The Worst Legacy of January 6th - Making Insurrection Partisan
The first anniversary of the 1/6/21 insurrection is a solemn observance. But you know what, let's start with the good news: It failed. President Trump attempted to subvert American democracy and prolong his rule indefinitely through the combination of lawsuits, legislative maneuvers, and the instigation of a violent riot, with all the powers of the presidency at his disposal. It didn't work. Instead, he quietly sulked away from office a few hours prior to Joe Biden's inauguration.
The bad news is that this is not how those events are universally remembered.
Recent polling finds vastly different views of January 6th across the two major parties. 78 percent of Democrats describe the rioters as "mostly violent," while only 26 percent of Republicans agree. 92 percent of Democrats see Trump as being largely responsible for the riots that day, but only 27 percent of Republicans agree.
Much of this disagreement is rooted in Republican belief in the "Big Lie" about the 2020 election. A majority of Republican voters claim that Biden was not legitimately elected, and Republicans, far more than Democrats, are likely to say that they do not trust that their vote will be properly counted in 2022. Relatedly, more Republicans than Democrats endorse political violence in some cases.
There was a moment in the aftermath of the riots that prominent congressional Republicans publicly distanced themselves from Trump and indicated that their party's experiment with his style of leadership was at an end. That moment lasted at most a few weeks.
Now, to be sure, it is fairly common for the losing side in a presidential election to claim for some time after that election that there was fraud or some kind of chicanery at work. But importantly, elected officials and other public figures almost never endorse this sort of rhetoric. Instead, they treat the new president as the legitimately elected leader, and members of their party come to follow suit. 2021 was a massive deviation from this, with many Republican leaders either questioning Biden's election or refusing to acknowledge him as the legitimate president. Those voters inclined toward baseless claims of fraud are not being challenged by their leaders; instead their beliefs are being reinforced.
What has happened over the year since the insurrection is on par with what has happened to Covid -- it was something that didn't need to be partisan that nonetheless became so, and has become astronomically harder to deal with as a result. There was a moment in the immediate aftermath of the riots that prominent congressional Republicans -- even staunch Trump allies like Lindsey Graham and Kevin McCarthy -- publicly distanced themselves from him and indicated that their party's experiment with his style of leadership was at an end. That moment lasted at most a few weeks.
The insurrection, as Jonathan Bernstein noted, was an attack on the United States, but it is now subject to the same hyper-polarization of so many other issues in American politics. Not only don't the parties agree, but Republicans have even come to rationalize, defend, and even valorize what happened that day. What's more, publicly proclaiming fealty for the Big Lie has become the key litmus test for Republican primaries this year. And the party is seeking to install secretaries of state and other officials across the country who will be more open to overturning elections that Democrats win.
The fact that the insurrection and the overall attempt to reverse the 2020 election results failed is a positive mark for American democracy, as is the fact that many of the perpetrators (if not the organizers) are being prosecuted and sentenced. But it portends ill for the future that these actions are not being universally deplored, and that their defense largely has the imprimatur of a major political party.
What does that future hold? This is a tricky area. It is appropriate that policymakers, scholars, and journalists are raising strong warnings about what is to come, but in some ways there is a limited American imagination at work here. We're not likely to end up in a full scale civil war or under the sort of brutal totalitarian government seen in the Stalin-era USSR or Nazi-era Germany. But increased political violence, ramped up attacks on democratic elections, and a slide into the sorts of authoritarian regimes seen in modern Hungary, Poland, Venezuela, and other places is certainly plausible. But again, there are many ways in which the American situation is truly unique. When one of only two major parties in the nation with the world's largest military and economy abandons democracy... the world just doesn't have much experience with this.
The anti-democratic forces lost on January 6th. But the path that the nation has taken in the year since has not been a healthy one. It is certainly possible we'll see other instances of political violence mar upcoming elections. But more importantly, we're seeing an overall effort to simply reverse election results and undermine democracy. The threat isn't over, and in some ways, it's grown stronger.