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You probably remember where you were when you first heard that something was happening at the Capitol building.
If you’re anything like me, you spent most of January 6 sitting gripped in front of the news, scarcely able to believe your eyes as the scenes played out.
In the days and weeks that followed, the true scale of the situation became clear, as we heard first-hand reports from those forced to hide from the mob, and terrifying testimony from the police officers who attempted to fend off the rioters.
Investigations have been launched and arrests made, and with Biden inaugurated, the Senate under Democratic control and Trump out of office (and off Twitter), many have been quick to proclaim that American democracy survived its brush with danger.
But on the first anniversary of the Capitol riot, political experts are sounding the alarm, warning that January 6 may not have been the culmination of a failed plot, but the starting point for something altogether more sinister.
In a shocking op-ed written for the Globe and Mail, Canadian political science professor Thomas Homer-Dixon urged America’s neighbours to the north to prepare for the possibility of the imminent collapse of the US political system within years, stating that the country was ‘flashing with warning signals’ as it becomes ‘increasingly ungovernable’.
It sounds like scaremongering, but Homer-Dixon isn’t the only one speaking out about what he described as a ‘fatal weakening’ of US democracy in the wake of January 6.
‘This is not the kind of thing I expected to ever worry about in the United States,’ said election law expert Rick Hasen during an appearance on NPR’s Morning Call last month. He went on to compare his efforts and those of fellow concerned observers to that of climate scientists and virologists before him, ‘sounding the alarm and just hoping that we’re not too late already’.
As part of a federal investigation into the January 6 attack, more than 700 arrests have been made. But rather than be disheartened by the failed coup, the extremist movements involved in the attack have only been emboldened, with far-right organisations like the Proud Boys and conspiracy theorist groups like QAnon continuing to grow, spurred on by Trump himself, who persists in pushing lies about the election through his rallies and own online platforms.
A recent survey found that one-in-three Americans continues to believe that the 2020 election was stolen – a number that rises to 58% among Republican voters. According to the poll, which was published this week by the Washington Post, the number of voters who believe that violent episodes like the Capitol riot may be justified has also risen, with one-in-three people saying they believe violent action against the government is ‘at times’ warranted, compared with just 13% a decade ago.
‘In short, the Republic faces an existential threat from a movement that is openly contemptuous of democracy and has shown that it is willing to use violence to achieve its ends,’ an editorial from the New York Times read this week.
It’s tempting to dismiss these movements as a crowd of vocal outsiders, but analysts say that they’re gaining influence.
The optimists in US political circles hoped that Trump’s 2020 election loss would mark the end of his hold over the Republican party, but it’s clearer than ever that those hopes were misplaced. Somehow, since his second impeachment and departure from the White House, the Republican party has grown even more devoted, with QAnon-backers like Marjorie Taylor Greene embraced while Republican stalwarts like Liz Cheney are ostracised.
Trump-backed committees have raised more than $100 million, with the majority of Republican challengers in the midterms supporting the former president and the few incumbents who rejected him in the wake of the Capitol riot effectively forced out.
‘It’s become almost a religion in the Republican Party,’ one former state lawmaker told POLITICO. ‘You have your believers, and you have your heretics, and anyone who isn’t willing to follow Trump 100%, or wants to question Trump, that’s now the new definition of a RINO [Republican In Name Only].’
It’s not just the midterms either. In 2020, the election wasn’t stolen because the safeguards in place to protect the democratic process worked. Over the past year, efforts have been underway in red states across the country to remove those safeguards, replacing them with measures that disenfranchise voters and give officials greater power to challenge and overturn election results.
According to Protect Democracy, almost three dozen laws have been passed enabling states to overturn their own elections results, with the Times editorial stating that there are 41 states in which lawmakers are ‘trying to advance the goals of the Jan. 6 rioters’.
‘In future elections, these laws politicizing the administration and certification of elections could enable some state legislatures or partisan election officials to do what they failed to do in 2020: reverse the outcome of a free and fair election,’ warned a group of 100 academics in a public statement issued last June. ‘These actions call into question whether the United States will remain a democracy.’
Over the course of the past year, the Biden administration has pledged to restore ‘civility and honour’ to American politics and society. But judging by the dire warnings issued by dozens of political experts in recent weeks, that challenge may be bigger than many realise.
It’s been said that January 6 is a date that will join 9/11 as one of infamy in US history. September 11 changed the world as we know it; the true legacy of the events that took place one year ago today may only just be beginning to unfold.
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