American democracy had near-death experience a year ago. This year will test its vital signs

On the one-year anniversary of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, the republic is under stress. Its air of invulnerability is shattered. Over the coming months, several events will allow a longer-term prognosis.

The republic's air of invulnerability was shattered in Jan. 6 attack on U.S. Capitol

A mob attacked the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, 2021, in a failed attempt to stop Joe Biden’s presidential election win from being certified. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

American democracy had a near-death experience one year ago this week. There's no sign, a year later, that it's served as a habit-changing wake-up call.

The prognosis is bleaker yet.

Even this solemn anniversary of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol underscores the inability of the country's warring political tribes to set aside their loathing and inhabit a common reality for just one day.

There are opposing vigils. Democrats will mark the occasion with candlelight events; right-wing activists are holding vigils to honour the jailed attackers, calling them political prisoners.

Here's the key part: This is no fringe view. A new poll says most Republicans feel the rioters were defending democracy; on crowdfunding pages, millions of dollars in donations have flowed to cover the rioters' legal fees.

And the man who tried stealing a presidential election, who encouraged that mob, was scheduled to hold his own Jan. 6 event — but announced on Tuesday that he had cancelled it.

Donald Trump, shown at his Florida estate in 2016, will hold his own event to commemorate Jan. 6. The former president, who lost the November 2020 election to Biden, remains unrepentant about the violent events of last January. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Donald Trump remains the de facto leader of the Republican Party, a hero to its voters, and he had planned mark Jan. 6 by repeating conspiracy theories about his election loss on Nov. 3, 2020.

Election norms are being rewritten. In one state after another, non-partisan election officials have needed police protection after fielding hundreds of threats.

Now their control of elections is under threat: Republican politicians in several states want their legislatures to claim power in declaring election winners.

"It's a constant barrage of attacks," said Ann Jacobs, a Democrat who currently heads Wisconsin's bipartisan — and increasingly embattled — election commission.

"A constant repetition of false claims [about 2020].... We still get people calling and hollering."

'We were insufficiently alarmist'

An academic who co-authored the book How Democracies Die now says he was too optimistic when he wrote it in 2018, as the U.S. has blown past the warning signs flagged there.

"I think we were insufficiently alarmist," said Harvard professor and author Steve Levitsky, a scholar of democratic decline.

What troubles him, he says, isn't so much Trump — he never expected the former president to play by normal democratic rules, but he did expect stronger opposition to Trump's antics from other Republicans.

WATCH | How the Jan. 6, 2021 Capitol HiIl riot could happen again : 

What’s been learned about the Capitol Hill riot and why it could happen again

1 year ago
Duration 5:28
A year after rioters stormed Capitol Hill, official and unofficial investigations reveal more about who was involved in the attack and why some experts believe similar violence could happen again.

Now Levitsky says he's terrified about 2024. If the conditions align, he says, we could easily witness a stolen election and the end of American democracy as we know it.

"2024 is a coin flip," Levitsky said. "We are a coin flip away from losing our democracy."

Multiple public opinion polls paint a consistent portrait about the risks to American democracy, and here are two examples.

An NPR/PBS/Marist survey in November found that only 33 per cent of Republicans will trust the 2024 election result if their candidate loses, versus 82 per cent of Democrats.

Another survey offers a warning sign. Washington Post polling over time has found a steady increase in people saying violence against the government can be justified, with 40 per cent of Republicans and 23 per cent of Democrats now feeling that way.

If last year was the near-death experience, this year will allow us to check back in and test the republic's vital signs.

3 questions for 2022

We could soon have answers to three questions about 2024, provided in part by the Nov. 8, 2022, midterm elections:

1. Who do Republicans nominate? Republicans will hold primary contests this spring and summer to decide which candidates should represent them. In this election, elections are an issue. In Georgia, Michigan, Wyoming, Arizona and elsewhere, voters will choose between more traditional conservatives and far-right figures repeating Trump's election lies.

2. Who controls the swing states? On Nov. 8, Republicans are heavily favoured to regain at least one chamber in the U.S. Congress. But an arguably more important story will unfold at the state level. In the states, winning in 2022 means more control over the process in 2024. Virtually every presidential swing state has an election this year to decide the governor or chief election overseer: Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Ohio and Florida.

It wasn't just the U.S. Capitol that was vulnerable on Jan. 6, 2021. Armed protesters stood inside, and at the entrances of, several state legislatures, including the State Capitol in Lansing, Mich., shown here, after a rally supporting Trump. (Paul Sancya/The Associated Press)

Those governors' chairs could prove valuable in whether to veto or approve the election rules proposed by Republican-controlled legislatures. Across the country, several legislatures, including Georgia and Texas, have passed laws weakening non-partisan election offices; similar bills are sitting in numerous legislatures, including in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

In Wisconsin, when Jacobs was asked if she expects her independent agency to retain its current powers, she replied: "It depends entirely on who wins the gubernatorial election."

3. Then there's Donald Trump. Will he fling the country back onto the roller-coaster of a Trump presidential run? We could find out this year.

Trump has said he intends to announce his plans for 2024 after the midterms. We could also learn this year whether legal trouble might hamper such a run.

We've recently learned that a grand jury in New York is investigating Trump's businesses and has reportedly subpoenaed him and his children; Georgia prosecutors are also investigating his efforts to overturn the last election.

Few Republicans oppose Trump. Congresswoman Liz Cheney, who sits on the congressional committee investigating the events of Jan. 6, was stripped of her leadership rank in the party. (Elizabeth Frantz/Reuters)

Meanwhile, congresswoman Liz Cheney, a rare Trump nemesis in the Republican Party who sits on the congressional committee investigating the events of Jan. 6, has hinted that the panel could recommend a criminal probe into his post-election behaviour.

That congressional panel will ramp up its public activity this year. It's set to hold more hearings, then reportedly release preliminary and final reports by summer and fall.

Measuring the scope of the problem

One expert in political violence who advises the U.S. government and the Pentagon said the country has not even begun to grasp the challenge it faces.

Robert Pape compares political violence to a lightning strike upon dry kindling. Nobody can predict a lightning strike, but you can notice the dried wood lying around, creating the perfect condition for a raging fire. And the U.S. is covered in kindling, he says.

One researcher looking into the Jan. 6 movement assumed that most people who took part in the insurrection at the Capitol were fringe figures, struggling outcasts, economic losers or militia types. But he says the actual answer is more worrisome. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

After a career spent studying political violence abroad, he began, after last Jan. 6, focusing on his home country. And he's disturbed by what he's found.

"This [Jan. 6] movement is not fading away," said Pape, a political science professor at the University of Chicago and founder of the Chicago Project on Security & Threats.

Like many, he assumed he'd learn that most who took part in the insurrection at the Capitol were fringe figures, struggling outcasts, economic losers, militia types. But most weren't.

Pape found the opposite after months of data analysis on the more than 700 people charged in the Capitol attack and after conducting public opinion research.

More than half of those charged, he said, were business owners and CEOs or had white-collar occupations.

A tiny fringe were unemployed, and 13 per cent were known to be part of extremist and militia groups such as the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys.

A cattle market lies in ruins after a car bomb exploded in 1997 outside a police station in Markethill, Northern Ireland. A researcher on political violence says he fears the U.S. is heading toward a long-term period of political violence and instability, like Northern Ireland’s religious clashes from the 1960s to the 1990s. (Reuters)

Most didn't live in strongly pro-Trump or rural areas. In fact, more than half lived in counties won by President Joe Biden; these counties were changing demographically.

Pape says counties where the white population is in decline are six times likelier to have had a resident arrested over Jan 6.

He then organized large surveys with his university's NORC organization and found that eight per cent of American adults believe Biden, a Democrat, stole the election and that it's legitimate to use force to reinstate Trump.

That's 21 million people — including millions who own guns and well over a million with military training.

Pape's overarching takeaway is pretty bleak: that the U.S. is in danger of a long-term period of political violence and instability, like Northern Ireland during the Troubles, driven by white fears of demographic replacement. And he says certain politicians are stoking those fears the way Serb nationalists did before the violent breakup of Yugoslavia.

"This is a mainstream problem," said Pape, who is also conducting research for the Pentagon on extremism in the ranks of veterans. 

What happened that day

The congressional investigation into Jan. 6 has released snippets of what it's found. It held one public hearing where police officers described the hours-long battle to fend off the mob.

Capitol Police Sgt. Aquilino Gonell told one hearing about injuries all over his body that sidelined him for months; he and colleagues were punched, pushed, kicked, shoved, pepper-sprayed and blinded with lasers.

U.S. Capitol Police Sgt. Harry Dunn listens during the House select committee hearing on the Jan. 6 attack on Capitol Hill in Washington, on July 27, 2021. He said he was repeatedly subjected to racist taunts and broke down in tears at the hearing. (Andrew Harnik/Reuters)

They were also struck with hammers, steel bars, knives, bear spray, batons and their own police shields; police also seized firearms and found explosive devices outside the two parties' headquarters in Washington.

One Black officer, Harry Dunn, said he was repeatedly called racist epithets.

Hours later, while seated under the Capitol dome, he was consoled by colleagues as he sobbed and shouted: "How the [expletive] can something like this happen? Is this America?"

The committee has text messages showing that Trump's family and friends spent hours pleading for him to intervene and call off the mob.

It was ultimately Mike Pence, vice-president at the time, who ordered in the National Guard.

What Trump's allies wanted that day was to prevent Pence from certifying the November 2020 presidential election result and to get him to either overturn the result or let Republicans do it in the House of Representatives.

Is there a solution?

Trump is still fuming at his former vice-president for refusing to act on the plan, and he has even defended members of the mob who chanted, "Hang Mike Pence."

Is there any solution — any tonic that might stabilize American democracy?

Democrats in Congress would love to pass an election reform bill that addresses some of the problems from 2020.

Their Freedom to Vote Act would simplify voting registration, make election day a holiday and make it a crime to intimidate election workers, punishable by a fine or jail time.

The plan on Jan. 6 was to stop then-vice president Mike Pence, right, from certifying the election, but it failed when Pence refused to go along. He was escorted from the legislature, then came back and completed the task. (Mike Theiler/Reuters)

Yet the bill is dead if Democratic senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema keep insisting on preserving the filibuster rule that requires a 60 per cent vote to pass most bills in the Senate.

Party leaders will try forcing a vote this month.

Even that long-shot effort falls short of the structural changes some political scientists are urging in order to detoxify politics.

Some want a new electoral system or new political parties to lessen dysfunction and increase the election chances of non-extreme candidates. But none of that is imminent.

So author and Harvard professor Levitsky proposes a more limited gambit for 2024: a national unity, pro-democracy presidential ticket. He wants Democrats and anti-Trump Republicans to join forces in a campaign, perhaps featuring Liz Cheney and Sen. Cory Booker as running mates.

He surmises that progressive Democrats might hate this. And he blames the U.S. media and political class for still treating this moment as politics as usual — without grasping the gravity of the situation.

"It's very, very hard for people who grew up in the United States not to treat our elections as normal politics — as donkey against the elephant; red against blue; Democrats against Republicans; who's got the better message and blah blah blah blah," he said.

"We're not in that world. We're in a world where one party is an authoritarian force and needs to be stopped."

We may get a clearer prognosis this year.

The slow death of the republic that inspired America's

But the collapse of a political system can happen so gradually that there's not just one Jan. 6 moment to point to.

It's what happened to the republic America was modelled on.

In Rome, ancient norms were obliterated. In a power struggle in 88 BC, a general, Lucius Cornelius Sulla, invaded the city with his army, violating a sacrosanct precedent meant to insulate the republic from political violence.

The republic the United States was modelled on, Rome's, died slowly. Pictured here is Sulla, who marched on the city in 88 BC. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

"This was a discovery that could never be unmade," writes British author Tom Holland in his book Rubicon, chronicling the demise of Rome's republic.

"What had once been unthinkable now lurked at the back of every Roman's mind."

Institutions kept breaking, the Senate's dysfunction deepened, mob violence grew. Finally, decades later, Sulla's enemy copied his feat, when Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon with his army, installed himself as dictator and ended centuries of civic governance.

"Not for another 1,000, and more, would it become a living reality again."


Alexander Panetta is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News who has covered American politics and Canada-U.S. issues since 2013. He previously worked in Ottawa, Quebec City and internationally, reporting on politics, conflict, disaster and the Montreal Expos.

With files from The Associated Press