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.
I really enjoyed reading your post, and I found your analysis of why January 6th could constitute democratic erosion in the United States interesting. However, I was unconvinced by your claim that January 6th “as a whole does not demonstrate an overall erosion of democracy in the United States.” Specifically, this feels like an overly narrow reading of what constitutes democratic erosion. First, the erosion of a democratic spirit, which Ginsburg and Huq claim are necessary for a democracy insofar as a strong constitution is in and of itself insufficient for a democracy, alone represents democratic erosion; and this insurrection would not have occurred without a significant fraying of the democratic fabric. Second, this part of your post seems to downplay the significance of 147 Republicans voting to overturn the election; after all, the loss of forbearance that more than a quarter of congressmen voting to overturn an election is significant. Democratic erosion does not necessarily mean an immediate reversion to authoritarianism; instead, it can simply mean that a regime becomes less democratic, which the vote on January 6th surely represents.
Hi Joshua! I loved reading your post, and I found your argument interesting, but I’m not completely convinced by it. While it is true that as a whole, Congress voted to certify the election, I do not think that this proves there was no democratic erosion. If they had not voted to certify the election, then it obviously would’ve been far worse, and that would have been a complete breakdown of our democracy. However, it is not black and white; just because there was not a complete breakdown does not mean that there was no erosion. I agree with you that the January 6th riot itself was a sign of erosion, and I don’t think it can be dismissed just because it did not result in the election being overturned. Erosion does not have to be a successful revolution, it can be more gradual than that with the rejection of norms that you describe. I may agree with you that this is not a general sign of erosion if all Republicans and Democrats worked together in supporting democracy and certifying the results, but 147 Republicans voted to overturn the election. I don’ t think such a large number can be ignored, and that is certainly a general sign of erosion.
Hi Joshua! I really enjoyed reading your post. See my response below:
The author from Boston University has argued that the January 6th U.S. Capitol riot was an anti-democratic moment, but no evidence of U.S. democratic backsliding. Specifically, the author claims that “bipartisanship and the system of checks and balances prevailed subsequent to the repression of the rioters by the United States Government.” While I appreciate the author’s optimism on the outcomes of the January 6th riot (hereinafter referred to simply as Jan. 6), I fear that this conclusion ignores important nuances surrounding both the events surrounding the incident as well as the fundamental basis for democratic backsliding.
In my counter analysis, I feel it is important to first establish an understanding that democratic backsliding exists on a sliding scale. States don’t simply devolve from strong democracies to authoritarian regimes in 12 hours. Rather, it takes months if not years for backsliding to occur. Pippa Norris, drawing on work from Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan, shares three traits that indicate a democratic regime has consolidated and is safe from backsliding. These traits are as follows: majority support for democracy as the best form of government, democratic norms and practices being emulated by major state actors, and the absence of significant groups trying to overthrow the current regime. Using this framework, it becomes clear that we are in a state of weak democratic stability that Jan. 6 has exacerbated.
Support of a democratic regime does still exist in the U.S. Lee Drutman, Joe Goldman, and Larry Diamond published a study in June of 2020 from The Democracy Fund Voter Study Group. The researchers found that 77% of Americans preferred democracy as a form of government. However, they also found that dissatisfaction with U.S. democracy has “roughly doubled since 1995” (p. 9); and 24% of Americans went so far as to say that “a strong leader who doesn’t have to bother with Congress and elections” would be a good way of running the country (p. 10). These statistics don’t inherently point to a decline in public support of democracy, but in the context of Jan. 6, the presence of a large minority of authoritarian-minded Americans becomes significantly more concerning for democratic stability.
Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt outline the guardrails for democracy as being mutual toleration and institutional forbearance. The author and I agree that former President Trump violated the norm of mutual toleration through his incendiary rhetoric on Jan. 6, and former VP Pence did exhibit institutional forbearance by upholding the peaceful exchange of power. However, former VP Pence and former President Trump were not the only individuals responsible for exercising institutional forbearance and mutual toleration on Jan. 6. The senators and representatives who voted to object to the electoral college count can be considered to have violated institutional forbearance as they attempted to exercise their power without restraint. Prior to 2021, an objection of the electoral count has only occurred twice since the Electoral Count Act of 1887 was first passed. 2021 saw two challenges that made it to a vote, Arizona and Pennsylvania. 147 congresspeople – 8 senators and 139 representatives – voted to sustain at least one of both objections, and in doing so violated their institutional forbearance and mutual toleration of their opposition.
Finally, we must consider whether or not we have significant groups trying to overthrow the current regime. In 2021, Attorney General Merrick Garland and Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas reported to the Senate that “the greatest domestic threat facing the United States came from what they both called ‘racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists’”. This, as well as the fact that three extremist organizations were subpoenaed in November 2021 by the House Select Committee on the January 6 Attack, demonstrates that there are extremist organizations that actively engaged in the largest and most successful attack on the U.S. Capitol in history. Fundamentally, this is about as close to a direct regime challenge as can be expected in a wealthy developed nation and should sound every alarm bell as a result.
In going back to the original criteria outlined by Linz and Stepan and explained by Norris, we see two of the three criteria ultimately failed, with the one remaining criteria challenged by a significant and sizeable minority. None of these factors particularly indicate strong democracy in the United States and instead point to weaknesses that may be indicative of backsliding.
Further, though, consider the ways in which hyperpolarization resulted in the RNC censuring Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger while defending Jan. 6 as “legitimate political discourse.” Seeing this sort of blatant disregard for the significance of the same event that the author from Boston University agrees is “anti-democratic” demonstrates just how far some of our political leaders have fallen from democratic norms. Fundamentally, this is the start of democratic backsliding, and acknowledging this fact is the first step in working to repair our democracy.