A year ago, a crowd on the National Mall violently breached the halls of the U.S. Capitol with the intent of disrupting the formal ratification of the 2020 presidential election. Despite the chaos, Joe Biden was inaugurated as the president, the prosecution of individual perpetrators has begun, and the House of Representatives January 6 Commitee's investigation is ongoing. Yet there remains a sense that something fundamental to American democracy has changed. Where is America now, one year from the attack?
To mark the first anniversary of the January 6 Capitol riot, scholars from across the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies share their thoughts on what has happened in the year since, and what the ongoing effects of the violence signal about the future of democracy and the integrity of America’s image at home and abroad.
Larry Diamond, Mosbacher Senior Fellow in Global Democracy
The January 6 insurrection was the gravest assault on American democracy since the Civil War, and it came much closer to disrupting the peaceful transfer of power (and possibly our democracy itself) than we realized at the time.
Rather than providing a sobering lesson of the dangers of political polarization, the insurrection seems only to have intensified our divisions, and the willingness to contemplate or condone the use of violence. According to a recent Washington Post survey, a third of Americans feel violence against the government could be justified in some circumstances —a sharp increase from 16 percent in 2010 and 23 percent in 2015.
Sadly, many politicians have not been the least bit chastened by the close brush with a constitutional catastrophe. The “Big Lie” that Biden did not legitimately win the 2020 election retains the support of most Republicans and a substantial proportion of independents. Around the country, Republican legislatures have been introducing, and in many states adopting, bills that would give Republican legislatures the ability to reverse or sabotage legitimate electoral outcomes, and other bills that make it more difficult for people (especially Democratic-leaning groups) to vote. All of this is doing deep damage to the global reputation and hence “soft power” of American democracy.
Although they are generally relieved that Trump is no longer president, our allies remain deeply worried about the stability and effectiveness of American democracy.
What gives me some hope is the expanding network of civil society organizations documenting the multiple threats to electoral integrity in the U.S. But we are going to need much more widespread and resourceful mobilization to counter the downward spiral of our democracy.
Problems at Home, Issues Abroad
Francis Fukuyama, Olivier Nomellini Senior Fellow
The Capitol uprising on January 6 marked a grave crisis in American institutions, when a sitting President refused to transfer power peacefully and sought to actively overturn an election. The Republican Party, rather than repudiating the uprising and marginalizing its organizers, instead rallied in subsequent weeks to normalize the event. These developments, while bad in themselves from the standpoint of US politics, also sent an unmistakable geopolitical signal that the Biden presidency would not represent an American return to “normal” internationalism. The Administration would lead a deeply polarized country uncertain of its own global role.
This is the point at which geopolitics and domestic unrest come together. The single greatest weakness of the United States today does not lie in its economy or military power, but in the deep polarization that has affected American politics. This is not just speculation, but something underlined by Kremlin-linked commentators, as Françoise Thom has detailed: in the words of one, "the decrepit empire of the Stars and Stripes, weakened by LGBT, BLM, etc." makes "it is clear that it will not survive a two-front war." They see that a significant number of Republicans believe that the Democratic Party represents a bigger threat to the American way of life than does Russia. A country that cannot rally around sensible public health measures during a pandemic will not rally around defense of freedom abroad. This is the significance of January 6: it has hardened partisan divisions rather than being the occasion for national soul-searching.
Read Francis Fukuyama's full commentary in American Purpose.
Democracy vs. Partisanship
Didi Kuo, Senior Research Scholar at CDDRL
It has been a year since rioters stormed the United States Capitol in an effort—an organized, violent effort—to declare Donald Trump the rightful winner of the 2020 presidential election. The riots signaled a dangerous turn in American politics, an attack on the basic, fundamental institutions of democracy. For democracy to work, all sides must agree on the rules of the game: the fairness of the balloting and counting process, the routine and peaceful transfer of power. We now see what happens when the institutions and procedures of elections are delegitimated.
Our political leaders can act now to restore confidence in elections. They can do so by protecting election administrators from threats of violence, by depoliticizing oversight of elections, and by passing democratic reforms. Although President Biden’s Freedom to Vote Act and John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act have been blocked by Republicans, narrower versions of these bills could create stricter federal election standards. And Americans can organize to protect democracy through civic groups that push for ballot access and election integrity, particularly at the state level. Politicians and activists alike must make clear that election administration is not a partisan issue. As the nation enters the third year of a global pandemic and an upcoming midterm election, our leaders must make strengthening democracy their utmost priority.
Epistemic Fractures and Exploitation
Herbert Lin, Senior Research Scholar at CISAC
The failure of the Jan. 6 insurrection provided an opportunity for the United States to collectively take a step back from the conspiracy theories and lies that pervaded American political discourse in the preceding couple of years. But alas, the nation failed to take advantage of that opportunity, with tens of millions of Americans maintaining their delusions as strongly as ever. Substantial numbers of Americans continue to believe that Donald Trump really won the 2020 election, and the number of QAnon adherents and believers was virtually unchanged.
Even more alarming has been the cynical exploitation of such trends by elected officials in their quest to gain or retain political power. Rather than standing up for the rule of law and defending the conclusions of an independent judiciary regarding various allegations of election fraud, they have pointed to such outcomes as yet more evidence of a system rigged against them. We now live in a environment in which no conceivable evidence can persuade true believers to change their minds, and the resulting epistemic fractures translate into a once-unified nation sharply divided against itself. A worse national posture to meet the challenges of coming great-power competition could not be imagined.
Read more of Herbert Lin's analysis of contemporary security issues and power competition in his latest book, Cyber Threats and Nuclear Weapons (Stanford University Press, 2021).
The Need to Protect and Invest In Elections
Matthew Masterson, Non-resident Fellow at the Stanford Internet Observatory
The insurrection on January 6th left a scar on American Democracy. For the first time in our history, America did not have a peaceful transition of power. The effects of that day continue to be felt every day in election offices across the United States. Election officials, the guardians of our Democracy, are targets of harassment and threats fueled by the ongoing lies regarding the integrity and accuracy of the election. Worse yet, there have been little no consequences for these threats against our democracy. While some who participated in January 6th are being investigated and prosecuted, those responsible for the threats against election officials have faced little to no accountability for their actions. Facing ongoing threats and little support from law enforcement election officials are leaving their jobs out of fear for their own safety and the safety of their families.
Healing the wound of January 6th won’t be easy; there must be accountability for the damage done to our democracy. American democracy is resilient and strong, but can not survive the unchecked attacks against it. Those who seek to profit from the lies about 2020 need to be held accountable for selling out democracy in pursuit of their own political and financial gain. They must be defeated at the ballot box or their businesses made to pay the price by Americans unwilling to accept holding democracy for ransom. As we bring accountability, we need to invest in continuing to improve the security, accessibility and integrity of the process. We need to fund elections on an ongoing basis like the national security issue they are. The only response to this sustained attack on our democracy is a sustained investment in protecting it.