Never underestimate the power of a political scandal. I don’t mean in the gossipy, prurient, sense of the term, like a splashy story about celebrity cheating on a spouse. Rather, I’m talking about an event that provokes such outrage that it can unite previously divided populations and politicians in condemnation. That kind of scandal can change history, opening up paths to political change that may have seemed unimaginable up to that point.
In Chile in 2019, for instance, the president’s decision to call out the army to quell mass protests provoked national fury, uniting the country behind the demonstrators’ demand for a new Constitution. In Guatemala in 2015, a corruption scandal involving President Otto Pérez Molina provoked huge demonstrations, eventually causing his resignation. And in Argentina and Colombia, scandalous incidents of police violence united public opinion, making police reform programs that once seemed politically impossible a reality, Yanilda González, a Harvard political scientist, found.
It seemed, at first, as if the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol would be a similar moment. The attack had little precedent in U.S. history. It was covered live by the news media, beaming images of the deadly violence to the televisions and phones of Americans across the country. The public reacted with shock and anger. A CBS News poll conducted the week after the attack found that 87 percent of Americans disapproved of what had happened. Within days, Congress had impeached President Donald Trump on charges of inciting an insurrection.
But then the outrage seemed to lose momentum, as if the events of Jan. 6 got halfway to being a publicly galvanizing scandal and then became stuck.
Trump was acquitted by the Senate, after all but seven Republicans voted in his favor. And despite sustained media attention and a public congressional investigation that has continued to generate headlines, the attacks have not — at least so far — provoked the kind of mass fervor that leads to real political change. The Republican Party has largely rallied around Trump. His wing of the party is still ascendant.
That relatively muted response stands in sharp contrast to the reaction from prominent Republicans this week after the F.B.I. searched Trump’s Florida home, apparently in order to locate classified documents that the former president may have stored there. In an interview on Fox News, Rick Scott, a Republican Florida senator, compared the F.B.I. action to the activities of Nazi Germany and Latin American dictatorships. Other Republican officials threatened retaliatory investigations of Democrats in the future if they retake control of Congress.
Some Republican leaders have also criticized the Jan. 6 attacks. Mitch McConnell, the leader of the Senate Republicans, said that the riot “was a violent insurrection for the purpose of trying to prevent the peaceful transfer of power after a legitimately certified election.” But that has not translated into public mobilization.
“It reminds me of the current discussion in U.S. media and among economists about whether we’re currently in a recession,” González told me via email. As with a recession, she said, some of the elements that experts usually look for are present, such as sustained media coverage of the event, and public disapproval of what occurred. But the outcomes that usually follow such elements are bafflingly absent, she told me. “Specifically, it doesn’t seem like there’s much in the way of mass or political mobilization around the issue to hold people accountable or prevent it from happening again.”
It’s always difficult to figure out why something didn’t happen. But the question of this scandal-that-wasn’t seemed important enough to give it a try. So I started calling experts.
One word: polarization
Steven Levitsky, a Harvard political scientist who studies democratization and democratic decline around the world, and Lilliana Mason, a Johns Hopkins political scientist who studies American political divisions and political violence, both had the same answer: polarization.
Key Revelations From the Jan. 6 Hearings
The word can sound like little more than a more technical way of saying that people from different sides of the political spectrum disagree. But the two political scientists were describing something more profound: Mason’s research has documented that American polarization now encompasses not just political beliefs, but social norms, career choices, pop-culture preferences, locations, religious practices and more, dividing the country into two teams that share few points of commonality and regard one another with hostility. That kind of division, Levitsky said, can destroy democracy from within by shredding the political norms required to make democratic systems work.
With such a deep divide, Americans’ loyalty to their political team is so strong that it can shape not just their political views but even their views of reality — including of what was happening in the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
For instance, even though an investigation by the Department of Justice during the Trump administration found that there was no evidence of widespread voter fraud or tampering in the 2020 presidential election, polls have repeatedly found that a large majority of Republicans still believe the discredited assertion that the election was not valid. A poll by the University of Massachusetts Amherst last December, for instance, found that 71 percent of Republican voters believed that President Biden’s victory in 2020 was illegitimate.
That means that some Republicans likely viewed the violent attack as a justifiable effort to protect democracy. And even Republicans who objected to the violence on Jan. 6 may be balancing it against their belief that Biden took the presidency through fraud and manipulation.
Losing faith in the system, then tolerating attacks on it
History suggests that citizens who perceive their current government as illegitimate may be willing to tolerate, or even be impressed by, attempts to violently oust it. When Hugo Chávez led a coup attempt in Venezuela in 1992, for instance, he failed to take power but succeeded in launching his political career.
“It did seem to raise his status,” said Erica De Bruin, a Hamilton College political scientist who studies coups and other nondemocratic transitions of power. “Going to jail probably helped in showing that he was willing to take a risk to help undermine the oligarchy, even if it led to his own suffering.”
To Republicans who believe that the election was stolen, Trump’s actions around Jan. 6 may similarly look like evidence of resolve and trustworthiness, she said.
Some research suggests that the Jan. 6 hearings, which have featured Republican officials testifying under oath that the election was not fraudulent, could convince some Republican voters that Biden’s election was legitimate. But that will only work if Republican voters hear about that testimony. In a July NPR/Marist poll, more than half of Republicans said they were paying little or no attention to the hearings.
Democrats, by contrast, rejected the discredited assertions of election fraud and overwhelmingly believe that Biden’s election was legitimate, and are paying close attention to the Jan. 6 hearings, according to the same University of Massachusetts and NPR/Marist polls. But there has still been relatively little mobilization on the left around the issue: no mass demonstrations calling for Trump to be indicted, for instance. And the story has not dominated the public consciousness the way that, for instance, the Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade has in recent months.
One reason may be that there has been enough accountability to defuse any particular demand or grievance. The Justice Department has prosecuted numerous participants in the riot. The congressional hearings are still underway and gathering evidence. Biden was able to take office — in the most important sense, the Jan. 6 attack failed.
And the hearings are not over yet. What looks like the lack of a scandal may just be one that is still building, Mason said. The hearings may generate more outrage as time goes on.
Crisis fatigue may also be a factor, Mason told me. “People are just tired of bad news, and we keep getting it. There’s a global pandemic. We’re watching democracy fall apart. And it’s just exhausting,” she said.
“Nobody wants to think about it. I mean, I don’t want to think about it, and this is what I do for my living.”