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What led to the U.S. Capitol insurrection: Vanderbilt political scientists examine social, psychological, legal foundations of Jan. 6 riot

by Feb. 24, 2021, 12:45 PM

A panel of Vanderbilt Department of Political Science faculty explored the factors that led to the Jan. 6 riot in a virtual event, “Dissent, Disorder and Democracy: What Led to the U.S. Capitol Insurrection.” Hosted by the Vanderbilt Project on Unity and American Democracy, the panel also engaged with the event’s serious implications for the strength of the nation’s democracy.

>> Watch a video of the panel discussion in its entirety. (Password to watch the video: vuunity)

“As shocking as the Jan. 6 riot was, we had long known of the underlying hostilities brewing within pockets of our society,” said Chancellor Daniel Diermeier in his opening remarks. “Today’s discussion is intended to illuminate the social, legal and psychological implications that led to that day.”

The panelists for “Dissent, Disorder and Democracy: What Led to the U.S. Capitol Insurrection” were:

Rubin led off the faculty remarks with a historical overview of the Electoral College in the context of Congress having convened a joint session on Jan. 6 to count the Electoral College votes and announce the next president.

“The Electoral College was among many mechanisms established in the Constitution that run counter to the basic notion of democracy, instituted at the time of the nation’s founding because of a discomfort or distrust in democratic processes,” Rubin said. “The real motivation of the founders was to protect the small states.”

He noted that voters from the smallest states have roughly three times as much impact on the choice of the chief executive as voters from the largest states, and this is just one example of the unjustness of U.S. election laws.

“When we fail to act on the basis of our principles, we give the unprincipled license to act,” Rubin said. “We need to reform our laws by reinforcing and reiterating the basic principles of democracy, equality and human rights.”

Kam provided a broad framework of how the events of Jan. 6 could be understood through the lens of political psychology. “Groups bring out the best and worst in human collectives,” she said. “The group mind can be irrational, impulsive and irritable. Individuals acquire a heightened sense of powerfulness and an exaggerated sense of efficaciousness and even a sense of invulnerability when they’re embedded within a crowd.”

On a positive note, Kam said that the public can be persuaded to come together and work for everyone’s benefit, especially when their leaders are willing to unite. “The nation’s unified response after the 9/11 attacks is one example,” she said. “We have a persuadable public.”

Bartels shared highlights of his recent research focusing on the political preferences and priorities of Republican-identifying voters. He conducted a survey of Republicans and Republican-leaning voters in January 2020 that touched on a variety of attitudes and values, unveiling that 50.7 percent of respondents agreed with the statement that “The traditional American way of life is disappearing so fast that we may have to use force to save it.”

“The one belief that seems deeply important for motivating this anti-democratic sentiment among contemporary Republicans is the set of attitudes that I refer to as ethnic antagonism,” Bartels said. “I think many conservatives have been stressed by a great deal of social change in America over the last 50 years and are even more stressed by the prospect of continuing social and demographic change. That sense of emergency has exacerbated the circumstances where people are willing to take what would be considered anti-democratic actions.”

He noted while American democracy is likely to be in crisis for several more years with the continued success of social change, the nation has come through other major social upheavals, such as the New Deal and the Civil War.

Zechmeister argued that it is important to evaluate current politics in the U.S. within the broader context of a global decline in democracy. Venezuela, Nicaragua and Haiti are leading examples of democratic recession in the areas of the world she studies.

An expert in comparative political behavior, she cited three factors that play outsized roles in undermining political stability and freedoms—grievances, charismatic leadership and polarization. “If you’re looking for contemporary examples, let me point to Venezuela under Hugo Chávez and Turkey under Recep Tayyip Erdogan,” Zechmeister said.

She also described the intentional work needed to understand these factors and prevent additional instability. “Strong and resilient democracies need strong and resilient institutions: elections need to be trustworthy and trusted; institutions need to require significant consensus to change; there needs to be a free press; and the state—not an individual leader—needs to maintain the loyalty of the armed forces and hold authority over the use of force,” Zechmeister said.

After the Q&A, Wiseman concluded the discussion by asking the panelists to recommend one or more books for those who want to explore more on these topics. Here are their recommendations:

  • The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt
  • Predisposed: Liberals, Conservatives, and the Biology of Political Differences by John R. Hibbing, Kevin B. Smith and John R. Alford
  • Four Threats: The Recurring Crises of American Democracy by Suzanne Mettler and Robert Lieberman
  • Why We’re Polarized by Ezra Klein
  • Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government by Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels
  • Polarizing Polities: A Global Threat to Democracy by Jennifer McCoy and Murat Somer
  • Ordinary People in Extraordinary Times by Nancy Bermeo
  • How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt
  • Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond
  • Nickle and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich
  • The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander
  • Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America by James Forman Jr.

The Vanderbilt Project on Unity and American Democracy is a nonpartisan initiative that aims to elevate research and evidence-based reasoning into the national discourse. The core contributions of Vanderbilt’s initiative are the dissemination of research and evidence-based papers from renowned thought leaders and timely and crucial conversations with influencers of all political persuasion.

Stay informed on research, evidence and future events from the Vanderbilt Project on Unity and American Democracy by visiting vu.edu/unity.

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