A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Jan Hillard: Finding our way through understanding of how we see January 6th Capitol riots

We recently marked the one-year anniversary of the most violent attack on the nation’s capital since the War of 1812. Fueled by conspiracy-laced claims of electoral fraud, the peaceful transition of power gave way to insurrection and a darker political reality.

Amidst this incredible dynamic, many wonder what the typical American thinks about what happened on January 6th and beyond. Do Americans now have high levels fear or anger? Are they pessimistic or optimistic about the future of our democracy? How do they see themselves in this new reality? Answers to these questions will help us understand the critical inflection points in our current political thinking and feeling.

Recently, two research projects addressed many of these key questions.

On January 2nd the CBS News Poll released research findings in a study titled A Year After January 6th: Is Violence Still Seen as Threatening the Country, and on January 4th the Pew Research Center released a study titled A Look Back at Americans Reactions to the January 6th Riot at the Capitol. An overview of the results from these studies will help us gauge Americans’ feelings toward their government and the direction of the country.

Immediately following the January 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol and in the subsequent months throughout 2021, the Pew Research Center conducted national surveys of adults with the goal of understanding the public’s reactions to January 6th. In addition, Pew explored who Americans blamed for the insurrection and how likely they saw the prospects for future political violence. The Pew surveys examined Americans’ views by party affiliation. More than ever, American public opinion is shaped by one’s party identification resulting in persistent polarization and differing realities. The CBS News research focuses on how Americans describe the current and future state of democracy in America.

The Pew study shows that large majorities felt emotions such as fear, sadness, and anger, as well as surprise and concern, following the insurrection. In open-ended questions, many said this couldn’t happen in the U.S. and that only third-world countries experience this sort of political violence.

Democrats were twice as likely to report these sorts of feelings than were Republicans. Republican respondents were more likely to express doubts about who was responsible and took part in the riot, with 22% of the doubters saying the rioters were actually Antifa or from the Black Lives Matter movement.

The CBS News study asked respondents about the Capital rioters. Party lines once again appear as 81% of Democrats and only 34% of Republicans disapproved of the rioters’ actions. Some 25% of Republicans either approved or somewhat approved of the rioters’ actions.

The Pew surveys tracked over time the views related to prosecuting the rioters. The series of surveys show dwindling support since 2021 for prosecutions, with the greatest fall-off among Republicans. While 50% of Republicans supported prosecution following the riots, only 25% currently favor prosecution. Views on the penalties for rioters also reflect this all too familiar partisan division. In September 20121 Pew found that half of all adults believed penalties had not been severe enough. However, among Republicans, 38% felt the penalties have been too severe.

The Pew researchers asked respondents who they blamed for the riots. While more than half of all adults held Trump responsible, some 24% indicated that Trump bore no responsibility. 95% Democrats say Trump had at least some or all responsibility, while conversely 52% of Republicans believe Trump had no responsibility.

Immediately after the riots, 83% of Democrats believed it would be better for the country for Trump to leave office immediately following the riots. 80% of Republicans believed it would be better if Trump finished his term. Once again, while partisan differences are never surprising, the size and intensity of the differences following January 6th through today are remarkable. Such differences impede finding “middle ground,” the essential ingredient to compromise and political stability.

Profound partisan differences are echoed in the CBS News study. This research finds that while 66% of all Americans believe our democracy is under attack, far fewer Republican identifiers (34%) disapprove of the January 6th insurrection. The political descriptors Americans use regarding January 6th also show very different interpretations by Republicans and Democrats. When asked what words best describe January 6, 18% of Republicans and 85% of Democrats describe the events as “trying to overthrow democracy.” Offering more positive descriptors, 47% of Republicans and 12% of Democrats see the events as “patriotic.” When the CBS researchers probed on why the events were seen as acts of patriotism, 79% of Republicans say it was to draw attention to election fraud, 64% said it was to stand up for Trump, and 35% said it was to stop the electoral college vote count.

Individuals were asked what they expect to see in future elections. The CBS News research offers stark findings. Among all adults, 62% expect to see violence similar to January 6th take place by either Republican or Democrat supporters who believe they have unfairly lost the Presidential election. Only 40% of Americans expect a peaceful concession. A majority of Americans who believe calling for violence is justified hold the opinion that “opponents do it or do it worse.” “What aboutism” once again infects Americans’ political thinking.

The CBS researchers went further exploring the actions people see as justified to achieve their political goals. Here is more promising news. Across all Americans, 75% reject actions such as forming militias, threatening others, causing physical harm or vandalizing property. Similarly, this study finds that only 7% favor dividing the U.S. into red and blue “countries.” However, if you include respondents who answered “somewhat favor” dividing the country, a sobering 23% of Americans support this radical idea.

Several key findings emerge from both the Pew and CBS studies.

First, as the result of January 6th and the political violence that took place in 2019, Americans have begun to ponder what were previously unthinkable concerns around the future of democracy. More Americans are expecting fraudulent elections and resulting political violence.

Second, people’s realities are defined by partisanship, perhaps as never before. The polarization of the media, divisive political rhetoric, and the constant demonization of the “other” party serves to normalize the us-versus-them nature of our contemporary political rhetoric. Both the Pew and CBS research studies echo the ever-growing partisan polarization in the U.S.

Third, views of Americans post-January 6th are a product of each individual’s longstanding beliefs about the fundamental nature of democracy, one’s role in maintaining democracy, and the anticipation of what the future will bring.

Jan Hillard

Many are re-evaluating their long-held beliefs and reverence for our system. Some feel anger, some fear, some seek refuge in peaceful as well as hate groups, others retreat. Citizens are bombarded with messages resulting in difficulty in distinguishing truth from conspiracy.

Amidst these dynamics, a seemingly intractable polarization of beliefs now characterizes our political life. Suspicions about electoral fairness have severe ramifications for faith in our democratic system and its legitimacy. An ongoing commitment to national surveys and focus groups is imperative if we are to first gauge the public sentiment and then act in ways to restore faith in American democracy.

Jan Hillard, Ph.D., is chair of the board of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism, publisher of the NKyTribune, and Faculty Emeriti of Northern Kentucky University. He is also the NKyTribune’s data-editor.

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