The 2020 election may not have been fraudulent, but the fact that millions of Americans think so requires action.
“Accept and move on” is a phrase that comes up every time Kenya holds an election. It’s an ugly, dismissive phrase that tells people that whatever problems they may have with the officially declared result of an election, they should just suck it up and keep going. For a country that has always had a deadly fear of elections and the chaos and violence they bring, poll legitimacy has always played a secondary role after the push to keep the peace and not shake the boat too much.
Today I hear something very similar from the American media insisting that the conduct of the elections should not be questioned. Those who oppose the conduct of the poll, even when they are politicians who chose to certify the result, are easily accused of stoking the “big lie” about electoral fraud that led to the violence. This is all too reminiscent of how the Kenyan media put an end to dissent following the last two elections.
Of course, there are some crucial differences. Where in Kenya it was the opposition citing government fraud in favor of a candidate, in the United States it was the incumbent president making statements which were refuted even by his own officials. His allegations of rigging have been dismissed in dozens of courts, undermining their credibility, while in the case of Kenya, only the Supreme Court has jurisdiction to hear a presidential election dispute.
Yet two similarities stand out: the fact that millions of people believe the election was stolen and that this presents an increasing likelihood of violence. This is not how electoral systems are supposed to work. The aim should be to provide not only the truth i.e. they should be free and fair, but also legitimacy i.e. they should let people, especially those who lose, convinced that they were free and fair. When a significant part of the electorate is convinced that an election has been stolen, however far-fetched as one might think the belief is, then to that extent the system has failed and there should be a serious effort made to remedy the failure.
However, this is not the narrative that comes out of the United States. A common argument is that the people who claim to cheat are bad faith actors who have essentially managed to convince hordes of gullible and stupid people to regurgitate a bunch of lies. There is therefore no need to convince these people with facts and arguments and therefore little interest in trying. However, when one has to share a country and institutions with “these” people and their growing alienation can lead to violence, it is not enough to write them off. For those who wish to preserve future peace, regaining the confidence of the discontented must be a priority.
In Kenya, following the 2007 elections, it was recognized that the problems could not be resolved simply by technical solutions to the elections – although these are essential. The mistrust was rooted in historical grievances inflamed by opaque electoral practices. Commissions have been set up to investigate these issues and make recommendations. However, once the crisis passed, the momentum for change was lost and many of these reports and recommendations dusted off as elections continued to be arenas of terror and death.
There is a lesson here for the United States. Beat the iron while it is hot. Fix the real problems with the system – gerrymandering, voter suppression and partisan election management, to name a few. However, also recognize that disputes over the outcome and conduct of elections rarely concern only the real numbers, but also the deeper societal divides that need to be healed, and the opportunities to do so do not last very long. Obviously, the United States has a deeply polarized population. “We live in two universes. One universe is a lie… The other universe is where we are, and this is where reality reigns supreme and we face it. And these two worlds rarely overlap, ”as Rush Limbaugh, the right-wing radio host, said over a decade ago. Things have worsened considerably since then. These divisions are now inflamed by an outdated, gerrymandered and opaque electoral system overseen by partisan officials that has proven to fall short of demagoguery.
This should give the American media pause for thought. Indeed, the US electoral system has come under attack from Trump and his allies and has proven to be very vulnerable. In the aftermath of this attack, telling victims to simply accept that Joe Biden won and move on will do little to allay resentment. It also rejects a crucial opportunity to verify vulnerability and foster a full national discussion about what plagues society. And it goes beyond simply rebutting fraud claims. This 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 opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.