It will be up to future historians to determine whether the Jan. 6 Capitol riot marked the beginning of the end of American democracy. But that has not stopped countless observers from marking the first anniversary of a day that will live in infamy by warning the world to brace for the worst as the United States descends into political chaos on the road to outright collapse.
“We are closer to civil war than any of us would like to believe,” writes University of California political scientist Barbara F. Walter in a new book, How Civil Wars Start. “If you were an analyst in a foreign country looking at events in America – the same way you’d look at events in Ukraine or the Ivory Coast or Venezuela – you would go down a checklist, assessing each of the conditions that make civil war likely. And what you would find is that the United States, a democracy founded more than two centuries ago, has entered very dangerous territory.”
Far be it for me to accuse Prof. Walter, a member of a Central Intelligence Agency’s Political Instability Task Force, of hyping her thesis to pump book sales. But including the United States among a list of failed or failing states does seem like an exaggeration. It may be fashionable in academic circles to depict the country as hurtling toward a breakdown, but such depictions are driven more by the politics of those making them than empirical evidence.
The Jan. 6 riot was indeed a dark moment in American history. But there have been plenty of those in the past 250 years and the country has survived them all, usually emerging stronger than before. It had a major close call a century and a half ago, but it takes a selective reading of the facts to suggest it is headed again in that direction.
“Our democracy held. We the people endured. And we the people prevailed,” President Joe Biden reminded Americans on Thursday in a hard-hitting speech pinning the blame for the Jan. 6 riot on Donald Trump. “For the first time in our history, a president had not just lost an election, he tried to prevent the peaceful transfer of power as a violent mob breached the Capitol. But they failed. They failed.”
Mr. Trump’s 2016 election proved that the checks and the balances meant to protect the U.S. political system from demagogues can occasionally fail. But the doomsayers make a critical error in lumping all of Mr. Trump’s supporters together. They mainly serve to exacerbate the political polarization plaguing their country rather than to demystify it.
Many observers cite polls showing an increase in the percentage of Americans, especially Republicans, who say violence is sometimes justified to achieve political objectives. But researchers who have probed deeper counter that the results of such polls are skewed because of “disengaged respondents” and “ambiguous” questions.
“Vague questions about acceptance of partisan violence demand too much interpretation from respondents, yielding incorrect inferences about support for severe political violence,” write the authors of a new study from the Polarization Research Lab at Dartmouth College. “Not only is support for violence low overall, but support drops considerably as political violence becomes more severe.”
Furthermore, condemnation of the Jan. 6 riot is nearly unanimous, with only a tiny fringe of Americans saying the insurrection was justified. And judging from the dozens of contrite participants who have thus far come before federal judges to answer for their crimes, their numbers appear to be dwindling by the day.
While more than 700 people have been charged in relation to the riot, none has been formally accused of domestic terrorism, sedition or treason. The most serious charges involve assaulting a police officer and obstructing Congress. And the longest prison sentence so far handed out tops out at a little more than five years.
U.S. Attorney-General Merrick Garland, who has faced criticism from Democratic politicians for not pursuing more serious charges against those behind the riot, including Mr. Trump, promised on Wednesday to hold “all Jan. 6 perpetrators, at any level, accountable under the law – whether they were present that day or were otherwise criminally responsible for the assault on our democracy.” And it is possible that the U.S. Justice Department could still lay terrorism or sedition charges, which are harder to prosecute, against the ringleaders of the insurrection.
Rather than being a prelude to civil war, however, the legacy of Jan. 6 may be to have made the likelihood of one even more remote.
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