For more coverage of the January 6th attack, check out our collection of essays and reflections examining where we are as a country a year later, including what has changed – and not – since a violent crowd of Trump- Supporters stormed the US Capitol.
“They are interested in political reforms and not in the fact that the people are” drunk. “
This is what Christian Davenport, a political science professor at the University of Michigan, told me in the days after January 6, when Amelia and I were trying to understand how some Americans’ political discontent had turned into violence against their political enemies. And now, a year later, I keep thinking about that quote.
Davenport wanted me to understand that while the Capitol insurrection was inherently political, the divisions that fueled it were not. Right and left, Democrats and Republicans: these divisions exist in society, but they weren’t the cause of what happened. Income inequality, racial resentment, dwindling trust in institutions – those are the really dangerous things, Davenport said. We tend to view these divisions as partisan because our survey data tracks this very division. But in quantifying and graphing the tree numbers, we overlook the fact that we are in a forest.
Davenport isn’t the only political scientist who believes key trends go unnoticed because our polls and charts are stuck paying attention to partisan politics. Even the poll that tells us Americans don’t like people on the other side of the political spectrum contains evidence that this is a split not as clear as it seems on the surface, said Anne Wilson, a professor of psychology who studies self-identity at Wilfrid Laurier University in Canada.
For example, Studies have shown that Americans assume that there is more partisan polarization than there is in reality, and political partisans often like the other side for reasons unrelated to who these people are or what they believe in. For example, in a 2018 survey More than 75 percent of Republicans said racism still exists in America, but the Democrats thought that about half of Republicans thought so. Republicans, meanwhile, assumed that the vast majority of Democrats wanted completely open borders; just over a quarter agreed with this idea.
Other research has found that while Americans are more segregated, more and more of us identify as political “independents” – up to 45 percent in the weeks leading up to the January 6 riots. “Some of the things that really activate people aren’t really partisan ideologies,” Wilson said.
Rather, the way Americans think of the political and social establishment can be much more telling. That is, instead of looking at public opinion along a left-right political axis, we could look at how Americans are divided along anti-establishment ideology.
A team of researchers found in a paper from 2021 that an anti-establishment dimension would better explain some of the more worrying extremes in American politics – things like supporting conspiracy theories, endorsing expert opinion, and viewing politics as a struggle between good and evil – better than the left-right dimension of our policy. One such researcher, University of Miami political science professor Joseph Uscinski, found no difference in the prevalence of anti-establishment beliefs between Democrats and Republicans based on survey data collected in October 2020 Anti-establishment ideologies better predicted belief in the conspiracies of QAnon’s and Trump’s allegations of electoral fraud being left-right orientations.
What happened on Jan. 6 was aimed at bringing a Republican president back to power – but Republican ideology may not be the best way to understand where the fear and anger in the Capitol came from.
So what do we lose if our surveys and research analysis aren’t geared towards it?
Plenty, according to Wilson. Political parties benefit from fueling and promoting partisan polarization as this sparks more activism on their behalf. And an academic world and media that accept this split as the main explanation for political violence in the US risk false partisan polarization that leads us to believe that the other side wants things they don’t really want.
But even more worrying is the fact that anti-establishment ideologies will not go away or become irrelevant if we do not look at them. The beliefs are there, waiting for someone to pick them up and use them. A politician could come along and incorporate anti-establishment ideologues into his political group. That politician could then convince these Americans that they are the only trustworthy part of the political world. And that politician could convince Americans with an anti-establishment ideology to fight for him or her. One could argue that this is exactly what Trump did, and the Republican Party has more politicians who have gone that route – but it’s open to any party. Ignoring anti-establishment ideologies means ignoring how political partisans might turn them into weapons, just as they did on the Capitol steps.