On January 6, 2021, American democracy changed for the worse. The norm of a peaceful transition of power had been shattered as rioters stormed the Capitol where Congress was in session certifying the election results.
This event revealed many harsh realities about the state of American democracy. Polarization was increasing while tolerance was decreasing, misinformation was being used to instill fear and create doubt amongst those telling the truth, and American exceptionalism was fragmented (peaceful transitions no longer being a point for how great American democracy is).
One aspect to consider that is crucial to any democracy, is where leaders and parties have to recognize the other competitors as legitimate, a concept known as mutual tolerance. When the election results were called in favor of Joe Biden, former President Trump began a campaign of misinformation to contest the results by saying the election was rigged. This had the unfortunate effect of weakening mutual tolerance.
Misinformation was not a new phenomenon that Trump used after the 2020 election. Throughout his presidency, information would be twisted or just simply inaccurate as a way to instill fear, doubt, and anger amongst supporters, especially if it could create more divide against the other parties. Consider the attacks on liberal news media outlets – countless tweets reveal how the “fake news” sentiment spread amongst his followers. The problem with misinformation is its effect on how civilians view each other and the tolerance they have for one another. Trump’s lies and rhetoric inspired many militia, extremist, and white supremacist groups to become more visible and outspoken with their views. The Trump presidency did not invent racism or white supremacy, but it did give these problems in American society a more stable and prominent foothold as extremist groups have gained more support, power, and even validation, from political elites. This is the danger misinformation has, especially if it is motivating extremism. The Capitol Riot was an insurrection – and that in itself should be a warning of how American democracy is backsliding.
Yet, the riot was not necessarily a surprise.
According to the Washington Post, law enforcement raised concerns about January 6th, months before the attack happened. The sense of urgency was rather minimal despite the number of alarms raised and the Capitol police had poorly planned for an attack. There was even concern about Trump potentially using the national guard to his advantage – a very weak sign of faith in Trump’s willingness to abide by forbearance. However, the most alarming part is how Trump’s words were able to not just radicalize his followers but inspire them to immediately mobilize online after the election.
The impact of the Capitol Riot is extremely worrying because it demonstrates that radicalized individuals are more than capable of organizing and turning violent. With misinformation being shared from platforms such as 4chan, 8kun, Parler, etc. it is not a surprise that more polarization and more hate is occurring. As history has shown, those in power that target specific groups (ethnic, religious, etc.) with an ideology of hatred have the potential to be catastrophic. Despite this risk, political leaders in the GOP (excluding Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger) have tried to minimize the meaning of the riot by normalizing what occurred as acceptable discourse, rather, they claim, “the assault and the actions that preceded it were acceptable.” The polarization amongst the Republicans and Democrats has reached a point to where the former will do everything to deny the responsibility Trump had and continues to have by spreading the election lies.
It is clear to see that misinformation threatens mutual tolerance as the divide between political parties is deeper than ever. Ultimately, American democracy is weakening, and if there is no compromise or understanding between the parties, it will only worsen.
You do make a lot of interesting points about how the Capitol riots are evidence of Democratic erosion. I specifically thought your assessment of the lack of mutual toleration to be intriguing. In my opinion, I do not believe we have seen this peaceful transition of power and mutual toleration since 2008 (in 2012 the incumbent won so I wouldn’t classify it as a transition of power). I think that is devastating and it creates a very dangerous precedent for future elections. Do you think that this is the fault of misinformation? Similarly, do you think the division between the parties is because of misinformation as well?
Hi Arpan! Thank you for your comment. Yes, I do believe the lack of peaceful transitions of power is an outcome of misinformation that the incumbent may use to stay in their position. But, I wouldn’t say it is the only factor that contributes to eroding peaceful transitions. The divide between the parties I believe is more an unwillingness to work together in order to obtain more power in government institutions, further, the use of misinformation by political parties has the ability to convince people to gravitate towards the side they believe is telling the truth. This would make it difficult for a bipartisan approach especially if someone is convinced their democracy is at threat by a political leader.
I really like how you characterized the Trump presidency not as the beginning of forms of extremism, but as a means in which extremist groups were emboldened and legitimized. I also agree that the events of January 6 are particularly concerning as a sign of the level of organization of radical groups. However, and I am not sure if I understand your meaning correctly, I disagree with the notion that different narratives about January 6 are about party polarization between Republicans and Democrats. My assessment is that Republicans are standing behind Trump for political gain, but not necessarily on ideological grounds.