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The State of Democracy
1 year after the Jan. 6 insurrection: What is the future of American Democracy?
January 27, 2022
“Violence is social and political breakdown,” said Randall Calvert, professor of political science at Washington University.
This breakdown is coming for American society.
On Jan. 6, 2021, a mob of individuals, some part of far-right groups, some new to politics, all encouraged by then-President Donald Trump’s false claims of a stolen election, attacked the U.S. Capitol as Congress attempted to certify electoral votes. This was akin to a pot that had been stirred one too many times.
The Clayton community, like communities across the nation, has to grapple with this event and the underlying issues of polarization and election subversion, perhaps even more in 2022.
Where were you on Jan. 6?
“On Jan. 6, I was teaching at home. I was actually showing the certification of the electoral votes live on CSPAN for the first fifteen minutes of each class to allow students to see one of the largely ceremonial aspects of our democracy in action. At the start of 8th hour, CSPAN cut their live feed from the chamber floor because unbeknownst to me at the time, the attack on the Capitol had just started. I really struggled to come to terms with what happened because the very foundations of our democracy were being threatened in an unprecedented manner.” – Amy Doyle
“I was sitting in my living room with my family and we started seeing tweets and news notifications that there was a protest going on at the capital- we turned on the news and proceeded to watch everything unravel from the beginning to when it ended. Right after everything happened, my family and I processed it for a long time. My dad as a history teacher was very embarrassed for our country, and very upset after everything was brought up on the news. Since there was a lot of tears and confusion and fear, he had my family just sit down and talk about what just happened and the importance of it. It was a really scary night.” – Charlie Meyers
“I was at school in my office (Superintendent at Fox C-6) when I heard of what was happening. At first I didn’t believe what I heard and when I got a moment, I turned on the TV in my office to watch the news channel with some of the leadership in our central office. My first reaction was one of sadness, then followed by disappointment. I recalled how my parents wanted us to move to this country because of what it stands for and the opportunities it gives to everyone to truly make the world a better place. I recall feeling this was indeed an attack on what this country stands for and believes in. Having said that, I will never lose hope because the United States of America is filled with amazing individuals who choose to believe in good rather than step back in fear.” – Nisha Patel
“On the afternoon of Jan. 6, I was sitting at home dressed in a full suit for a Speech and Debate competition. Ironically, I had to give two speeches about global affairs. It was just starting then and I didn’t really think anything of it until the people started piling on each other and Savannah Guthrie came on the screen in a full blazer. I got much more annoyed than angry. I never at any point felt like Jan. 6 came out of nowhere. Gradually, people went home, and I went back to my room to give my second speech about international affairs. The discussions we had in our classes were very revealing, the bogus claims heard in classes were forthcoming of the blatant lies about Jan. 6 that I knew would come for the inclement months, or even years. I was a bit surprised that the incident didn’t generate more conflict at school, but I guess those who felt different than the majority about Jan. 6 kind of quieted down after seeing everyone in such firm opposition.” – Charlie Rubin
How do we as a community teach and talk about January 6th?
On Jan. 6, 2021, Randall Calvert was sitting in his home, watching the “boring, ministerial”, counting of the electoral votes, preparing for the upcoming semester of classes. His eyes were glued to the television as he watched the violence unfold right in front of him. He was shocked. “It looked like real civil violence,” said Calvert. Yet this reaction was not shared by all Americans.
“I think a lot of Clayton students need to get out of their bubble, and see that people in rural Missouri think about issues differently and have different priorities,” said Paul Hoelscher, CHS social studies teacher and district curriculum coordinator. The CHS social studies curriculum underlines the importance of multiple perspectives through the use of various primary and secondary sources.
Yet, the current polarization and politicization of American life has seeped into the understanding of truth. Those with opposing political views cannot seem to agree on a set of basic facts.
“We have to draw a line, so that we’re dealing with a common understanding of factual information,” said Hoelscher.
The rise of conspiracy theories and misinformation through social media has led to a dearth of factual information among Americans, particularly with regards to politics. It is impossible to teach or productively discuss current events or history with students if they do not have the same foundational understanding of what has occurred.
While it is normally the job of a history teacher to introduce students to various perspectives on history, with regards to the current decay in democracy and rampant misinformation, it is imperative to present factually accurate information.
In the immediate aftermath of the insurrection last year, Clayton teachers in a variety of subjects revised their plans for the remainder of that week’s virtual learning. History teachers in particular utilized resources provided by Hoelscher as well as simply allowing students a space to process what had occurred.
The violence of Jan. 6 was neither a beginning nor an end, but merely a symptom of the underlying disease of American society.
Polarization: American Poison
“Polarization cuts down on communication, and when communication is cut off, a community becomes more polarized,” said Calvert.
American communities have come to be defined by shared political beliefs. These communities are often gerrymandered into districts to group people with similar political opinions, voting patterns, races and socio-economic statuses, often to make the votes of certain people more or less powerful. These gerrymandered districts create an echo chamber, where people only receive information that supports their worldview and politics from those around them.
This phenomenon is exacerbated by social media platforms, particularly Twitter and Facebook. Their algorithms present a user with content that is similar to what they have previously expressed interest in, creating the same echo chamber effect, where users only see posts or tweets that reinforce their previously held beliefs. The platforms also promote content that elicits strong emotional reactions from users, particularly anger, which contributes to the rapid spread of misinformation, as sensational headlines spread.
This echo chamber effect can be plainly seen within the School District of Clayton and the Clayton community at large. Clayton is an unusually liberal community within the conservative state of Missouri. The city has voted decisively for the democratic presidential candidate in the last four election cycles.
“This place crushes conservative students,” said Hoelscher. “I think we have some adults in the building who don’t create space for that perspective.” A 2018 Globe survey of CHS students found that only 15 percent of Clayton students described themselves as holding moderately conservative or conservative political views. Conservative CHS students feel the effects of polarization acutely, as their political views are in opposition to most of the people around them, making it difficult for them to express their views and feel they are a valued member of the community.
Extreme and even violent polarization in the United States is not a new phenomenon. The tensions in the United States in the late 1850s boiled over into a full scale, four year long civil war due to extreme polarization between Northern and Southern states over the issue of enslavement. This is a dire example of the violence that can ensue when people living under the same government cannot agree on enough aspects of their reality.
During the Vietnam War Era, there was also a great deal of polarization in the US, with people who supported or opposed the war believing that the other side was vehemently wrong and had to be opposed in every possible way. There were even some acts of domestic terrorism including bombings during this time period. Yet eventually, the political temperature of the nation cooled without a real resolution to the issues surrounding the war.
“It could be that the whole angry, polarized atmosphere goes away on its own, with no real political action,” said Calvert, “it has happened before. But it’s no way to plan for the future of our country.”
The Slow Death of Democracy
While extreme polarization and threats to our democracy have surfaced in prior eras, the current democratic emergency will not go away on its own.
As of the one-year anniversary of the Jan. 6 insurrection, nearly 700 people have been arrested by the FBI and charged with crimes such as conspiracy, assaulting law enforcement, obstruction, aiding and abetting and trespassing. The search continues, especially for the individual who planned bombs near the DNC and RNC buildings.
According to The Atlantic magazine, the only clear demographic trend identified among those arrested is that they are much more likely to be from counties where the white percentage of the population is in decline. Many January 6 insurrectionists also expressed beliefs consistent with a theory known as the Great Replacement. They fear being “replaced” in their status of social, political and economic privilege by growing populations of minorities. These beliefs are racist and can contribute to violence. Politicians can prey on these fears and beliefs to encourage allegiance to their party. “These are beliefs of a traditional, white, ethnonationalist culture,” said Calvert.
Two key beliefs unite 21 million Americans into a category named by The Atlantic as having beliefs consistent with committed insurrectionists. Those beliefs: that Donald Trump won the 2020 election, and that violence is justified to restore him to the presidency. These are dangerous, anti-democratic beliefs that show an overall loss of faith in American democracy. Donald Trump himself described the election as the insurrection, and January 6 as an act of protest against the perceived wrong of his election loss.
It was not only the events on the day of Jan. 6 that threatened the sanctity of our election system, but the events in the days and weeks leading up to the certification and the events in the year since. “We had an election in which there really couldn’t be any serious allegation of voter fraud,” said Calvert. “It was thoroughly adjudicated. Every single state certified its election results.”
In addition, Trump and his lawyers filed nearly 60 allegations of voter fraud in various states and nearly all were dismissed due to a lack of evidence. This was accompanied by a push to persuade Trump’s base that the election was stolen. “People believe the leaders that they’ve come to trust,” said Calvert.
Not only did Trump and his allies attempt to prove dozens of baseless allegations of voter fraud, they also attempted to intimidate secretaries of state and members of state election boards into decertifying electors or replacing Biden electors with Trump electors. Many of these actions are illegal, and all of them are far outside the norms of American politics.
“It was an attempt to cheat, pure and simple,” said Calvert.
In the months since the insurrection, Republican majorities in state legislatures around the country have passed laws consolidating power over elections into the hands of state legislatures, as opposed to individual judges, counties and secretaries of state. These laws will give Republican majorities a greater ability to influence how elections are conducted, ending measures that increase access to the ballot box such as early voting and mail-in ballots.
Another possible implication of these laws is that in the event of perceived or actual voter fraud, a legislature could choose to submit their own electors, in lieu of those chosen by the people. This would be an alarming breakdown in our democracy. Finally, many of the people who stood up to Trump’s calls to replace electors have found their authority reduced by new laws, been besieged by threats of violence, or have been otherwise removed from office and replaced by people who are sympathetic to Trump’s cause.
This bodes ill for the 2024 election, at least for those who value democracy over authoritarianism.
The Potential Futures
Without action to stop the slow death of American democracy, several disturbing potential futures lie ahead.
“If trust in the system erodes, we’re going to see a decay in democracy, which is already relatively fragile at this point,” said Hoelscher.
According to a PBS News poll, 80 percent of American adults believe our democracy is in peril. And nearly equal shares of those adults blame each of the major political parties for the demise of democracy. This is a toxic mix of extreme polarization and loss of legitimacy for the government.
Representative democracies derive their power from the people, but if the people have no will, or do not give legitimacy to the government, then it will fail.
America could be overcome by widespread cynicism, as people lose interest in a government that does not serve their interests. Politicians stop serving the will of the people. Families and groups become isolated as polarization drives further wedges, thwarting all attempts at communication and reconciliation. The concepts of shared identity and collective good will fade from consciousness. America as we know it will disappear; slowly and quietly, our democratic experiment will fail.
“I fear that you are going to have a party that entrenches itself in power. And can engage in corruption and oppression the way that out of control political movements do,” said Calvert.
Voter suppression has now become central to the platform of the Republican party. As America becomes more diverse, their demographic base shrinks. The last time a Republican was elected to the presidency by popular vote was George H.W. Bush in 1988. Yet as of a Gallup poll in November 2016, only 19 percent of Republicans support Electoral College reform. If the popular vote was used to determine the presidency, the last Republican president’s term would have ended in January 1993. The Electoral College is the only thing allowing Republicans to reach the highest office of the United States.
Additionally, Republicans have engaged in other voter suppression tactics for years, including restrictions on early voting and mail-in voting, voter ID laws, regulations opposing automatic voter registration and other methods that make it more difficult for people of color, disabled and lower-income people to vote. Many people in these groups tend to vote for Democrats.
While in many ways repulsive, many of these techniques are legal or at least quasi-legal, if not in poor taste. The main consequence of Trump’s attempts to overturn the 2020 election were the flaws that it revealed in the American electoral system.
The Electoral Count Act of 1887 is the main piece of legislation that attempts to clarify the Constitution’s instructions on how presidential elections should be conducted. Yet it allows for only two legislators to create an objection to a state’s slate of electors. Additionally, only a majority vote in both the House and the Senate is required to allow a state legislature to submit their preferred slate of electors.
It was only the courageous efforts and votes of various secretaries of state and election board members, as well as votes by legislators, who prevented this from happening in 2020. Trump also ran out of time. It is supposed to be impossible to change the certificates of electors after the Electoral College has already voted on Dec. 14.
Through the new laws to strengthen the power of state legislatures over elections passed by 19 states, the Republican party is on their way to a stranglehold over American elections.
The Republican party has become the party of minority rule. And minority rule is the gateway to authoritarianism, where the will and wishes of the few become the law of the land with no checks and balances or pathways to remove those few from their absolute power.
“We are a democratic republic. Republicanism is the rule of law. If the officials in power can violate the rules and entrench themselves in office, it’s not a democracy, it’s not a republic,” said Calvert.
The violence on Jan. 6 was simply an outward expression of ideas and tensions that simmer just underneath the surface of America’s democratic institutions. These poisons have infected every part of the complex systems that govern America.
The antidote is simple: participation.
“Active political participation that values democratic values, republican values, constitutional values, is what’s important,” said Calvert.
The single most potent form of political participation is voting. Voting for those who will fight the authoritarian poisons in our democracy, on the state, local and national levels. This will require a unity of many diverse factions of ideology. From the Never Trump Republicans, to the most radical progressives.
This antidote requires agreement on a fundamental principle. Everyone who lives in our country is an American. Every American is worthy of representation. This is the modern form of ‘all men are created equal.’
This antidote requires agreement on a fundamental principle. Everyone who lives in our country is an American. Every American is worthy of representation. This is the modern form of ‘all men are created equal.’ ”
The movement toward understanding and uniting around this principle can come to CHS. American government is a required credit to graduate in the state of Missouri. Every student who walks across the stage at graduation is an opportunity to instill the values of inclusivity, agency and civic engagement into the next generation.
“Social studies teachers in particular have a responsibility to try to get students to see that their voice matters and that they can participate in the system,” said Hoelscher.
This embrace of agency and participation will solve the problem of apathy, but not the one of polarization. Polarization is softened through communication and community.
“If we’re truly going to embody the idea of combating polarization, then we ourselves need to create a space for discussion,” said Hoelscher. In the wake of the 2016 election, Hoelscher and former CHS English teacher John Ryan created that space, an issues-based forum where students could discuss their thoughts and feelings about the outcome of the election and the incoming administration.
CHS also offers a current issues class, a social studies elective for juniors and seniors. This class provides a space for students to learn about and discuss current events with the support of a teacher to address misconceptions and teach media literacy skills.
Trump’s Stop the Steal lies have coalesced into a volatile, violent political movement, supporting a Republican Party that is working to undermine the fundamental understandings and systems of American political institutions.
It will take all of us to unite to save democracy and the rule of law.
“All the individuals have to be the ones who act, but it all has to add up to a successful countervailing political movement,” said Calvert.
Democracy is the antidote to violence — if democracy is dying, violence will prevail, and our nation will be overtaken by autocracy.