A prime example of the US democracy being in danger of falling apart was the attack on the US Capitol on January 6th, 2021. This was a result of Donald Trump, the President at the time, losing his election and not being re-elected. Such an attack, now known as the January 6th insurrection, was an attempt to overturn Trump’s election results and to disrupt the peaceful transfer of power. It was an attempt to try and give him a second term. Under the policies of democracy though, the people had spoken and the votes were cast. This, as a result, can be seen as a culmination of the democratic backsliding that had been occurring during Trump’s presidency.
There are two ways in which a democracy can fall and become an autocracy. One method is via “authoritarian reversion”, which is a sudden collapse to authoritarianism, either via coup or declaration of emergency. The second method at which democracies fall and can become an autocracy is “constitutional retrogression”, which is one way of describing a slow process of democratic backsliding in various aspects of democracy. Retrogression is a simultaneous change of “three basic predicates of democracy—competitive elections, liberal rights to speech and association, and the adjudicative and administrative rule of law necessary for democratic choice to thrive”.
The January 6th insurrection had the potential to cause an authoritarian reversion. If Trump was put in power in this way, the government would have fallen into an autocracy. It would have started with preventing the peaceful transition of power. Ultimately, it would lead to Trump having the ability to do essentially whatever he wanted in office. Luckily for democracy, the insurrection did not succeed. However, it is important to consider how the insurrection even came to be. For the insurrection to happen, Trump had to garner enough willing supporters. This calls democratic backsliding into discussion.
The buildup to the January 6th insurrection clearly followed some of the processes of constitutional retrogression. All three factors are shown in the insurrection and the events leading up to it. The goal of the insurrection was to eliminate the competition of the election and leave Trump in power. This shows the lead up to competitive elections no longer being feasible. Rights to speech and association could be argued as still existing considering the insurrection could be interpreted as association. However, it is likely that other opinions would have been silenced. The people at the insurrection only had the goal of keeping Trump in office in mind. The right for others to speak and associate were at risk. On that day as well, the rule of law necessary for democratic choice to thrive almost fell. The insurrectionists managed to successfully enter the Capitol building and ended up stalling the outcome for hours, trashing the building in the process. Peaceful enforcement of the law was impossible in that time frame, as the only possible method to stop them was going to be use of force. It becomes clear that constitutional retrogression is in play.
While it didn’t directly lead to amendments because the insurrection was unsuccessful, the goals of the insurrectionists follow the idea of retrogression. However, it is important to note that retrogression is slow and the event itself was not slow by any means. On the other hand, the gradual buildup that resulted in the insurrection had intentions to destroy the three basic predicates of democracy, therefore making retrogression apply.
It is important to establish that there are five methods by which constitutional retrogression is achieved. These are constitutional amendment, the elimination of institutional checks, the centralization and politicization of executive power, the contraction of the public sphere, and the elimination of political competition. For the purposes of analyzing the insurrection, it’s clear that the contraction of the public sphere was utilized to set the goal of eliminating political competition in the minds of the people. Statements made on President Trump’s twitter and his speeches before leading up to the insurrection show instances of public sphere and media manipulation.
Manipulation of the public sphere essentially means that the government is manipulating the information that is told to the general public to impede their ability to make informed decisions. Trump was able to tweet “‘LIBERATE MINNESOTA’ and then, ‘LIBERATE MICHIGAN’ and then, ‘LIBERATE VIRGINIA, and save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!’”. This is an obvious example of manipulating the public sphere and using words like “siege” and “liberate”. This militarizes the people and makes them feel as if action is urgent and as if their rights are in danger.
Public sphere manipulation is a recurring theme throughout Trump’s presidency, and he consistently resorts to this in order to rally his supporters to action. Another example was in one of his speeches in Wisconsin, where he states that “Make sure because the only way we’re going to lose this election is if the election is rigged, remember that. It’s the only way we’re going to lose this election”. This tells his voters that if they all go out and vote, he is guaranteed to win. In the event he doesn’t, there was election manipulation happening. This misinforms the public into believing that Trump’s loss was a result of a rigged election, and not what the people had voted for.
As a result, the manipulation of the public sphere that took place prior to the January 6th insurrection meant that the US’ constitutional regression had reached a breaking point. It had reached a point where the people were incited to almost cause an authoritarian reversion of sorts. Being sure of what might have happened had the insurrection been longer and more disastrous is not possible. However, the cause is apparent and is a result of gradual public sphere manipulation that took place. Knowing the end goal of the insurrectionists as well as the steps that were taken, it is clear the insurrection is a prime example of the concept of constitutional retrogression.