Nearly a year after the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, there are two things most Americans agree on: That the insurrection was an attack on democracy, and that democracy itself remains incredibly fragile.
Too bad we're not acting like it.
On the eve of the attack's one-year anniversary, several news organizations this weekend released new polling that offers a number of alarming signs about where America stands 12 months after Donald Trump unwillingly left office. Barely a quarter of Republicans think Trump is responsible for the attack, but 71 percent still wrongfully believe he was the rightful winner of the 2020 election. One in three Americans thinks violence against the government is sometimes justified. Two-thirds of us believe the insurrection is a sign that more political violence is coming. One-third aren't confident that their votes will be counted in this year's midterm elections. Just 33 percent of respondents believe that U.S. democracy is "secure."
The pessimism is merited. Trump, who incited the rebellion with his lies about the election, hasn't gone away. Instead, the GOP has largely allied itself with the insurrectionists. This ought to be a "red alert" moment.
But three groups of Americans are falling down on the job of preserving and defending our democratic processes:
Leaders: President Biden has certainly given lip service to the idea that democracy is in need of defending. That defense is "the defining challenge of our time," he said last month at the Summit for Democracy. In July, he called the rise of new restrictive voting laws in GOP-led states the "most significant test of our democracy since the Civil War." And he came out of semi-retirement to run for the White House in the belief that Trump poses a unique threat to our governing institutions.
But his administration has also betrayed a blasé attitude at times. The New York Times reported last summer that progressive advocacy groups were hearing a message from the White House that it is possible to "out-organize voter suppression" — as if turning out the base might be a sufficient response to a pernicious legal regime. And over at the Justice Department, Attorney General Merrick Garland has come under fire for not moving quickly to hold Trump accountable for trying to overturn the election. If there is urgency on this issue, it's difficult to detect in the Biden Administration's actions.
Activists: If Biden can be underwhelming at times, he's still a more democratic option than Donald Trump. But Politico reports that the president will almost certainly face a primary challenge from progressives if he runs again in 2024. "He's deeply unpopular. He's old as s--t. He's largely been ineffective, unless we're counting judges or whatever the hell inside-baseball scorecard we're using. And I think he'll probably get demolished in the midterms," said Corbin Trent, co-founder of the progressive No Excuses PAC.
Put aside all the reasons this is an infuriatingly unwise assessment. (Judges are kind of important, for one.) Since 1980 there have been two major intra-party challenges to sitting presidents: That year's Democratic challenge to President Jimmy Carter by Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), and when Patrick Buchanan took on President George H.W. Bush for the GOP nomination in 1992. Both presidents defeated their primary challengers but then lost in the general election. History suggests a progressive primary challenge to Biden won't succeed in putting a Bernie Sanders type in the White House — but it would help clear the way for Trump's return. That would be devastating for progressive goals, and for democracy more generally. If you believe that Trump remains a threat to democracy, then the "first, do no harm" dictum should apply.
Voters: If Americans were alarmed by the events of Jan. 6, that doesn't mean it will much affect how they personally engage the democratic process. The latest Morning Consult/Politico poll indicates that the insurrection will have "no impact at all" on how nearly half of us vote in the 2022 midterm elections — and just 31 percent say it will have a major impact.
That's deflating, but also understandable. We're still dodging a pandemic and all the problems the coronavirus has created for work and schooling, and increasingly Americans are under threat from a warming climate. There's a lot going on! It's clear that Democrats will be challenged to make an issue of democracy itself during the midterms: Terry McAuliffe shouted about Trump all through the Virginia gubernatorial campaign and still lost.
But if the democratic polity of America — the living, breathing mass of "We the People" mentioned so prominently in the Constitution — can't be bothered to make a priority of defending democracy, what is to be done? I've long wondered whether we would recognize the moment democracy ends in the United States. The better question might be: Will we care?