Color me naive, but I do not view the “attempted coup” orchestrated by former President Trump and executed by his most rabid supporters last January 6 as a serious threat to democracy in the United States. I think it was an extremely serious crime and expect the House Select Committee will have little trouble establishing Trump’s legal and moral responsibility for the assault on the U.S. Capitol. And I do not for a moment minimize the severity of what took place. It was horrific. It was criminal. It was anti-democratic in its aim.
It’s just that it never had any chance of overturning the result of the 2020 election. It caused great damage and ruined far too many lives. Indeed, it could’ve been even worse. But it never would’ve made a difference. It would not have thwarted the will of the electorate or kept Trump in power. Even if the horde had succeeded in preventing the House from certifying the vote that day, the Representatives would have certified it the day after. And, God forbid, if the mob had reached and killed Vice President Pence or other elected officials, it would’ve been a capital crime but Joe Biden would still be President.
Like many people ensnared in their own delusions, Trump and his fanatical supporters may have thought their attack would lead “the people” to rise up, throw their weight behind the madness and somehow bend the entire machinery of state and federal government to their will. But this is a common fantasy; fanatics routinely believe that others secretly see the world as they do. It is an especially common psychosis among some white supremacists, who imagine that all Whites see the world just like they do and that they just need a martyr to lead the way and ignite a race war. But like so much of their toxic ideology, this is just a castle in the air.
I am not particularly surprised by the coverage of January 6. It is customary, at least in the United States, to construct crises in three steps: cast events as an existential threat to dearly held values; trace the threat to the perfidy of an identifiable person or group; and present a solution that relies on readily available levers. The first step is obviously meant to grab our attention, the second to pinpoint a villain, and the third to specify a fix. The whole dance is easy to learn and impossible to forget, which makes it the staple of political persuasion and media propaganda. Partisans on the political right have always been especially fond of this script; Tucker Carlson, with his interminable and catholic attacks on practically all things Black and Brown, is merely the most recent champion of a White nationalism that was already old when Father Coughlin came along.
Recognizing that January 6 could not have changed the result of the election, some people say the threat to democracy was not in the day itself, but in the culture of violence it promotes. They point to various polls that appear to show alarming levels of support among Republicans for violence as a way of achieving political goals. In a poll by the American Enterprise Institute, nearly 40 percent of Republicans agreed that “if elected leaders will not protect America, the people must do it themselves, even if it requires violent actions.” Likewise, a September 2021 poll by the Public Religion Research Institute found that 30 percent of Republicans agreed that, “Because things have gotten so far off track, true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country.”
These are indeed extraordinary results, and if they reliably predicted the risk of political violence, we’d all be in a great deal of trouble. Fortunately for us, however, what they probably reveal is the danger of inartful polling. As political scientist Sean Westwood and his co-authors have shown, various design flaws and definitional problems in these polls likely inflated the support for violence. When a subsequent group of political scientists corrected for these flaws and conducted a more careful poll, support for violence plummeted. Mind you, it is still surprisingly high—4 percent of respondents indicated that it could be justified for members of their party to commit a violent felony “to advance their political goals.” Though a far cry from earlier numbers, that’s still millions of people.
But even this number probably overstates the risk of violence. The pollsters asked, “How much do you feel it is justified” for members of your own party (Democrats or Republicans) to use various forms of violence, ranging from non-violent misdemeanors to violent felonies, “in advancing their political goals these days?” In other words, the pollsters did not ask, and probably could not have asked, whether someone would themselves be violent, but whether they thought it might be “justified” for some nameless other to be violent, which is a very different thing. I do not doubt that some people and groups support the violent overthrow of democracy, but we don’t know how large that number is. All we know is that it’s probably much lower than people have been led to believe.
Finally, when many people talk about threats to democracy coming out of the Trump presidency, they point to the states that imposed restrictions on voting after the 2020 elections. Most of these restrictions were passed in Republican states and I do not doubt that they were adopted for partisan purposes. I will even grant that some unknown number of Republican legislators hoped and expected the new laws would suppress Black votes; there is a folk-wisdom among many Whites that conservative White voters will exercise the franchise come hell or high water but that Blacks will stay home when the going gets tough. I have always thought that this myth was the direct descendant of hoary racist lie that Blacks are lazy and unfit for the demands of citizenship. It was a lie then and it’s a lie now.
To that point, there is very little evidence that voting restrictions of the sort adopted by states in 2020 suppress turnout. On the contrary, careful academic research consistently shows they have little to no effect. Indeed, because minority voters might suspect the true purpose is to strip them of their vote, there is some evidence these restrictions can increase turnout; no right is more precious than the one under attack, and there is no voter like a motivated voter. In fairness, some protest that academics have not yet studied the effect of the bills passed after the 2020 election. That’s true, the legislation is simply too new. But as Sarah Isgur recently explained in Politico, the new laws are not nearly as far from the mainstream as some irresponsible hyperbole has suggested. In any case, last month’s election in Georgia showed that the laws may not suppress turnout at all. In fact, turnout was high and Trump’s handpicked candidates lost.
I accept that at least one purpose of the 2020 legislation was to suppress minority voting. The aim, in other words, at least among some legislators, is anti-democratic. In that respect, I’m confident that some legislators hoped to accomplish by lawful means what Trump hoped to accomplish January 6 by unlawful means—to subvert democracy. They do not really believe in democracy and are more than happy to throw it out the window if doing so keeps them in power. But this is hardly a new impulse in American life. On the contrary, the impulse has never been absent, and we ought not fear for democracy simply because we detect it again. Indeed, as one scholar put it in a comprehensive review of the literature, voting restrictions imposed in the 21st century are “quite tame” compared to those of earlier eras.
Nothing I have written should be taken to suggest that democracy is secure. I don’t believe that for a minute. I believe, for instance, that climate change is likely to trigger global migrations on an unprecedented scale that will destabilize economies and encourage nativist populism. In the chaos that follows, many insecure nations will be tempted to follow an anti-democratic path. And that is just one of democracy’s looming challenges.
But overblown partisan rhetoric, by either side, does not equip us to confront these challenges. On the contrary, it makes our task all the more difficult in ways I will explain in my next essay.