The problem at the heart of January 6th — and the future of American democracy
Democracy's opponents control enough votes to meaningfully roll back civil and electoral rights. It will take a generational shift in civic and democratic culture to defeat them.
I am sure you have been inundated with articles marking the first anniversary of the attempted coup on January 6th, 2021. But at the risk of sending you something too late (and also because if I wait any longer, I will have missed the news) I would like to offer my perspective on the broader significance of the events of that day. These observations are rooted in (what else?) political science, survey experiments on voter psychology, and other polling data. I think that makes them distinct from what you have probably read elsewhere, and therefore worth giving your attention to.
The way I see it, the basic problem facing American democracy is two-pronged. First, that a significant number of people do not want to extend basic political rights to their opponents — groups marked by their differences from white, Christain, and conservative Republican Americans. And, second, that this faction has united with ideologically similar groups under one massive political banner to create a threatening force of anti-democratic partisans.
The manifestations of these threats — in political violence, voter-suppression laws, partisan gerrymandering, and what have you — are all second-order to or exacerbate, the first problem.
For example, the various vulnerabilities in the process of transferring presidential power that were exposed on January 6th, 2021 stem from the fact that the faction is also not opposed to using violence in order to keep power. Similarly, the anti-democratic, counter-participatory rule changes we have observed in Republican-led states since January 6th show the faction will do everything in its legislative power to gain an electoral advantage over its opponents. Yet although it is obvious, it is worth stating that we would not have these issues without first having a group of people that supports them.
I do not mean to minimize these second-order issues, of course. I have written dozens of times about several things we may do to control their consequences. Better leadership from the political right is the best option, but also the least likely. Amending our electoral system, via something like ranked-choice voting or proportional representation, in an attempt to decouple the political right from this “MAGA faction,” could also do a lot to decrease the potential damage they might do to the country. And it is “easy” to legislative ourselves out of partisan gerrymandering; Congress needs “only” to enact federal standards for fair districts. (
Yet neither of those changes would fix the first-order issues.
But before we get to potential solutions, let me use the political science evidence to show you how we know this faction exists and why we think it is motivated by opposition to multiethnic, inclusive democracy. The following science is crucial to understanding what makes this group think — and to characterizing it not as a purely partisan group, but something that poses a more insidious risk to democracy.
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