It’s been 12 months since a mob of American citizens, driven by the false belief that the presidential election had been stolen from Donald Trump, attacked the US Capitol. The insurrectionists couldn’t overturn the election results, but they did make us question basic assumptions about the state of American democracy.
On this episode, host Sarah Baldwin ‘87 and producer Dan Richards talked with experts at Watson and Brown about the attack. They asked scholars of political science and international affairs: what did the insurrection teach us about the state of American politics? How has it changed us? And, perhaps most important: what do we need to do to protect our institutions going forward?
Guests featured on this episode:
[MUSIC PLAYING] SARAH BALDWIN: From the Watson Institute at Brown University, this is Trending Globally. I'm Sarah Baldwin.
DAN RICHARDS: And I'm Dan Richards.
SARAH BALDWIN: This Wednesday marks one year since the insurrection on the US Capitol.
[SOUND OF PEOPLE RIOTING]
- Absolutely stunning images today here at the Capitol.
- Pick wisely, politicians. We are the people.
- Tonight, the horror and chaos, images not seen in modern American history.
[SOUND OF PEOPLE RIOTING]
DAN RICHARDS: The attackers were driven by the lie that President Trump had won the election, and that it had been stolen from him. A lie which was propagated by Trump himself.
DONALD TRUMP: All of us here today do not want to see our election victory stolen by emboldened radical-left Democrats, which is what they're doing.
- People are ready for fair and legal elections or this is what you're going to get. You're going to get more of it.
SARAH BALDWIN: The attackers, insurrectionists, whatever you want to call them, they didn't succeed in changing the election results, of course.
DAN RICHARDS: And the violence only lasted a few hours. But in many ways, we're still living with the damage they inflicted.
SARAH BALDWIN: On this episode, we asked experts at Watson and Brown to help us make sense of the attack and its aftermath as we approach the one year anniversary.
DAN RICHARDS: First, we ask them to reflect. What did this attack teach us about American politics?
SARAH BALDWIN: Then we ask them to look at where we are now. Have we done anything to address what brought us to that moment of violence? Is our democracy any safer now than it was on January 6th of last year?
Let's start with that first set of questions. What did the insurrection teach us about American politics? What enabled so many Americans to so quickly turn violent against their government? Dan, where should we start?
DAN RICHARDS: So let's start with a conversation I had with Wendy Schiller, chair of the Political Science Department at Brown and director of the Taubman Center for American Politics and Policy. Listeners have probably heard her on the show before. And one of the most important things she thinks that we all need to understand is this--
WENDY SCHILLER: It didn't start with Donald Trump.
DAN RICHARDS: There had been trends and movements growing for a long time that helped bring us to January 6th. One is the growth of something that political scientists call "negative partisanship."
SARAH BALDWIN: OK, I know what partisanship is. Is that what she means, people being really loyal to their political parties?
DAN RICHARDS: Not quite.
WENDY SCHILLER: It's one thing to be partisan and oppose the other side. It's another to make them completely illegitimate, which is what negative partisanship is all about, I hate you if you are in a different party.
DAN RICHARDS: It's like being more motivated by hating the opposition than by loving your own party, and President Trump certainly played into this feeling. But the precedent had really been set by Republicans in the years leading up to his presidency.
WENDY SCHILLER: Once Barack Obama became president, when Mitch McConnell said, we will work actively to make sure that he's only a one-term president, that was something that maybe other parties had done before, opposition presidents, but never verbally stated as if it was something to be proud of.
DAN RICHARDS: Another underlying force has been a growing frustration in the US for a long time for many people around everyday issues.
WENDY SCHILLER: People assess politics through the lens of where they are in their lives at that moment in time, and political messaging resonates with people when they are in a particular situation. So when the economy is bad, and the economy was very bad for a lot of people from Two Thousand and Eight all the way through Twenty-Seventeen. Then they're looking for answers, and they're looking for hope. A lot of people saw that in Donald Trump, and they did not think that much about the system as is. And they thought to themselves, whatever works to make my life better, that's what I want. And so they supported Donald Trump.
DAN RICHARDS: And Trump, maybe, then could act as a sort of gateway into those feelings of negative partisanship. A third thing related to those two - the Republican Party, in general, and President Trump, specifically, - became more open to letting fringe political and social groups into mainstream political life.
WENDY SCHILLER: It used to be that this was a "fringe" or it was some element that-- occupy federal land or tragically blew up a building. And you thought, OK, this isn't the dominant theme in American politics. What we've seen now, what has become uncovered is that there are far more people who sympathize with that view than I think anybody expected.
SARAH BALDWIN: So increasing frustration over economic and social issues over the course of years, decades. And with the help of Trump, many of those people became more partisan and started to view the other party as the "enemy."
DAN RICHARDS: At the same time, violent fringe groups started to feel emboldened and empowered.
SARAH BALDWIN: Yikes. That reminds me a lot of what Juliet Hooker had to say with a few added elements. She's a professor of political science at Brown. Here's how she described the insurrection;
JULIET HOOKER: In a sense, it was a culmination of a long pattern, I think, of refusal to accept certain kinds of loss and then turning to subverting democracy in response.
DAN RICHARDS: What does she mean by loss there?
SARAH BALDWIN: Well, she doesn't mean loss of an election per se. She thinks the insurrectionists and their supporters were maybe driven to their positions by a deeper kind of loss.
JULIET HOOKER: By a sense that their position at the top of the US political order is being threatened.
SARAH BALDWIN: It's a feeling that can't be understood without looking at one of the original drivers of political violence in America, race. That negative partisanship Wendy described. Juliet sees race as playing a huge role in it.
JULIET HOOKER: There is such sorting now in terms of race that you have one party that's seen as multiracial and another that's seen as mostly white. And what this means is that if you have people who are concerned about multiracial democracy are hostile to it, right, it's easy to convince them that these are immigrants or other undeserving racial minorities who are usurping their political standing.
DAN RICHARDS: But haven't the two political parties been split along pretty racialized lines for a while? What got those feelings into a crisis mode?
SARAH BALDWIN: They have. And that's a great question. Here's what Juliet would say;
JULIET HOOKER: I would point to two things. I think, one, Trump and the escalating and normalization of, essentially, white-nationalist rhetoric from the White House. I mean, think about all the things that were said, who his advisors were, all the things that were normalized.
DAN RICHARDS: So that's sort of like what Wendy was saying.
SARAH BALDWIN: Yeah. And the second reason that Juliet gave, I was like, duh, when she said it. It's a connection that doesn't get discussed enough.
JULIET HOOKER: The racial justice protest in the summer. I think, suddenly, you had all these people out there. Not just Black people. These were multiracial crowds out there asking for some sort of fundamental changes, and I think that was immensely threatening to some people.
SARAH BALDWIN: And then there's another element. We definitely had all this dry tinder, racial resentment, economic frustration, and emboldened violent fringe. But come on, there was a big spark.
DONALD TRUMP: All of us here today do not want to see our election victory stolen by emboldened radical-left Democrats, which is what they're doing and stolen by the fake-news media. That's what they've done, and what they're doing. We will never give up. We will never concede. It doesn't happen.
You don't concede when there's theft involved. And after this, we're going to walk down-- and I'll be there with you.
We're going to walk down--
We're going to walk down to the Capitol.
ROSE MCDERMOTT: He wanted to stay in power, and he was going to do whatever it took to stay in power. Even if that meant undermining democracy as an institution.
SARAH BALDWIN: That's Rose McDermott. She's a political scientist at Watson, and she's an expert on the psychology behind populist movements and authoritarian personalities, as she describes it. Well, there were lots of forces at play, as we've heard. Trump's personal role was undeniable. I asked her to be more specific.
ROSE MCDERMOTT: I mean, he's such a classic narcissist. His picture should be next to the definition in the DSM. He doesn't really think about other people as subjects. They're objects, right?
SARAH BALDWIN: Of course, Rose also sees all those other contributing forces.
ROSE MCDERMOTT: Fractures along the lines of education. There are fractures along the lines of race.
SARAH BALDWIN: Which is why she wasn't particularly surprised when she first heard there was violence at the Capitol.
ROSE MCDERMOTT: I actually remember exactly where I was. I was coming out of a doctor's appointment, and I got in the car and heard the report on the radio and was listening to it on the radio coming back. And I was not at all surprised because we had been hearing reports for a couple of days before that about these people who are making these plans. And actually, in a lunch group I have with some faculty at Columbia, we were quite upset the day before that the Capitol Police hadn't been given sufficient weapons and sufficient numbers. And so we were actually quite concerned. So when it happened, I wasn't surprised that it happened. But the scale of it really surprised me.
SARAH BALDWIN: And that scale of the violence and the invasion--
ROSE MCDERMOTT: How many hours it went on without anybody doing anything, without the National Guard or the military or somebody being sent in? And I do think that was on Trump. I think Trump wanted this to happen. He knew that people like Mike Pence were at risk, and he just didn't care because he wanted it to be successful. He could have sent orders down hours earlier and sent in much more extensive military force in a way that would have prevented the worst aspects of the insurrection, people breaching the Capitol, having the Congress people have to go to their secret space, so on and so forth, that kind of thing.
SARAH BALDWIN: So that's a quick primer on what got us to January 6th. We also wanted to know, have we done anything in the past 12 months to make our democracy safer?
DAN RICHARDS: I talked with Stephen Kinzer about this. Stephen Kinzer, as many of our listeners may know, is a senior fellow at Watson and has reported in countries around the world that have experienced contested elections and just generally struggled with running democracies. And like Wendy, Juliet, and Rose, he wasn't terribly surprised by the attack on the Capitol. But he described the feelings through a slightly different lens.
STEPHEN KINZER: I thought it looked pretty familiar. I've seen situations like that and processes like that in a lot of other countries. They're the countries that we look down on. The ones that we say are not stable, that don't have political processes through which people can channel their grievances. People should not have been surprised by this. You have a very heavily armed population that's deeply divided. You have already had armed invasions of state houses. And now you have a demagogic political leader who incites those people. So we could see this all coming.
DAN RICHARDS: He also gave another reason for why this attack was so threatening to our country's future. It wasn't just a threat to our elections. Events like this pose a risk for our foreign policy too.
SARAH BALDWIN: How so?
DAN RICHARDS: Here's Stephen;
STEPHEN KINZER: In the future, as America tries to stabilize its position and maintain its position in the world, people everywhere are going to be judging the big powers according to how well their political systems work at home.
DAN RICHARDS: He's talking here about how powerful countries compete for influence. And for other countries and businesses around the world--
STEPHEN KINZER: They are not going to gravitate automatically to the United States if they don't see that the United States has a political system that provides benefits for its people above what other kinds of political systems can produce. This is the key to our success in the 21st century. If we only rely on our military power and our coercive power, we're not going to be able to maintain our position in the world. We need to realize that building our society at home is not only something that's valuable for our own people, but in terms of foreign policy, it's going to be absolutely essential.
DAN RICHARDS: So anyway, back to the questions you just posed about progress we've made in the last year. I asked Stephen, does he see any reason to be optimistic about the future of our democracy?
STEPHEN KINZER: I see something that's troubling.
DAN RICHARDS: Not so much at the moment. Here's what he does see--
STEPHEN KINZER: We don't even agree on the basic facts. Two completely different narratives have developed. You have members of Congress getting up and saying, those people were just tourists.
DAN RICHARDS: He's referring there to people like Congressman Andrew Clyde, who months after the insurrection, claimed that it was just the work of a few unorganized troublemakers and that most people invading the Capitol that day acted, in footage, like regular tourists.
STEPHEN KINZER: As long as you have that kind of magical thinking, it's hard to see how a country can come together to promote some kind of unified project.
SARAH BALDWIN: Let's just cut to the chase. None of the experts we spoke with are feeling great about the infrastructure of our country's small-d democracy. We have a new president, but many of the underlying issues that we've been discussing remain as present as ever.
JULIET HOOKER: I think we're in deep trouble. I think what we are seeing is that there is now one political party that is, essentially, not committed to democracy.
WENDY SCHILLER: The events of January 6th are not just about the violence and not just about the disruption of that election result, but it's the idea that the kinds of things that contained this kind of antipathy towards the government, per se, these forces are unleashed, and it doesn't look like there is any single entity that can contain it. And that's frightening.
ROSE MCDERMOTT: My worry there is that we're on a highway to authoritarianism.
SARAH BALDWIN: It's not a threat from the outside. This is a threat from the inside.
And in case you didn't know this already, even professors don't have all the answers.
ROSE MCDERMOTT: And I mean, I know for me, part of what's so frustrating is I feel really personally impotent, like what do I do? OK, I write to my congressperson. But I live in really blue states where they're going to vote that way anyway. So I can give money to certain causes I care about, and that's valuable. But what can any one person do can be very, very frustrating.
DAN RICHARDS: So what then should be done in the minds of these four experts?
SARAH BALDWIN: Let's start with Juliet. One thing she thinks is that we in the media, and all of us really, need to be more clear and direct in describing our country's politics.
JULIET HOOKER: So I think that one of the key things that needs to happen is that we need to be able to recognize and call out anti-democratic political activities for what they are. And I think what we take to be objectivity get in the way. And this is true not just of the media, but it's also true, for example, of political scientists, right? If you're in the classroom, you want to be "objective," and you don't want to be seen to be being partisan. But if there is one party that is consistently seeming to undermine democracy, we need to be able to call that out even if it's uncomfortable, even if it seems like we're being partisan. Because there's a difference between partisan activity for political gain and activities that undermine the basic norms of democracy. And the latter, we need to be able to call out as is.
SARAH BALDWIN: Basically, if we don't identify the issue, how will we ever fix it? She also said that we need to start thinking about the next election now, all of us.
JULIET HOOKER: The threat of undermining Democratic results is being sown for the next set of elections at the local and state level. We all have to be doing this work of protecting equal access to citizenship and making things like voting-- voting isn't the only thing, but let's say, safeguarding other kinds of Democratic institutions, working against gerrymandering so that there's actual majority rule, which can be thoroughly undermined, right? But making democracy work is necessary for all of us.
DAN RICHARDS: That connects with something that Wendy said--
WENDY SCHILLER: The fabric of a democracy like ours, that's built constitutionally like ours, starts at the very local level. And unless we can start to preserve it at the local level and move upwards, we're going to have cracks in our foundation.
DAN RICHARDS: And to fix those cracks--
WENDY SCHILLER: Well, it's not my idea. Alexis de Tocqueville came to America in the late eighteen-twenties, eighteen-thirties and wrote a very long book about what he saw. And what he saw was communities-- now granted, we had the stain of slavery. We had discrimination. Women couldn't vote. We certainly had the beginning of the displacement and violence towards Native Americans, was not anything we want to brag about. But he saw that local communities were their own best arbiters, and that the best reinforcement of democracy was at the local level. So if you had a school board meeting and somebody speaks their mind, but they use false information or they use insulting or derogatory, disempowering language, the community has to say, this is not acceptable to us. If you want to participate in this community meeting, these are the rules.
SARAH BALDWIN: But if government is perceived by lots of people as ineffective, or worse, illegitimate, how do we convince them to participate at all?
DAN RICHARDS: Right. Well, Stephen had a few ideas on that front based on his experience in other countries that have struggled with legitimacy issues.
STEPHEN KINZER: First thing, I think, is that basic rules of democracy have to be guaranteed.
SARAH BALDWIN: Similar to Juliet and Wendy?
DAN RICHARDS: Definitely, uniform agreement there.
STEPHEN KINZER: You need to have an openness to accepting the will of the majority. And when you have these great efforts to reduce voting rights and to gerrymander districts to produce skewed political outcomes, you're denying citizens the normal courses of action that they can take to make political change. This is the key to preventing instability in countries. You have to make change possible through legal channels.
DAN RICHARDS: But again though, you get into that problem you just mentioned. How do you get people to trust that a government has fixed itself when they don't trust the government to do things? And this gets to Stephen's next recommendation, which is based a little bit more in the material world.
STEPHEN KINZER: And the next thing is to provide credibility to government. So that government projects are actually working for the benefit of people. I think so much of what we're seeing in the protest movements that are tearing America apart today is a reaction to the fact that after decades of budget cutting, our government really doesn't meet the needs of many of its people. And therefore, people don't feel that they have a stake in maintaining the governing system. So I think, to me, that is a deep route of our problems. And as long as we are dismantling the state and not providing services that people expect from government, we can't be surprised when people have contempt for government and feel like if they destroy it, they're not losing much.
DAN RICHARDS: And he actually sees a little reason for hope around this second point.
STEPHEN KINZER: I think the possibility that the infrastructure bill will provide some positive benefits out there is a beginning. I think it's very important that the state reassert itself as a positive force in society. Otherwise, people don't feel it's necessary.
DAN RICHARDS: OK. And keeping with the happy thoughts, something has happened that Wendy pointed out is progress and shouldn't be taken for granted.
WENDY SCHILLER: I think for listeners who really want to believe in the rule of law, that it's still intact, the good news is that there have been hundreds, hundreds of arrests and prosecutions of the people who directly participated in the violence of January 6th, and a lot of convictions and prison time and penalties and punishments. And that's what you want to see. Now they're not easy to find all the time. You have to pay attention and look for them, but it's almost-- it's a year later, and we are seeing individuals paying consequences for breaking the law and trying to violently overthrow a peaceful election. And that will continue until they get every single person they think should be prosecuted, and that is the slow engine of the American legal system. But it's very important that it keep chugging along because it restores our faith in the fact that if you break the law and you get violent over an election, you are going to be found. You are going to be charged. You are going to be convicted, and you will have to serve some sort of sentence.
SARAH BALDWIN: Well, that is nice to hear.
DAN RICHARDS: And I think there's another piece of progress that we've made as a country after talking with all these experts.
SARAH BALDWIN: Go on.
DAN RICHARDS: So our country's Democratic institutions are under threat.
SARAH BALDWIN: Yeah, I thought you said this was progress.
DAN RICHARDS: No. No, hear me out. A lot of the underlying trends and forces we've heard about on this episode, they've been with us for a while, slowly eating away at the foundations of our democracy. But prior to January 6th of last year, lots of us maybe didn't take these threats as seriously as we should have. As Stephen said--
STEPHEN KINZER: I think there's been an assumption in the United States that we established our democracy. It's fixed, it's in concrete, it's always going to be like this. The Constitution will always be respected, and it's a permanent institution. History tells you that that's a very dangerous thing to believe.
SARAH BALDWIN: Yeah. Juliet had a similar insight.
JULIET HOOKER: What's been revealed is the fragility of the institutions, the way that they're working often in undemocratic ways. But also the inability or unwillingness of or elected officials to rise to the moment and grapple with, many of them, to grapple with the current crisis. And so I think that part of the lesson, if you will, of January 6th is that working for democracy is something that we all have to do. And so I think for us as citizens, as part of the general public, we need to not be complacent and think that the danger has passed. It hasn't passed.
DAN RICHARDS: And maybe more of us recognize the reality of this threat now than we did 12 months ago, and we're learning that we're all going to have to work to keep this democracy going. Maybe that's at least something that's changed in this country. As Rose put it--
ROSE MCDERMOTT: People can't pretend that the underlying polarization and conflict isn't real and isn't consequential. And like being an alcoholic, sometimes the first thing is you have to admit it.
SARAH BALDWIN: At least it's a start.
This episode was produced by Dan Richards and Kate Dario. Our theme music is by Henry Bloomfield. Additional music by the Blue Dot Sessions. You can read more expert analysis of the insurrection and its aftermath on the Watson Institute's website. We'll put a link in the show notes. And if you haven't already, you can subscribe to Trending Globally wherever you listen to podcasts. We'll be back in two weeks. Thanks for listening.