PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – It’s been one year since supporters of then President Donald Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol in an effort to prevent Congress from certifying the results of the 2020 Presidential Election.
In the days and weeks that followed, Portland State University Associate Political Science Professor Chris Shortell provided KOIN.com with insight on the election certification process, the attempted insurrection, and the potential damage to democracy.
On the anniversary of the events of Jan. 6, Shortell returns to talk to Digital Executive Producer Ian Costello about the year since, the lasting effects and the current level of danger to our democracy.
This is their conversation.
Chris, when we talked in the weeks following Jan. 6, 2021, you called the events of that day an attempted autogolpe (Spanish reference to ‘self-coup’ or ‘coup d’état’). Looking back on it a year later, what would you call it now? Has it changed?
CHRIS: No. I think if, if anything, the evidence that has emerged out of the Jan. 6 Committee has strengthened the assessment that, I think, it was even more planned and anticipated by the relevant actors than we knew at that time.
I think the communication that has come out of Mark Meadows releasing some of his texts to the committee suggests that there was a quite high level of planning and expectation and a push at the state level and at the federal level to try to ensure that President Trump remained in office after Jan. 6.
I think the evidence for that is even stronger now than it was at the time.
Speaking of the Jan. 6 committee, do you think their work could lead to the Department of Justice pursuing criminal charges against any of these higher-level people, whether they’re members of the former president’s staff, lawmakers, etc.?
CHRIS: I would regard that outcome as unlikely. I don’t think that the Jan. 6 Committee’s investigation is going to translate into criminal charges for the individuals involved. In part because we don’t necessarily have laws that they were violating in terms of criminal statutes. We just don’t have laws that anticipate that kind of action and behavior.
There may be some additional information that emerges about higher-level coordination and encouragement that could be linked to the criminal charges that have already been brought against the participants in the Jan. 6 riots. But with the information that we have right now, I would regard that outcome as unlikely.
You don’t have to spend very much time in any social media chamber to find opinions on either side of this issue. From the conservative right, you tend to see Jan. 6 referred to as, “not that big of a deal.” But, was it?
CHRIS: Yes. It was absolutely a very, very big deal. It remains an incredibly serious event in American history and it has not diminished. If anything, it has increased in importance in the intervening year. And I think efforts to describe the participants as just a bunch of tourists is completely belied by the footage, by the statements and actions of the participants, and the reactions, in that moment of the members of Congress themselves who were trying to get access to the president to demand and to beg and plead that he call off these riots. That was the experience at the time. It was, and it remains a big deal.
On the flip side of that, the left side of the social media echo chamber could lead one to believe that our democracy is in real danger and that Jan. 6 is a very obvious example of that. Do you think our democracy is in danger?
CHRIS: Yes. And for that, I draw not on people of particular ideological persuasions. I look to scholars who study the decline of democracies across the world. And if you talk to any of them, they are very concerned about democratic backsliding within the United States.
There are a number of metrics and indicators that we can look to that show that democratic support has eroded within the United States. That is a very real and serious concern.
When we talked before, the remaining question, in my mind was: is the United States different enough from other countries that have experienced similar backsliding with regards to their status as a democracy?
I don’t think we have the answer to that question yet. But, we certainly haven’t established that the United States is bouncing back and embracing democracy in a way that would be as reassuring as I would hope.
When you look back on it, do you think that Jan. 6, 2021, was a one-off, or do you feel that the ingredients are there for something like that to happen again?
CHRIS: I don’t know whether something like that will happen again, in terms of rioters storming the Capitol building. I think that the subsequent changes that have happened at the state levels have made that in some ways less likely because there have been so many changes to the voting rights to restrict them and many different states that there may not be a need for supporters to storm the Capitol building in support of their candidate.
I don’t think we’re going to see the continued decline of democracy play out in the same way as the events of January 6th. It has in some ways become institutionalized. Individuals who are now in positions of authority around state elections have been selected as people who continue to support the big lie about the 2020 election. That’s very concerning because those kinds of changes are much less visible to the public. People storming the capital is obviously very visceral and visible. Changes in how votes are counted is much less visible.
So, I think those changes are the fruit of the events of Jan. 6. I think that they suggest that we aren’t going to go back to a Jan. 6-similar event, but that the progression of that erosion of democracy is continuing right now in the United States.
Is that the lasting effect of Jan. 6, 2021? Or are there others?
CHRIS: I think it’s quite widespread in terms of what the lasting effects are. The most visible is certainly a willingness to embrace anti-democratic measures in pursuit of your goals. That it is a move away from an acceptance that political parties have to lose elections in order to be a legitimate democracy.
I think that it’s created this sense that, “oh, okay, well, the way to get through this is for Democrats to just win every election from now on.” That’s not a solution. It’s not a good solution. It’s not a desirable solution.
We should not have a political system where one party wins all the elections. That’s not healthy. We need change. That is an important part of what a democracy is and the idea that has sort of seeped into the public consciousness that the way to succeed is to never have your party lose an election, with the stakes being, um, perceived as existential. It is actually quite damaging and harmful.
I think that comes from the events of Jan. 6.
Thank you for your time Chris, those are all the questions I had for you. Is there anything else you want to share?
CHRIS: You know, there are very real concerns about democracy. I think what we need to have is the public starting to change what they’re willing to accept from elected politicians. The incentives are very clear for Republican elected officials. They are not going to be able to distance themselves from President Trump and from his supporters without facing enough backlash that would threaten their electoral success.
What’s needed is enough members of the public to make the choice to distance themselves from that rhetoric, from those actions and to do so even at the expense, perhaps, of their ideological preferences for a short enough time that the Republican party can realign in a way that is committed to democratic outcomes.
It’s very, very difficult to have a democracy in a system of two parties when one of those parties is opposed to some of the foundational ideas of democracy.
That’s, what’s gonna have to change.
KOIN.com made minor adjustments to spelling, capitalization and punctuation in the responses to the questions and minor edits for length and style.