The Memo: Threats to democracy are stark one year after Jan. 6

One year after the Jan. 6 insurrection, the threats to American democracy are just as grave as they were on the day itself.

Hopes that the riot at the Capitol might have been an aberrational event — a grim one-off, and a shock that that could even serve to bring the nation together in its aftermath — have proven wrong.

Initial condemnations of President Trump from within his own party have mostly faded away, even though he would become the only president in American history to be twice impeached soon after the assault.

The halls of Congress have become ever more hostile. 

Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) was censured for posting an animated video featuring a cartoon version of himself killing Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y. ). Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) smeared Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) as a terrorist. 

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) was stripped of her committee assignments the month after the riot when past social media posts of her endorsing the assassination of political opponents came to light. Greene has ignited a number of controversies since then.

In the nation beyond Washington, school board meetings have disintegrated into chaos amid threats of violence. Election officials have been subject to threats. And even the politics of the pandemic have been hopelessly polarized — the nation’s leading expert on infectious diseases, Anthony Fauci, has spoken publicly about receiving death threats.

Some Democrats have also sought to connect the events of Jan. 6 — and what they see as a larger threat to democracy — with their current push to protect voting rights.

“The attacks on our democracy didn’t start and end with January 6,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) tweeted on Tuesday. “State legislatures across the country are undermining the right to vote.”

“I’m worried that, if Republicans win in the midterm elections, that voting in this country as we know it will be gone,” Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) told MSNBC’s Chris Hayes on Monday.

Republicans push back against such claims, arguing that Democrats are willing to undermine election security and are trying to nationalize the election process in a way that deprives states and localities of their rights. 

But when it comes to Jan. 6 itself,  the GOP’s efforts to move on can seem like a minimization of what took place.

Former Vice President Mike Pence in October lamented what he saw as the media’s tendency to “distract from the Biden administration’s failed agenda by focusing on one day in January.” 

On the day in question, rioters shouted “Hang Mike Pence!” and a replica gallows was brought near the Capitol.

According to an end of year summary from the Department of Justice, more than 725 people have been arrested pertaining to Jan. 6, including more than 225 who have been charged with assault, resisting arrest or impeding employees or police officers. Around 140 police officers were injured on the day.

“We came very close to losing American democracy on Jan. 6 and it is remarkable that democracy stood,” said Lindsay Schubiner, a program director at the Western States Center, a liberal-leaning group. “But the threats to inclusive democracy remain.”

Schubiner also noted the dangers of “a really dangerous, revisionist narrative” that plays down what happened on Jan. 6.

Trump himself said just before Christmas that Election Day 2020 was the real “insurrection” and that Jan. 6 was a “completely unarmed protest of the rigged election.” 

According to the Justice Department, more than 75 Jan. 6 defendants have been charged with entering a restricted area with a dangerous or deadly weapon.

Trump did, however, make an unexpected move to lower the political temperature around the anniversary of Jan. 6 late Tuesday. In a statement, the former president announced he was calling off a news conference that he had previously scheduled for Thursday. Instead, he said he would “discuss many of those important topics” at a rally set for Arizona on Jan. 15.

More broadly, divisions about what happened on Jan. 6 — and about the future of democracy itself — are as deep as ever.

A Washington Post-University of Maryland poll released at the weekend found roughly one-third of Americans, and 40 percent of Republicans, believe it is sometimes justified for citizens to take violent action against the government. 

A CBS News-YouGov poll, also released at the weekend, found that 66 percent of Americans believe democracy is under threat. 

The same poll asked respondents whether they expected the level of political violence to increase, stay the same or decrease. Well over half — 57 percent — said they thought it would increase, 33 percent said it would stay the same and just 10 percent forecast it would decrease.

An ABC News-Ipsos poll found that 33 percent of Americans believe, falsely, that President Biden was not legitimately elected.

Those figures point to the polarization in American society that had been going on for years before Trump even appeared on the political scene. The former president may have accelerated those forces, but they also operate independently of him, involving huge shifts such as the splintering of traditional media, a loss of trust in institutions, social and economic dislocation, and the tendency of social media to reinforce existing views and biases.

But even so, some experts and academics express concern at a focus on polarization alone. It is increasingly clear, they say, that the threat to democratic norms is not a “both sides” story, but rather one in which Republicans are objectively more inclined to countenance transgressive political behavior.

“There has definitely been polarization, and it’s been a huge part of our politics for the last few decades,” said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. “But with Republicans, you just see more of a shift to the extremes than you do with Democrats. You see less of a need to adhere to any kind of norms and a real embrace of ‘anything goes’ partisanship.”

“The asymmetry,” Zelizer added, “is a very important part of the story.”

There are few shards of light. Schubiner pointed to one, speaking admiringly of the willingness of people in local positions to resist intimidation and work to preserve democracy at the most grassroots level.

But she also expressed worries about an erosion of American democracy, as has happened in some nations in Eastern Europe.

One year on from Jan. 6, the state of the nation is bitter, angry and endangered.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage. 

Tags Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Amy Klobuchar Anthony Fauci Capitol riot Donald Trump Eric Swalwell Ilhan Omar Jan. 6 panel Joe Biden Lauren Boebert Marjorie Taylor Greene Mike Pence Paul Gosar

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