On January 6th, 2021, the United States was subject to a betrayal of its democracy in a display of violent protest against the free and fair election of the 46th President of the United States. As a young American, watching angry protesters demonstrating violence on our capitol building was something we haven’t experienced in modern U.S. history. However, it is not a unique situation in comparison to similar events all around the world. Democratic erosion happens every day, all around the world, in ways Americans simply are not used to. In the last 3 months alone, events comparable to those that occurred in the United States on January 6th have happened in multiple countries. According to Christina Kulich and Elizabeth Iams Wellman in their article published in the journal Insights from the Social Sciences, three of these instances include Kyrgyzstan over a disputed election, Guatemala over a controversial budget crisis, and Armenia over a potential peace deal. All three of these instances hold striking similarities to the occurrence in the United States yet did not warrant the same type of shocking reaction. I believe this is due to the reputation of power and democracy the United States holds throughout the rest of the world. The United States has a solid foundation in democracy and keep this democracy in mind through decision making at every level of government. Because of this public display of affection towards democracy, any person or group of people keen on undermining these foundations must use more subtle and less overt efforts to follow through in their goal.
Democratic erosion and backsliding all over the world changes depending on the nation and the leaders in power at the time of the backsliding. While backsliding looks different all over the world, Nancy Bermeo determines the general trends of major, dramatic backsliding in three parts. 1) Coups d’état 2) Executive coups by elected leaders 3) Blatant election-day vote fraud. In the United States, these are more difficult to come by. What we have seen in recent history, including on January 6th, has seemed to be less dramatic instances of erosion. For example, many scholars and experts disagree on whether or not what occurred on January 6th constituted an official coup d’état. Without this more official label, it is difficult to determine whether or not what occurred on January 6th was representative of a larger problem of democratic erosion or just a unique display of violence that came with a disputed election. So, what did we as the American public miss, and how can we spot backsliding earlier?
Even without the more dramatic and major displays of democratic backsliding that Bermeo points out, the United States faces a decline in democracy regardless. In their article Unwelcome Change: Coming to Terms with Democratic Backsliding, Ellen Lust and David Waldner write about the hallmark of the erosion of democracy when initiated by leaders and authority figures in power: governments used mechanisms of democracy to erode various governmental institutions from within. When looking at the insurrection on January 6th, this looked like our government leaders, famously Donald Trump, using the democratic usage of protest overall to encourage his followers to dispute the free and fair election in November. Slogans like “Stop the Steal” were displayed on flags, t shirts, and other merchandise at the January 6th insurrection. This slogan, along with other similar messaging tools, were used as a patriotic front to the undemocratic nature of the violent protest. This message was encouraged by former President Donald Trump as a way to boost his supporter’s energy and anger towards the election results. This energy manifested into what America and the rest of the world saw on January 6th. Therefore, this insurrection was not the cause or the beginning of democratic backsliding in the nation, but rather an outcome of years or even decades of slow erosion taking place all over the nation.
Bermeo, Nancy. “On Democratic Backsliding.” Journal of Democracy, vol. 27, no. 1, Jan. 2016, pp. 5–19.
Huq, Aziz Z., and Tom Ginsburg. “How to Lose a Constitutional Democracy.” SSRN Electronic Journal, 2017, doi:10.2139/ssrn.2901776.
Kulich, Christina, and Elizabeth Iams Wellman. “The United States Has a Democracy Problem: What Democratic Erosion Scholarship Tells Us about January 6.” Insights from the Social Sciences, Items, 18 Feb. 2021, items.ssrc.org/democracy-papers/the-united-states-has-a-democracy-problem-what-democratic-erosion-scholarship-tells-us-about-january-6/.
Waldner, David, and Ellen Lust. “Unwelcome Change: Coming to Terms with Democratic Backsliding.” Annual Reviews, 2018, www.annualreviews.org/doi/full/10.1146/annurev-polisci-050517-114628.
Sophie Auerbach raises some very important points about democratic erosion and the events of January 6th. There are events like what occurred on January 6th happening all around the world all the time, but for some reason this event felt different. This may be an egocentric view as an American, but Auerbach makes a good point. America is seen as a world power, a force to be reckoned with, and the cornerstone of democracy. To see an event where citizens storm the country’s capitol in an attempt to cause violence and fear seems uniquely un-American, but if we take a closer look America isn’t the perfect democracy we hoped that it was.
Through Auerbach’s research she has identified three major indicators of extreme democratic backsliding. These indicators are coups d’état, executive coups by elected leaders, and blatant election-day vote fraud. While the events of January 6th don’t match any of these criteria explicitly, it is troubling to see that elements of these extreme events can be seen. The events that unfolded are not due to election day voter fraud, but some of what provoked the rioters was the notion of a rigged election that had been “stolen from them” and former president, Donald Trump. The president had even helped insight the rioters by telling them that something must be done and that his loss was not legitimate. It was through his messages and tweets that the riots gained steam. This shows that even though no voter fraud occurred, the notion and fear of it was real enough to cause a huge response from misinformed citizens. These citizens were high in knowledge, albeit false knowledge, and took it upon themselves to interpret Trump’s message and take action into their own hands. The events of January sixth could also fall under the category of a coups d’état in some ways. A coups d’état is a violent overthrow of the government in power, and while the results of the elections were not overturned, the insurrection certainly was violent. The people rioting went to the capitol with violent intentions, and while violence did occur, many rioters had further intended to hurt or even kill politicians that they disagreed with or believed were unfairly in their position of power. Even though the events that occurred on the 6th of January don’t fall squarely in one of the aforementioned categories, it is clear to see why the similarities to them are frightening.
I think that it is important to further elaborate on the government, namely Donald Trump’s, role in the January 6th riots. Trump is like no president seen before in American history. He has broken countless norms that Americans take for granted, like respect for opponents, openness in their past and present endeavors, and a general hopefulness and caring for the American people and the nation as a whole. On top of the changes he made while running the country that may have changed the way people view the government, the timing of his leadership made it even easier for Trump to demonstrate his new way of governing. Trump used Twitter as a motivator and a weapon. He used it way back in 2016 to demean and spread rumors about his opponent, Hilary Clinton, and the then president, Barack Obama. Once in office his weaponized tweets didn’t stop. He used them to attack the media and his opponents as well as boost himself up. When it came time for him to run for a second term in office it should have come as no surprise that he would once again turn to Twitter to rally his supporters to get out and vote for him, and not for “Sleepy Joe.” When the results were in and it was officially determined that Trump lost, he spread the word that the vote had been rigged. His supporters are extremely loyal to him and believe it. While not all Trump supporters are a danger there are many who would do anything for him. When the president called for action the rioters did what they saw fit, they stormed the capital for “their president.” Without the push from a leader that would most certainly be called a demagogue, this slip further from liberal democracy likely wouldn’t have occurred. Having a demagogue as leader is another element of democratic erosion and proof of backsliding. This event proves the true nature of Donald Trump as such.
The insurrection that occurred at the United States Capitol on January 6th proved that democracy is slipping away in the nation. Auerbach made several really interesting points when showing that some connections to coups d’états can be seen in the events that occurred. I felt it was necessary to add in how the country’s leadership at the time played a key role in bringing about the violence that occurred. This event shows the frightening truth that backsliding has likely been occurring in our nation under the surface for quite some time without notice and is now forming a frightening head for the world to see. If we continue down this path, the America we knew may be gone forever.