Horizontal accountability among the branches of government is essential to healthy democracy, and this area of government accountability was threatened after the U.S. Capitol insurrection on January 6, 2021.
Insurrection at the U.S. Capitol
On January 6, 2021, a threatening mob of far-right Trump supporters violently invaded the United States Capitol by breaking down barriers, using chemical agents against Capitol security, and destroying approximately $30 million of government property. These rioters were motivated by claims of a stolen election after former President Trump was defeated by President Biden in the 2020 election. Throughout the early afternoon on January 6, Trump urged protesters at his rally to “show strength” and “walk down Pennsylvania Avenue” towards the U.S. Capitol.
Trump’s Role in the Insurrection
In the months leading up to the January 6 insurrection, former President Trump and his colleagues warned of foreign election manipulation, “fake” ballots, and many other forms of electoral fraud. These irresponsible claims directly affected the violent protesters’ fears of a stolen election and motivated them to action. An 18-year-old Capitol rioter, Bruno Cua, stated that Trump was “calling us to FIGHT!” and that it was “time to take our freedom back the old-fashioned way” on social media just days before the insurrection.
In the days after the Capitol invasion, Ipsos polling found that 96% of Democrats and 66% of Independents found Trump to blame for the insurrection. In contrast, 52% of Republicans argued that Trump was “not at all to blame.” Instead, this majority blamed Joe Biden for the events that unfolded. 62% of registered voters viewed the events on January 6 as a “threat to democracy,” but only 27% of Republicans agreed.
Lack of Horizontal Accountability for the Former Executive
Prior to this horrific event, over 100 House Republicans and more than a dozen Republican senators planned to challenge the certified 2020 election results at the request of Trump. Even after seeing the dangerous effects of Trump’s rhetoric regarding the election, six senators and 121 House Republicans maintained their opposition of the Electoral College count when Congress reconvened.
The senators who upheld their support of former President Trump were Josh Hawley (R-MO), Ted Cruz (R-TX), Tommy Tuberville (R-AL), Roger Marshall (R-KS), John Kennedy (R-LA), and Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-MS). These senators remained steadfast in their support of Trump despite seeing the culmination of his dangerous lies on January 6. During the campaign, Hyde-Smith (R-MS) stated, “If [Trump] invited me to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row.” Ted Cruz (R-TX) urged his Republican colleagues to support the election objections even after the insurrection.
Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) is among Trump’s most ardent supporters in the House of Representatives. In a tweet five days after the invasion, Greene (R-GA) stated, “The timeline doesn’t fit the narrative. Trump supporters could not have listened to President Trump’s speech at the WH and then been ‘incited’ by him to walk and attack the Capitol.” While Greene (R-GA) did maintain that the attack was “terrible,” she publicly refused to accept that Trump was at fault.
Lack of Horizontal Accountability as a Sign of Democratic Erosion
Democratic erosion can be defined as when “changes are made in formal political institutions and informal political practices that significantly reduce the capacity of citizens to make enforceable claims upon the government” (Lust and Waldner 2015, 1). Democratic erosion does not have to induce the breakdown of democratic regimes. Instead, this phenomenon is signified by the “[degradation] of citizens’ rights and their engagement with the state (Lust and Waldner, 2015, 1).
Government accountability is the democratic arena that comes under threat when a lack of horizontal accountability develops. The citizens’ ability to control the happenings of government through elections is foundational for a healthy democracy. When these competitive elections are undermined, horizontal accountability through checks and balances should be implemented to prevent further democratic erosion.
Democratic Erosion after the U.S. Capitol Invasion
After Trump incited violence by stoking fears of electoral fraud, the legislative branch should have held him accountable in a unified response. Instead, six GOP senators and over 100 House Republicans chose to support the executive’s claims of a stolen election. Citizens used their right to vote to express support for a transfer of power in a certified election. When former President Trump undermined this fundamental right, Congress did not hold him accountable.
Lust and Waldner (2015, 3) emphasize that punishment is a crucial facet of accountability, and they define it as the “capacity to impose negative sanctions on office holders who violate certain rules of conduct.” Inciting insurrection by decreasing electoral confidence certainly violates democratic rules of conduct, and many members of Congress chose to turn a blind eye on January 6. The independent branches of government are supposed to hold each other horizontally accountable in a healthy democracy, and the U.S. legislative branch did not hold the executive branch accountable for its role in the insurrection.
Hope for Horizontal Accountability in the Future
While a substantial number of congressmen and congresswomen did not hold former President Trump accountable after January 6, senators and representatives from across the political spectrum condemned his actions as well. Following the Capitol invasion, Senator Mitt Romney (R-UT) stated, “Those who choose to continue to support [Trump’s] dangerous gambit by objecting to the results of a legitimate, democratic election will forever be seen as being complicit in an unprecedented attack against our democracy.” Senator Angus King (I-ME) similarly stood against Trump’s efforts to undermine the 2020 election, and his sentiments were joined by numerous members in Congress.
January 6, 2021 marked an important moment in the U.S. democratic erosion process. Despite this setback, the degradation of the democratic regime completely is far from inevitable. A lack of uniform horizontal accountability after the U.S. Capitol invasion violated an important informal political practice. However, the words of congressmen such as Romney (R-UT) and King (I-ME) instill hope that the U.S. government can improve horizontal accountability again.
Hi Brandtley, I thought you made a very relevant point in your post. I agree that there is a significant difference between horizontal accountability and condemnation of Trump’s actions, especially in relation to the health of our Democracy. While some legislators chose to condemn Trump’s actions and rhetoric, that does not negate the damage done by those who choose to support and amplify his false claims. In the wake of the insurrection, I was shocked to see the Republican party’s response to Rep. Liz Cheney’s (R-WY) impeachment vote and support for a Jan. 6 investigation. The backlash against Cheney was definitely a turning point within the GOP that signified the party’s departure from preserving American democratic principles. While I agree there needs to be far more horizontal accountability surrounding Trump’s “Big Lie”, the formation of the Select Commission on January 6th does provide a semblance of accountability for the insurrection. It is refreshing to see politicians on both sides of the aisle working to give this a proper investigation. It is concerning, however, to see Trump and former members of his administration refusing to participate and actively working to block information from being shared. It is detrimental to our Democracy when politicians cite “executive privilege” as justification for their obstruction of justice. Hopefully, the Commission’s decision to hold Steve Bannon criminally contempt for refusing to testify on his role in the insurrection will serve as an inspiration for more horizontal accountability throughout this investigative process. Commissions like the January 6th one are vital guardrails for our democracy and can work to prevent the backsliding from worsening.
I thought this was a very analytical and insightful post that highlighted the importance of horizontal accountability in a democracy. While many organized protests can be beneficial in strengthening the democratic values of a nation, when they turn violent, destructive, and anti-government, they can pose a large issue. We have seen similar activity in Brazil in recent years, with President Bolsonaro rising to power through an anti-corruption platform. Bolsonaro saw an opportunity where many Brazilians felt as though they could not trust in the government and made promises to provide meaningful changes to these corrupted institutions. Throughout his time in office, however, he has shown to do essentially the opposite, aggrandizing his power by weakening the other branches that ought to hold him accountable. His encouragement of the general public to protest and attack the federal government is very reflective of Trump’s political behaviors regarding the insurrection. I especially liked how you placed focus on the fact that it is not the institutions themselves that are eroding in the United States, but rather the political norms surrounding these institutions, namely a strong refusal to accept the results of the 2020 Presidential election. Elections are a central piece of the trust citizens place in the government, as it is the main way citizens are able to interact and have themselves publicly represented. A distrust in the government so large that party members begin to destroy government property is not a sign of citizens who are properly engaging with the state. Not only are citizens refuting these results, but as you stated, several Congressmen have chosen to take the stance of defending Donald Trump as well. The legislative and judicial branches have not been structurally weakened, but the norm of peacefully accepting election results has. If these institutions cannot hold leaders and false-claimers accountable for their compliance with attacks on democracy, the future of American government could be headed down a very dark path.
You made very good points regarding what exactly makes events such as the attempted government insurrection that occurred on January 6 so dangerous. I believe that there will always be constituents that will rally behind their preferred candidate no matter the circumstance; there are always extremists on either side of the political spectrum. However, when it comes to those who hold public office, we as a society expect them to uphold the democracy of our system. Unfortunately, as you have outlined in this post, there was a not-insignificant number of Republican politicians who were willing to stand by and even encourage Trump when he incited his supporters to protest the results of a democratic election. Voters should expect their representatives in the government to uphold the results of an election, regardless of whether or not they were glad to receive those results. It is the lack of accountability on behalf of the legislative branch that allowed Trump, the former head of the executive branch, to evoke ideas of election fraud in the mind of his voters. This was an especially concerning development since the United States’ constitution emphasizes the importance of check and balances on the three branches of government in the country, a power which apparently was not utilized to protect the democracy of the United States in this instance. However, as you cited, it is reassuring that senators Mitt Romney, a Republican, and Agnus King, an Independent, condemned Trump’s behavior when doing so appeared to be rather unpopular amidst the six GOP senators and 100 Republican House representatives who did the opposite. Therefore, I agree with your assessment that although the events of January 6 were worrying, total democratic backsliding in the United States is not necessarily unavoidable.