For more coverage of the Jan. 6 attack, read our collection of essays and reflections examining where we are as a country one year later, including what has — and hasn’t — changed since a violent mob of Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol.
Time and time again, Republicans have downplayed the seriousness of what happened on Jan. 6. Only a handful of Republicans voted to impeach Trump for the role he played in the attack on the Capitol, and nearly all Republicans were opposed to a bipartisan investigation into what happened.
It’s not just Republican politicians, either. Republican voters are also less likely to take what happened on Jan. 6 seriously. The Pew Research Center shows, for instance, that between March and September, the share of Republicans who said it was “very important” to prosecute Capitol rioters fell from 50 percent to 27 percent.
Why aren’t more Republicans taking what happened on Jan. 6 seriously?
First and foremost, it’s possible that despite American democracy’s perilous situation, the threat still feels distant for many Americans. Historical perspective is useful here. At various points in U.S. history, there have been serious threats to the survival of the republic. The Civil War (and democratic backsliding at the end of Reconstruction), World War II and the Cold War all carried some existential threat. But throughout all those difficult periods, we still had peaceful transfers of power. Free and fair elections were held even during the Civil War, and during the politically repressive period around World War I (and the 1918 flu pandemic).
And while that unbroken record of peaceful transfers of power may be in real jeopardy now, some Americans might not be concerned, ironically, because of American democracy’s continued success. That is, America’s successful streak may have made it easier for some to claim that Jan. 6 was no big deal — just some tourists who never had any chance of seriously disrupting the proceedings of government, even though footage and personal accounts of the events suggest otherwise.
The other factor at play here is the extent to which American politics has become a zero-sum contest. Nearly every issue and congressional vote is now framed in terms of winners and losers — and partisanship. And as political scientist Lilliana Mason wrote in her 2018 book, “Uncivil Agreement,” “In this political environment, a candidate who picks up the banner of ‘us versus them’ and ‘winning versus losing’ is almost guaranteed to tap into a current of resentment and anger across racial, religious, and cultural lines, which have recently divided neatly by party.”
Republican elites and media figures, in particular, have deftly employed this framework, arguing that Jan. 6 protesters have been treated more harshly than Black Lives Matter protesters. Others have attempted to blame the attacks on Democrats — specifically, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Taken together, these ideas form a powerful — if false and misleading — narrative that has taken hold among many Republicans: Events at the Capitol were harmless, and the efforts to hold people accountable is nothing more than partisan point-scoring. But, of course, many Americans do view what happened on Jan. 6 as a part of an ongoing threat to democracy, even if those opinions are largely split down party lines.
Related: A collection of essays and reflections on the Jan. 6 insurrection. Read more. »