The riot of the United States Capitol on January 6, 2021 was an unprecedented event in American history. That afternoon, thousands of supporters of President Donald Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol building in a violent attempt to prevent the certification by the United States Congress of the 2020 presidential election results. A dark day for democracy in America, many viewed this event as an existential threat to the form of government that has long endured in this nation. It is true that the riot was a blatant attempt to subvert democracy and its institutions; however, the insurrection ultimately failed as the Congress certified the Electoral College vote the following morning. As a result, many claim that the rebellion on January 6th was not a threat to democracy in the United States. On the other hand, many wonder whether those claims are true, and ponder whether or not the attack on the U.S. Capitol building that afternoon, and its ongoing aftermath, is symptomatic of a gradual deterioration of a democratic form of government. A lack of adherence to democratic norms as demonstrated on January 6th is certainly an indicator of democratic erosion in any nation. However, the riot on January 6th and its aftermath, while antidemocratic, does not manifest a general decline in American democracy as bipartisanship and the system of checks and balances prevailed subsequent to the repression of the rioters by the United States Government.
On January 6th, 2021 and thereafter, President Trump and various other public officials deviated from democratic norms that buttress the legitimacy of democracy. Specifically, President Trump, through his rhetoric, disregarded the norm of mutual toleration. This unwritten rule, as Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt put it, is the idea that “as long as our rivals play by constitutional rules, we accept that they have an equal right to exist, compete for power, and govern” (Levitsky and Ziblatt 102). In principle, they contend, we must always accept our political rivals as legitimate, regardless of how much we dislike them or disagree with their beliefs. In public, however, on the morning of January 6th, President Trump stood in front of thousands of his supporters and complained to them that then-President-elect Joseph R. Biden lost the presidential election, and that they therefore “will have an illegitimate president,” and warned that “our country will be destroyed.” President Trump rejected the right of his political opponent to govern and denounced him as an existential threat to the nation. These allegations directly depart from the idea of mutual toleration, which, in addition to its previous description, necessitates that politicians do not view one another as a threat. Democratic norms such as mutual toleration manifest a shared code of conduct that must become accepted, respected, and enforced in a democratic community in order for that community to remain stable. When these norms are violated, Levitsky and Ziblatt argue, “democracy is in trouble” (Levtnsky and Ziblatt 116). President Trump’s behavior on January 6th, 2021, therefore, signifies the presence democratic erosion in the United States as he defied democratic norms that, according to the two authors, can lead to a breakdown in a democratic form of government. However, as many factors influence the system of governance and society in general in the United States, it is feasible for other forces to prevail against pernicious antidemocratic practices.
While the behavior of the rioters as well as President Trump on January 6th indicate the existence of forces seeking to undermine democracy, the event taken with its aftermath as a whole does not demonstrate an overall erosion of democracy in the United States. This is true as the system of checks and balances as well as devotion to other democratic norms by other democratic agents far outweighed the efforts of their adversaries. In terms of the latter, many politicians held fast to forbearance and comity; these are additional democratic norms outlined by Levitsky and Ziblatt. According to the two authors, “forbearance can be thought of as avoiding actions that, while respecting the letter of the law, obviously violate its spirit.” More specifically, forbearance is the idea that politicians should exercise restraint in deploying their institutional prerogatives. Likewise, when Vice President Mike Pence was under intense pressure from President Trump to vote against certifying the 2020 presidential election results, Pence disobeyed Trump and voted in favor of confirming Joe Biden as the winner of the election. Although voting against certifying the election results was perfectly legal, Pence observed institutional forbearance, abstaining from using his powers to the greatest possible extent. His adherence to this norm helped protect the democratic institutions of the United States, and also bred mutual toleration, as his vote was also an acknowledgement of Joe Biden as a legitimate political rival. In addition to Pence, many Republican members of Congress voted in favor of certifying the 2020 electoral results. In addition to forbearance, this also demonstrates comity and mutual respect across party lines; this common code of conduct, according to Levitsky and Ziblatt, serves as guardrails to democracy that, when disregarded, has destroyed democracies elsewhere. Moreover, consistent with the theory of the two authors, this display of bipartisanship and underutilization of power served as a testament to a robust system of checks and balances that, combined with adherence to forbearance, ultimately prevailed against antidemocratic forces.
On January 6th, 2021, the rhetoric used by President Trump strayed from norms that are vital to upholding a democratic form of government. This as well as the subsequent attack on the United States Capitol, in a vacuum, indicates a democracy in decline. However, looking at the broader picture, the events and aftermath of January 6th do not demonstrate a general decline in American democracy. This is because many politicians did not yield in their loyalty to democratic norms. Working in accordance with checks and balances, their actions reflect a healthy democratic form of government that is not experiencing a gradual deterioration in its institutions.