The Larger Forces Behind the January 6, 2021 Insurrection

In January 2021, Eric Patashnik and Wendy J. Schiller provided commentary on the January 6th attack on the United States Capitol. Their insights draws from points made in their recently published edited volume, "Dynamics of American Democracy," (University of Kansas Press).

The direct cause of yesterday’s insurrection on Capitol Hill was Donald Trump’s effort to delegitimize Joe Biden’s presidential election victory. The decision of Senators Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Josh Hawley (R-Missouri) to announce their intended objections to the certification of some states’ electoral votes on wholly specious grounds, with no chance of success, played a major contributing role. The pro-Trump mob that stormed the Capitol was also the result of three larger forces that have been undermining American democracy over the past several decades—tribalism, negative partisanship, and a breakdown of government performance.  We explore these forces in our just-published edited volume, "Dynamics of American Democracy" (University of Kansas Press). 

The first key force is tribal politics. Joe Biden is taking office as the leader of a sharply polarized country. While Biden may promise to be the president of all Americans, the divisions between Blue America and Red America run deep. According to a Pew survey conducted shortly before the election, roughly 90 percent of both Trump and Biden voters said a victory by the other said would bring “lasting harm” to the country. It becomes easier for some people to justify rioting and violence when they think rule by the other side will end their way of life.

One reason the forces of political tribalism have intensified is that Democrats and Republicans hold fundamentally different views on the meaning of American identity. As James A. Morone of Brown University argues in his chapter in our book, the two major parties once deflected identity conflicts. Each of the parties protected (and rejected) different marginalized groups, such as immigrants and Black Americans. However, the Democratic Party today embraces both immigration rights and racial justice, and the Republican Party (supported by its rural, white working-class base) opposes these positions.  The stark contrast between the nearly all-white composition of the insurgent Trump supporters on January 6th with the more diverse racial and ethnic composition of #BlackLivesMatter protests illustrates the increasingly large chasm between the two major parties on this dimension. The recent election of two Democratic Senators in Georgia, including the first African American Senator from Georgia, also exemplifies the ways that tribalism has mapped onto the two major political parties. 

As Kristin Kanthak of the University of Pittsburgh argues in her chapter, one reason the forces of political tribalism are so strong is that voters are increasingly forming their opinions based on their opposition to the party they dislike. From the depiction of Democrats as Socialists to the depiction of Republicans as supporters of white supremacy, voters are increasingly justifying their own party allegiance by demonizing the other side. Rather than basing arguments in favor or against a candidate based on policy positions, voters today take pride in cementing their party ties as a function of hating the other political party.

The third key force is a decline in the government’s performance as an institution that addresses the problems citizens face in their daily lives. As Sarah A. Binder of George Washington University shows in her chapter, recent Congresses have not been highly productive in passing important legislation. This is unlikely to change in the 117th Congress, which will now be narrowly controlled by Democrats in both the House and the Senate. However, the margin of control in the House is very small, and in the Senate, the Democrats are well short of the 60 votes necessary to overcome Republican legislative filibusters. The Biden Administration will be able to more easily secure judicial appointments and fill Cabinet posts, but in this intensely divided political and social climate, it will be very hard to achieve a large number of major legislative victories.   

January 6, 2021, might be the culmination in a long campaign to undermine the authority of government and destroy the institutional protections for the rule of law. Or, and we hope this to be true, it will serve as a day of reckoning which forces political parties, elected officials, and voters to confront these crippling conditions and take meaningful steps to rekindle American democracy.