For just a moment, immediately following the January 6 assault on the United States Capitol last year, it was possible to imagine that the events of that day would shock the country back to political normalcy.
In the hours after the mob of insurrectionists, spurred on by false assertions from former President Donald Trump about a stolen election, was driven from the Capitol, it was possible to imagine that the shocking scenes of violence in the seat of the American government would force the country to reassess what counts as acceptable political discourse.
It was possible to imagine that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, was correct when he came to the Senate floor later that night and declared, “Our democratic republic is strong.”
In the weeks and months that followed the attack, however, optimism about the state of democracy in the U.S. has become increasingly difficult to maintain.
Public polling indicates that nearly two-thirds of Americans believe U.S. democracy is “in crisis and at risk of failing.” And even more alarming is that nearly one-third of Americans now say that political violence is sometimes a justifiable response.
In the face of Trump’s repeated false claims about the election being stolen from him, senior officials in the Republican Party who had criticized the mob attack on the U.S. Capitol went silent, and those who excused or even justified the actions of the rioters were amplified.
Today, public opinion polling indicates the overwhelming majority of self-identified Republican voters in the U.S. now believe, despite copious evidence to the contrary, that the results of the 2020 presidential election were fraudulent, and that President Joe Biden was illegitimately elected.
The most recent poll by the University of Massachusetts put the percentage of Republicans who believe the election was fraudulent at 71%, accounting for about 33% of the population overall.
The reaction from Republican state legislatures was predictable, according to Susan Stokes, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago and the director of the Chicago Center on Democracy.
“Once you get your election base believing that the presidential election was stolen from their side, you have a very strong constituency in favor of changing election laws,” she told VOA.
Restrictive voting laws
At the state level last year, Republican-led legislatures began passing a raft of new election laws. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, a Washington-based think tank, 19 states have passed 33 laws that restrict access to the ballot.
Other Republican-controlled states passed laws designed to take authority over election administration away from secretaries of state or local elections officials and place it in the hands of lawmakers themselves. This happened particularly in places like Georgia and Arizona, Republican-leaning states that voted for Biden in 2020.
In both states, Republican election officials vouched for the integrity of the 2020 election results in the face of Trump’s false claims of fraud.
The actions by Republican state legislatures may assuage the concerns of some portion of their political base about the integrity of election results, but that will come at the cost of creating increased doubt among Democrats.
This will be especially acute in states like Georgia, Arizona, and Texas, where Democrats have been improving their election performance in recent years, but Republicans still control the state legislature. Those states have passed laws that Republicans claim are “common sense” fixes to the election process but Democrats say are aimed at restricting ballot access and weakening them politically.
Other state-level changes
Not all changes to state laws this year restricted voting. In many states, mostly controlled by Democrats, new laws were passed expanding access to the ballot.
These changes included increasing the opportunities voters have to cast a ballot ahead of election day, greater access to mail-in voting, simplified voter registration rules, wider use of drop boxes for absentee voting, and improved assistance for voters whose primary language is not English.
While the changes will be broadly supported by Democratic voters, virtually all of these measures are criticized by prominent Republicans — Trump chief among them — as making election fraud easier to perpetrate. While there is no evidence that fraud has played a significant role in any national election in recent history, the changes are likely to cement the belief among many in the GOP that election results in states run by Democrats cannot be trusted.
‘A dangerous area’
“We're getting to a point where there's a lot of reasons for both sides to be discounting election results at the national level,” said Seth Masket, director of the Center on American Politics at the University of Denver.
“That's a very dangerous area, a fragile area, for democracy to find itself,” Masket told VOA. “It's caused other countries, other democracies, to collapse.”
Stokes, of the University of Chicago, agreed that the “nightmare scenario” for the U.S. is an outcome where, whatever the result of a presidential election, large segments of the population view the outcome as not just disappointing, but illegitimate.
Pointing to polling data that demonstrates an increased belief that political violence might be acceptable, Stokes said, “We have a lot of people out there in the public who think that violence is justified, and a smaller number, certainly, who would actually act on that. But it doesn't take that many people to lead to a very violent situation, and possibly a situation of armed civil conflict.”
A voice of optimism
“I think we should be concerned whenever there are attacks on the internal operations of our republic,” said Mary Frances Berry, a history professor at the University of Pennsylvania, an attorney, and the former chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. “So, we're right to be concerned, but we shouldn't get frightened, or overly concerned.”
Berry told VOA the U.S. has faced democratic crises in the past and survived. As recently as 2000, she pointed out, it was Democrats who were insisting that former President George W. Bush was illegitimately elected.
Democratic lawmakers, some still in Congress, demanded that then-Vice President Al Gore refuse to certify the election results in the Senate. That’s the same demand that the crowd of rioters at the Capitol on January 6 were making of then-Vice President Mike Pence.
In both cases, the vice presidents performed their constitutional duties and oversaw the certification of election results in which they had suffered defeat.
“We have short memories,” Berry said. “But if we remember things, it will make us less frightened.”