Was it really a threat to democracy? | Joseph Margulies | Verdict


Color me naive, but I don’t see the “coup attemptorchestrated by former President Trump and executed by his most rabid supporters on January 6 as a serious threat to democracy in the United States. I believe it was an extremely serious crime and expect the House Select Committee to have little difficulty in establishing Trump’s legal and moral responsibility for the assault on the US Capitol. And I’m not minimizing for a moment the seriousness of what happened. It was horrible. It was criminal. It was anti-democratic in its purpose.

It’s just that he never had a chance to overturn the outcome of the 2020 election. He caused great damage and ruined far too many lives. Indeed, it could have been even worse. But it would never have made a difference. It would not have thwarted the will of the electorate or kept Trump in power. Even if the horde had succeeded in preventing the House from certifying the vote that day, the representatives would have certified it the next day. And, heaven forbid, if the mob had reached and killed Vice President Pence or other elected officials, it would have been a capital crime but Joe Biden would still be president.

Like many trapped in their own delusions, Trump and his bigoted supporters may have thought that their attack would cause “the people” to rise up, throw their weight behind the madness and bend in some way or other. another the entire state and federal apparatus at their will. But it’s a common fantasy; fanatics regularly believe that other people secretly see the world as they do. It’s a particularly common psychosis among some white supremacists, who imagine that all white people see the world the way they do and just need a martyr to show the way and start a race war. But like much of their toxic ideology, it’s just a castle in the air.

I’m not particularly surprised by the January 6 cover. It is customary, at least in the United States, to construct crises in three stages: presenting the events as an existential threat to cherished values; trace the threat to perfidy of an identifiable person or group; and present a solution that relies on readily available levers. The first step is obviously meant to get our attention, the second to identify a villain, and the third to specify a fix. The whole dance is easy to learn and impossible to forget, making it the basis of political persuasion and media propaganda. Proponents of the political right have always been particularly fond of this scenario; Tucker Carlson, with his endless and Catholic attacks on virtually anything black and brownis only the most recent champion of a white nationalism that was already old when Father Coughlin arrived.

Acknowledging that January 6 could not have changed the outcome of the election, some say the threat to democracy was not in the day itself, but in the culture of violence it promotes. They point to various polls that appear to show alarming levels of support among Republicans for violence as a means to achieve political goals. In a poll by the American Enterprise Institute, nearly 40% of Republicans agreed that “if elected leaders fail to protect America, the people must do it themselves, even if it requires violent action”. Similarly, a survey conducted in September 2021 by the Public Religion Research Institute found that 30% of Republicans agreed that “because things have gotten so far out of whack, true American patriots may have to resort to violence to save our country.”

These are indeed extraordinary results, and if they reliably predicted the risk of political violence, we would all be in deep trouble. Luckily for us, however, what they likely reveal is the danger of unnatural polling. As political scientist Sean Westwood and his co-authors have show, various design flaws and definitional issues in these polls likely inflated support for violence. When a later group of political scientists corrected these flaws and conducted more careful polling, support for violence plummeted. Mind you, it’s still surprisingly high – 4% of respondents said members of their party might be justified in committing a violent crime “to advance their political goals.” Although far from previous figures, this still represents millions of people.

But even that number likely exaggerates the risk of violence. The pollsters asked, “How justified do you think it is” for members of your own party (Democrats or Republicans) to use various forms of violence, ranging from non-violent offenses to violent crimes, “to make advancing their political goals these days?” In other words, the investigators did not ask, and probably could not have asked, if someone would themselves be violent, but if they thought that it could be “justified” for another unnamed to be violent, which is a very different thing. I have no doubt that some people and groups support the violent overthrow of democracy, but we don’t know how much that number is important. All we know is that it is probably a lot less than people have been led to believe.

Finally, when many people talk about threats to democracy emanating from the Trump presidency, they are pointing to states that imposed restrictions on voting after the 2020 election. Most of these restrictions were enacted in Republican states and I have no doubt that they were adopted for partisan purposes. I will even grant that an unknown number of Republican lawmakers hoped and expected the new laws to suppress black votes; there is a conventional wisdom among many white people that conservative white voters will exercise the franchise through thick and thin, but black people will stay home when the going gets tough. I always thought this myth was a direct descendant of the old racist lie that black people are lazy and unfit for the demands of citizenship. It was a lie then and it is a lie now.

At this point, there is very little evidence that voting restrictions of the type enacted by states in 2020 are suppressing turnout. On the contrary, extensive academic research consistently shows that they have little or no effect. Indeed, because minority voters might suspect that the real goal is to deprive them of their vote, there is evidence that these restrictions can increase turnout; no right is more valuable than the one under attack, and there is no voter like a motivated voter. To be fair, some protest that academics have yet to study the effect of bills passed after the 2020 election. That’s right, the legislation is just too new. But like Sarah Isgur recently explained in Politics, the new laws are not as far from the mainstream as some irresponsible hyperbole has suggested. However, last month’s elections in Georgia showed that the laws did not suppress participation at all. In fact, turnout was high and Trump’s hand-picked candidates lost.

I accept that at least one objective of the 2020 legislation was to remove minority voting. In other words, the goal, at least with some legislators, is undemocratic. In this regard, I am convinced that some legislators hoped to accomplish by legal means what Trump hoped to accomplish on January 6 by illegal means: to overthrow democracy. They don’t really believe in democracy and are more than happy to throw it out the window if it keeps them in power. But this is not a new impetus in American life. On the contrary, the momentum has never been absent, and we should not fear for democracy just because we detect it again. Indeed, as one researcher put it in an exhaustive review of the literature, the voting restrictions imposed on the 21st century are “quite tamecompared to those of earlier eras.

Nothing I have written should be taken to suggest that democracy is safe. I don’t believe it for a minute. I believe, for example, that climate change is likely to trigger global migration on an unprecedented scale that will destabilize economies and encourage nativist populism. In the ensuing chaos, many insecure nations will be tempted to follow an undemocratic path. And this is only one of the imminent challenges to democracy.

But the exaggerated partisan rhetoric on both sides does not equip us to meet these challenges. On the contrary, it makes our task all the more difficult in a way that I will explain in my next essay.


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