It should be pretty clear to everybody in the country at this point that one of the gravest threats facing America today is not some foreign enemy, but a domestic one that threatens the very foundation of our democratic experiment: political extremism. Now it would be nice to think that this is some recent occurrence, or that it’s a problem only for one side of the political spectrum and not the other, but sadly, neither of these is the case.

Sure, it might seem right now as if violent political extremism is primarily an issue for the right, but we can’t presume that will continue to be the case perpetually. As such, federal law enforcement needs to not only arrest those groups and individuals who were directly involved in the attack on the Capitol, but also monitor extremist groups of any ideological flavor who may be prone toward violence. We’ve already seen that a number of individuals involved in the attack made the journey from far left to far right, and crazy conspiracy theories have always had appeal on both sides.

Still, a law enforcement approach alone isn’t enough, nor is the suppression of extremists online. While it’s fair to conclude that social media has enabled the spread of both good and bad ideas, it’s not solely to blame for extremists. A long history of political violence in this country predates social media. In the 19th century, the Klan perpetrated lynchings and terrorist attacks; in the early 20th century, not only were they still active, but violent anarchists also coordinated bombing campaigns and managed to assassinate President William McKinley. In the 1960s and 1970s, left-wing groups turned violent, robbed banks, bombed courthouses and kidnapped government officials. All of these groups managed to organize their activities without the aid of Facebook and Twitter. Social media may have changed and amplified the threat of political violence, but it’s not the sole cause of it – it’s simply a tool. Like any other tool, it’s neither good nor bad in and of itself; it all depends on how it’s used and by whom.

We cannot solely work to suppress extremist voices, either through law enforcement actions or by forcing social media companies to ban them. While that’s an appealing solution, it often drives them further underground and risks turning them into martyrs. We’re better off instead if we leave social media open, allowing the companies to enforce their own standards as they see fit. Nobody on either side of the ideological divide will ever be completely happy with the decisions these companies make, but it’s far better that they handle it themselves than under the yoke of increased government regulation.

Instead, the best way to dim the appeal of conspiracy theories and extremist voices is to encourage greater participation in our democracy. This is something on which both parties ought to work together on at all levels of government, rather than trying to manipulate the system to their own advantage. This is an area where Maine has been a leader for decades – we consistently have one of the highest voter turnouts in the nation – and the rest of the country could learn from our example.

The parts of Maine law that the rest of the country should adopt are such a cornerstone of democracy here that most Mainers probably wouldn’t even think of them as reforms. One example is same-day voter registration, which has been in place for years here but has yet to be adopted by every state. We’ve also long had bipartisan redistricting at both the federal and state levels, and had relatively easy ballot access for non-party candidates. Maine also makes it easy to request an absentee ballot than many other states.

There’s no doubt that greater voter participation is a sign of a healthy democracy, but it also reduces the threat of alienated voters turning to extremism. That’s why it should be a goal for both parties, but unfortunately as of late even ordinary, common-sense election reforms have become politically controversial. Neither party should resist increasing voter participation; indeed, the only reason they should fear that is if they don’t believe they can legitimately win elections. Increasing voter participation won’t inevitably lead to victories for either party, but decreasing participation does inevitably lead to more extremism and greater division. Eventually, that could lead to the breakdown of our democracy, and that’s something that should concern all Americans, regardless of their political beliefs.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins. He can be contacted at:
[email protected]
Twitter: @jimfossel


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