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Paramilitary groups helped storm the Capitol. Here’s what we know about armed groups and politics.

Breaking the ties between politicians and armed groups can prove difficult.

- January 23, 2021

This month, after President Donald Trump spoke at a rally near the White House, a partisan mob stormed the U.S. Capitol. The violence that followed led to deaths, property damage and a delay in the process to confirm the 2020 election results — and a growing number of security concerns and questions. Among the mob, reportedly, were off-duty police officers, members of alleged private paramilitary groups and others with military training — and some rioters came armed with weapons. Armed individuals, and even organized groups, openly demonstrating, and at times threatening and using violence, have characterized this electoral cycle.

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Politicians at times encourage these ties

In the United States and elsewhere, what do these ties between politicians and armed groups look like? And how can they be severed? Armed individuals and organized groups often have links to politicians.

My case-based research with Paul Staniland shows that these linkages can become endemic in very different contexts, spanning many levels of both democracy and development. For example, insurgents in Sri Lanka and paramilitaries in Colombia have targeted political parties with which they disagree. In fact, our research led us to suspect that most armed groups engage in some type of electoral participation, including supporting particular candidates and coercing others, but also at times running candidates for office, and that many politicians are open to this influence. My cross-national data tracking the most overt links show that the ties between armed groups and politicians, once established, tend to be long-lived.

In the United States, our work showed even before the 2020 elections that these ties have characterized some historical moments — and they have been again used especially in recent years under the Trump administration.

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Why do armed groups seek an electoral role?

Ties with politicians allow armed groups to tilt their outcomes toward particular politicians and parties with positions that match their own political aims and agendas. Sympathetic politicians also allow these groups to engage in more recruitment, organization and, potentially, attacks.

What is in it for politicians? Armed groups can intimidate those trying to block a preferred policy. Or they can mobilize enthusiastic and vocal supporters, and improve politicians’ chances of holding positions in government — or simply intimidate the opposition. Other research reveals similar dynamics in other types of violence, including violent protests, one-sided repression and communal violence.

These ties between armed groups and politicians have the potential to undermine democracy — both by mobilizing illegal activity and by deterring legal political activities such as campaigning and legislating. And they can dissuade citizens from voting or supporting their preferred candidates, as well as intimidate civil servants trying to do their jobs.

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These ties can be hard to cut

Once politicians become tied to armed groups, separation may not be simple. Our research suggests three components to a successful strategy to sever these types of ties.

First, we argue, journalists, analysts and academics can monitor and identify these ties. Many of the links between politicians and armed actors are covert, not overt. Even if ties are in the open, the specific language often allows politicians to deny them if pressured. As Joshua C. Wilson explained here in TMC, some politicians in the United States recently have adopted careful language that allows parties and politicians to deny their links to armed groups, although Trump’s Jan. 6 rally speech called somewhat more explicitly for armed action. Some have been monitoring and more directly calling out these links, including how Trump’s rally speech, other public encouragement by his longtime advisers and reported tours led by lawmakers of the U.S. Capitol fit into the attacks.

Second, once the ties between armed groups and politicians are identified, who can hold them accountable? We point to work showing the police and judicial system play an important role, as consistent law enforcement keeps armed groups reined in.

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Our work also echoes growing questions about whether politicians encouraged uneven policing. For example, the Trump administration sought to have federal agencies downplay threats from armed right-wing groups — in some instances, local officers and sheriffs displayed their sympathies with these armed groups. The growing number of arrests of those who breached the Capitol, however, suggests that the government might become more active in policing these threats.

Holding politicians accountable for their ties to armed groups can involve political processes such as sanctions or impeachment, funding cuts by campaign donors, social media companies enforcing their policies on language, and, ultimately, disapproval expressed through votes by constituents. In other countries, especially where militias are linked to the state, policymakers and the public at times respond by targeting legal activities under militia control. For example, politicians linked to paramilitaries in Colombia were in some cases arrested on charges of collusion but also faced political consequences.

Who else has the ability to hold politicians, in particular, accountable? Other research in political science suggests that people closest to the politicians themselves — previously political allies and advisers — are more likely to be in a position to call out or sanction this type of violence. After all, other lawmakers and political supporters are more likely to be persuaded by messengers with whom they share common values. Deradicalization programs in cases of Islamist extremism, for example, often use the messages of former radicals. Other studies suggest that the signals from these close allies and advisers can also provide more information when they break expectations. Over the past week, Trump officials who spoke out against the violence and Republican funders who withdrew support were moving toward this accountability.

Because some politicians see the benefits of support from armed individuals and groups, many elections feature violence, our research shows. But efforts to reverse this threat to democracy can prove effective — as we may now continue to witness in the wake of the U.S. Capitol assault.

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Aila M. Matanock (@matanock) is associate professor of political science at University of California at Berkeley and author of “Electing Peace: From Civil Conflict to Political Participation” (Cambridge University Press, 2018).