Tomorrow marks one year since the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, when a violent mob tried to prevent Congress from counting electoral votes in an attempt to overturn Joe Biden’s victory over Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election.
Twelve months after the failed insurrection, the partisan divide remains deep and the potential for political violence continues to pose a risk to American democracy, says Gretchen Helmke, professor in the political science department at the University of Rochester and a founding member of Bright Line Watch, a nonpartisan group of scholars from institutions including Dartmouth College and the University of Chicago that monitors “democratic practices, their resilience, and potential threats.” The group’s work has received coverage in the New York Times, the Washington Post, The Atlantic, FiveThirtyEight and numerous other publications.
A key finding in the group’s latest report, on the Bright Line Watch November 2021 surveys, is that partisan divisions over the legitimacy of the 2020 election remain profound: 94 percent of Democrats say Biden is the rightful winner versus just 26 percent of Republicans. The report also notes that “millions of Americans explicitly endorse political violence directed against the other party.”
The Bright Line Watch findings have been echoed in other recent polling. A new Washington Post-University of Maryland poll found that roughly four in 10 Republicans and independents say violent action against the government is sometimes justified. In a CBS News-YouGov poll released Sunday, 62 percent of Americans said they think the losing side in future presidential elections will react violently, and one quarter said “force might be justified” to certain achieve political or policy goals.
“For our democracy to survive,” says Helmke, “both parties need to fully and unreservedly reject violence of any kind as legitimate means of solving political differences.”
The Rochester Beacon posed a few questions to Helmke on the state of democracy in the U.S. on the eve of the first anniversary of the attack on the U.S. Capitol:
ROCHESTER BEACON: Why has the gap in partisan divisions over the legitimacy over the 2020 election remained so deep?
GRETCHEN HELMKE: I think there are several contributing factors. As we saw in surveys we conducted in the run-up to the 2020 election, both sides were primed, albeit for different reasons, to view a victory by the other side as illegitimate. So, even before the election had taken place, Trump supporters were essentially denying that a victory by Biden would be legitimate. Since then, Republican elites have reinforced the “big lie” over and over again. Indeed, this has become a kind of litmus test in the current Republican party, with at least one in three GOP candidates for the U.S. House or Senate in 2022 rejecting the outcome of the 2020 presidential election. Although it is impossible to know whether Republican congressional pushback could have effectively eroded public support for Trump’s false allegations about the 2020 election, other research that I have conducted suggests that sustained bipartisan pushback could have moderately weakened support for Trump’s narrative, particularly in the early phase post-January 6th. Of course, as we have also seen, any Republicans that now challenge the “big lie” face huge electoral consequences. And, more generally, it provides the GOP with a useful pretext for passing a series of laws at the state level designed to suppress voting by social groups most likely to vote for Democrats, as well as to push through laws that potentially allow state legislatures to subvert the electoral process.
ROCHESTER BEACON: Does the potential for political violence pose a risk to American democracy?
HELMKE: The answer is clearly yes. Given that democracy is predicated on citizens peacefully expressing their preferences by casting a ballot, support for any type of political violence cuts directly against the rules of the game in a democracy. In a practical sense, the threat of violence can have a chilling effect both on people’s willingness to turn out to the polls, as well as people’s willingness to serve as elected or appointed officials. Although there is considerable debate among social scientists about the best way to measure support for violence, our most recent report shows that even with the most conservative measures, there is still substantial support for violence among the public. Specifically, we find that Republicans who identify strongly with their party support threats of violence, violence if the other party wins the 2024 election, as well as the violence that occurred on January 6th at much higher rates than do Democrats. The bottom line is that, for our democracy to survive, both parties need to fully and unreservedly reject violence of any kind as legitimate means of solving political differences.
ROCHESTER BEACON: Democrats and Republicans overestimate the political extremism of their political foes. How does this fuel potential for violence?
HELMKE: In the survey we conducted, we confirm the finding that respondents in both parties tend to massively underestimate the commitment of the other side to support basic democratic values, such as the idea that elections should be conducted without fraud or manipulation, or the idea that all citizens should enjoy the same legal and political rights. We then use a survey experiment to explore how correcting misperceptions—in other words, giving respondents correct information about how much the other side values such principles—affects the respondent’s support for a range of constitutional hardball tactics that are still short of endorsing political violence. Overall, neither side’s willingness to support such tactics is substantially lowered when they are informed about their opponents’ commitment to democratic principles. The upshot, in other words, is that giving people facts doesn’t much alter their willingness to condone a range of nonviolent behaviors that undermine democracy. To the extent that these would carry over into support for political violence, it is obviously a very concerning finding. Basically, it just underscores how once polarization takes hold, and each side forges an identity around demonizing the other side, it is very difficult to undo that with fact-based information.
ROCHESTER BEACON: Has your own view of the state of American democracy changed since Bright Line Watch was launched?
HELMKE: For most of my career, I have studied politics in Latin America, which is a region rife with political instability, inequality, and populism. Although one of the major lessons of social science has long been that wealthy democracies don’t die, the 2016 election raised a lot of alarm bells for social scientists, like me, who were familiar with how democracy has eroded in other countries. All of the signs were there: a leader who demonized the opposition, who refused to commit to accept an electoral defeat, who consistently fed an “us versus them” narrative that deepened polarization. None of the countless transgressions that took place during the administration were particularly shocking to me, although it was certainly overwhelming to keep track of the speed at which key norms were being shredded. I think the biggest surprise to me at this point is how little the Democrats have done to shore up our electoral system since they have been in power. I think they had a window after January 6th in which they could have passed key reforms to protect voting rights, but that window is now effectively closing. I think we got extremely lucky in 2020 that we were able to avoid attempts to subvert American democracy. I don’t think we can count on that in 2024.
Paul Ericson is Rochester Beacon executive editor.