universe is a lie… The other universe is where we are, and that’s where reality reigns supreme and we deal with it. And seldom do these two universes ever overlap,” as Rush Limbaugh, the rightwing radio talk show host, declared more than a decade ago. Things have worsened considerably since then. These divisions are now inflamed by an antiquated, gerrymandered, opaque electoral system overseen by partisan officials that has proven to be no match for demagoguery.
That should give US media pause for thought. In effect, the US electoral system has suffered an attack from Trump and his allies and has proven to be very vulnerable. In the aftermath of that attack, telling the victims to simply accept that Joe Biden won and move on will do little to calm resentment. It also spurns a crucial opportunity to audit the vulnerability as well as foster a comprehensive national conversation about what ails society. And that goes beyond simply rebutting allegations of fraud. It requires asking the same questions that would be asked when other national systems failed and then instituting the necessary reforms to make the system more resilient.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.