How Has The Nation Changed Since The Insurrection At The Capitol?February 12, 2021
Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.
micah (Micah Cohen, managing editor): Welcome, everyone!
Today’s topic: How has the nation changed (or how has it not) since the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol by supporters of then-President Donald Trump?
Trump’s impeachment trial is still unfolding in the Senate, and reporting (and history) suggests that most GOP senators will vote to acquit no matter what — we’ll have to wait and see. But just because the events of Jan. 6 haven’t seemed to move many Republican senators, doesn’t mean nothing has changed, right? Does it?!?!? 😬
OK, obviously, we need to break this question down a bit to tackle it. So we’ll do it this way:
- Has the government changed? (Democrats, Republicans, etc.)
- Has the public changed?
- Have the media or other institutions changed?
Let’s start with the government and Democratic officials specifically. Give me a “yes” or “no” first, and then we’ll dive into the evidence and our reasoning.
[Related: Barring Trump From Office Is More Popular Than Convicting Him]
perry (Perry Bacon Jr., senior writer): Yes.
julia_azari (Julia Azari, political science professor at Marquette University and FiveThirtyEight contributor): Yes.
Kaleigh (Kaleigh Rogers, tech and politics reporter): No. (gulp)
julia_azari: Good job, Kaleigh, it’s super-dull when we agree on too much. And I’m willing to be convinced.
micah: Conflict! It puts butts in seats!
perry: So it might be worth explaining the “yes” perspective first. I don’t think the phrase “white supremacy” makes it into an inaugural address — perhaps for the first time ever — without Jan 6. I think the go-along-get-along caucus of Democrats has gotten smaller now. I don’t think Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene loses her committee slots without Jan. 6 (since it required the Blue Dog/moderate Democrats to support removing her from committees, an aggressive partisan act). I don’t think President Biden can go on the partisan course he is going on regarding the stimulus bill and get basically total support within the Democratic Party without Jan 6.
In other words, my view is that Jan. 6 really unified the Democratic Party around the view that the Republicans won’t truly work with Democrats and therefore it’s not worth trying that hard. It is hard to prove this, but I think Jan. 6 moved the Joe Manchins/Abigail Spanbergers/Conor Lambs of the world toward accepting more conflict with the GOP and a more partisan Democratic Party.
julia_azari: Yeah, Democrats, particularly the Biden administration, were weirdly infused with a sense of purpose and legitimacy that might not have been there without the events of Jan. 6, which brought reality to what has been a fairly superficial discussion for many years. Before the insurrection, people’s sense of security in the peaceful transfer of power and respect for election outcomes was so strong that the chipping away at the legitimacy of the results was maybe not viewed as seriously as it should have been. Jan. 6 showed that chipping away can have real consequences, and I think that — while this remained a popular view among Republicans in the electorate after the incident — elite Republicans have backed off quite a bit on challenging the 2020 results. The implication for the Democrats is that Biden has spent much less time than I had anticipated establishing a story about the legitimacy of his actions — being on the defensive, claiming an electoral mandate — than he would have otherwise.
Kaleigh: OK, this is helpful and hard to argue with. I was thinking of the party in a bigger, philosophical sense, but Perry makes some good points about the practical implications that Jan. 6 had on Democratic thinking and moves.
Score one for the “yes” side.
But yeah, Jan. 6 has seemed to convince more and more of the Democratic Party that many Republicans aren’t acting in good faith and that Democratic strategy should adjust accordingly, as Perry spelled out.
“Yes” is winning 1-0.
OK, speaking of Republicans, though …
Have elected Republicans changed course at all since Jan. 6? (Let’s keep this focused on Washington for the moment.)
[Related: The GOP Might Still Be Trump’s Party. But That Doesn’t Mean There’s Room For Him.]
Kaleigh: I’m a “no” here, and I feel like you guys have to convince me. I see no evidence of change. Republicans, by many accounts, aren’t even considering the arguments being presented in the trial. They’ve made up their minds long before this week and are opting for loyalty to Trump, which sounds a lot like the last time this president was impeached.
julia_azari: Yeah, I’m more on the fence about this one.
micah: (I’m a “no” on this.)
julia_azari: I mean, not to be this person, but the question wording matters here. If you say “at all” the answer is almost certainly yes, but if you ask “Have they changed course in a meaningful way?” then the answer is no in my opinion.
perry: So I will make two cases.
First, the anti-Trump wing of the party, while still tiny, now has a really important figure in its ranks: Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming. When you watch Cheney go on Fox News and criticize Trump in a more direct way that many Democrats do, that is different than when Rep. Adam Kinzinger or Sen. Mitt Romney does it. Kinzinger and Romney don’t scream conservative in the same way that Cheney does. I think Liz Cheney is now likely the person running for president in 2024 as the most anti-Trump Republican in the field.
Second, I think what happened with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was important. It was never clear if McConnell was pulling Trump’s strings or Trump was pulling McConnell’s. Now, we know that Trump and Trumpism is the boss of McConnell, not the other way around. McConnell tried to get the party to break from Trump, the party told him to shut it and now he has shut it (in terms of criticizing Trump). Same idea with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy flying down to meet with Trump in Florida to essentially kiss the ring. …
In other words, the month after Jan. 6 has hardened Trump’s power in the Republican Party. So the meaningful change is that Trump has gotten more powerful within the Republican Party, in my view.
The censures in the state parties of all of these anti-Trump figures, like Cheney, were also an illustration of the grip he has on the party, which is more visible now, at least to me.
Kaleigh: But is that really a change, Perry? It has solidified things maybe, but I don’t see any major shift. It really felt for a moment in the hours and days after Jan. 6 that the insurrection might shock Congress into a kind of conciliation. We had members of Congress who intended to challenge the election results opting not to after what happened. But it didn’t take long for Republicans to revert back to the mean. When your party is based around a cult of personality, it makes it really hard to take a principled stand. And, if anything, figures like Cheney are outliers that show just how solidified the rest of the GOP is.
[Related: Why A Trump-Led Third Party Is Unlikely]
perry: I think there was a wave of media stories about to come out suggesting thatTrump had lost the election and the Republican Party was moving on from him. Those stories would have been wrong or overstated but would have become the narrative. And having basically the entire Republican Party defend Trump by opposing impeachment and coming up with this pretext that you can’t impeach a former president makes it impossible to write those stories now.
Kaleigh: You’re probably right, but I think those stories would have been wrong, even without Jan. 6.
julia_azari: OK, that is interesting, Perry. I might agree with that. My perspective might be that what leaders like McConnell have done is try to disavow the events of Jan. 6 without disavowing Trumpism, so (as I alluded to in my piece last week) actors other than Trump are defining what Trumpism means.
I’ve also been thinking a lot about some of the other writing in the last month about the Republican Party. Hans Noel and Jonathan Chait both wrote pieces about how mainstream Republicans would essentially learn to live with the antidemocratic elements of their party. While I think that is not wrong, I also think that the line for a small minority of the GOP has gotten brighter. That faction won’t immediately wield power, but they might eventually gather more steam. And it’s not clear how long they can remain in a coalition that is fundamentally Trumpist.
(Turning a discussion of the GOP into a discussion of the definition of change feels like the FiveThirtyEightiest thing ever.)
perry: I think Kaleigh is basically right. The GOP did not meaningfully change. I just think their pro-Trump/Trumpism tilt was even more revealed.
julia_azari: OK, someone has to be the skunk so I’m gonna say “seeds of fundamental change sown, will see results in 20 years.”
Let’s check back in 20 years, and we’ll see who’s right.
julia_azari: I’m sort of thinking about Martin Van Buren and the Free Soil Party, which is seriously uninspiring.
micah: We were all thinking of MVB, obviously, Julia.
julia_azari: If you’re not constantly thinking about Martin Van Buren, you’re doing it wrong.
Kaleigh: Well, that makes me wonder about something that I’ve been considering for the last six years, which is whether this embrace of Trumpism itself actually represents a change in the Republican Party, or if it’s just a more populist version of what the party has always been.
julia_azari: Honestly, I change my mind about that daily.
micah: That is a much bigger convo, Kaleigh, but yeah, I think that Trump is a continuation/acceleration/exaggeration of what the GOP has been for some time.
But again, that’s a different convo.
julia_azari: My guess would be that Republicans careen further into Trumpism and a small faction breaks off.
But that faction — one that is pretty conservative but not antidemocratic — eventually becomes important.
Kaleigh: But what of that small faction?
We’ve got Sen. Lisa Murkowski saying she isn’t sure she has a place in the Republican Party, but then adamantly rejecting the notion of crossing the aisle.
micah: “Romney Wins 2024 GOP Nomination,” Julia Azari predicts.
julia_azari: FACT CHECK!
julia_azari: Romney, Cheney, etc., form a rump convention and rob Marjorie Taylor Greene of the presidency in 2024 is the story.
micah: OK, now … THE PUBLIC!
Has it changed since Jan. 6?
Kaleigh: I’m a big fat “no” on the public
With an asterisk.
micah: I’m a yes!
perry: Basically, the polling suggests that Republican voters kind of viewed Jan. 6 as a bad day that had little to do with Trump or Trumpism, so Trumpism is the strongest force in the party and little has changed.Democrats were outraged but hated Trump and Trumpism before Jan. 6.
Eager to hear the “yes” case.
Kaleigh: The vast majority of the public didn’t like what happened on Jan. 6, but depending on their priors, they could explain away whatever political notions they have (“It was antifa, not Trump supporters!” “Trump didn’t actually tell them to do that!” “This is all Trump’s fault, he should be impeached, again!”) Not a lot of shift in the framing or conclusion.
micah: I think you are both right, but that’s among politically attuned partisans.
julia_azari: Yeah, we have to segment the public into those who aren’t particularly attentive and the highly attentive nerd public (hi, readers!). Among the latter group, I think the heightened salience of the peaceful transfer of power and the civic violation of the insurrection changed things. And this smaller segment of the public does comprise those who are attentive, active, who form and join organizations, donate, etc.
micah: It seems, for example, like Jan. 6 did a moderate bit of damage to the Republican Party’s image:
And check this out, from the same poll:
perry: But doesn’t that number go back when the media stops covering the GOP in the frame of Jan. 6, which will happen basically starting next week, when the impeachment trial is over.
Kaleigh: My thinking exactly, Perry.
julia_azari: It probably goes back up when the Biden administration does something they don’t like. So far its programs have been pretty popular, though.
micah: Well, and now I’m arguing against myself, if the drop in the GOP’s favorability was mostly among Republicans, maybe that includes pro-Trump Republicans unhappy that the party only 97 percent stood by him, rather than 100 percent.
There has also been some data analysis of voter registration stats showing Republicans leaving the party in unusual numbers.
Also, Trump’s approval rating fell off a cliff — that is, it dropped a few percentage points — after the Jan. 6 insurrection. Doesn’t that suggest some public response?
julia_azari: I know we’re covering institutions and the public separately but I think there’s a point of connection here that’s worth bringing up.
micah: Go on …
julia_azari: There was some public response to Jan. 6. But the impact on institutions still feels minimal because our institutions lock in minority rule — even if the group of loyal Trumpist Republicans in the electorate is shrinking, they still make up a huge percentage of the constituencies of Republican senators and representatives, who are almost half of Congress even though they do not represent anything close to half the electorate. So you can have majority support, for example, for Trump being convicted in the impeachment trial, but it won’t happen.
We’re not a 50-50 country, but we have a 50-50 government in some ways.
[In America’s ‘Uncivil War,’ Republicans Are The Aggressors]
micah: I agree with all that, Julia, but in terms of the public itself … I guess what I’m arguing is that (i) yes, most partisans are locked into their views, but (ii) there’s a small share of voters who do view events like Jan. 6 and Trump’s role in inciting the insurrectionists as beyond the pale and move accordingly, and that (iii) there’s enough of those voters that they’re important electorally.
I mean, Trump lost in 2020 in part because of this kind of thing.
Democrats won both U.S. Senate races in Georgia because of this kind of thing.
julia_azari: Yes, I think that’s right.
Kaleigh: That’s a solid argument, Micah,
micah: Trump’s actions and precipitating events are sooooooooo extreme that such tiny movements feel incredibly underwhelming. And they are. And the dominant story as far as the public is concerned is absolutely one of stasis. But still — tiny movements can matter!
Kaleigh: Although, wasn’t that small share of voters already at that place
considering, as you cite, the results of the election?Did any of them change their view after Jan. 6? (Here I am arguing the definition of change, again.)
perry: The case that Georgia was won by Democrats in January because Trump turned off some Republicans is weak in my view. (The alternative case is there were very few swing voters in Georgia so what determined the races is that Democratic turnout was higher than Republican turnout. )
Kaleigh: That too, especially when you take into account that Georgia also provided us with Marjorie Taylor Greene.
perry: Like we can always say something was unpopular and maybe it changed some swing voters’ minds and therefore that thing decided the election because all elections in America are close these days, but those kinds of arguments are basically unfalsifiable.
micah: That’s why I make them, Perry!
OK, our final segment …
The media, business community and other institutions!
Kaleigh: Yes, a little.
perry: Yes, the strongest yes.
micah: We have one “yes, a little” and one “yes, a lot” … Julia?
julia_azari: The media and other institutions? I’m not sure this lends itself to one answer.
julia_azari: I mean, I might lean toward “no,” I think the tendency to “both sides” things is still there.
Something about Biden’s Peloton.
perry: Take the example of Twitter permanently banning Trump. I’d bet the social media giants are going to be way more aggressive about policing behavior on the right that veers toward extremism and be less captured by both-siderism, I’d bet that many parts of the nonpartisan media will act similarly — covering the extreme elements in the Republican Party more directly. On the other hand, I would not be at all surprised if the business community reverted back to “both sides” soon — Republicans have so much government control, particularly at the state level.
julia_azari: Yes, and we already had a fair amount of performance from the business community — June 2020 was maybe the peak of that, when my inbox was filled with emails assuring me that Ann Taylor Loft believes Black Lives Matter.
To be clear, I don’t think this sort of performance is bad. It actually signals important shifts in the discourse, and it matters that civil society, including private business, supports basic values of democracy and equality. But it is often superficial.
[What Kicking Trump Off Twitter Can — And Can’t — Do]
Kaleigh: Twitter is a great example. Another that comes to mind is how the insurrection contributed to fringe conservative media having to reckon with the fact that spreading lies about a stolen election has real-world impacts. You’ve got Newsmax cutting off Mike Lindell, and an anchor walking off set, for repeating Trump’s claims about the election that they trumpeted for months.
micah: It’s hard to prove this, but (as Perry said) I do think I’ve seen an increasing willingness by media outlets to cover the Republican Party as largely an antidemocratic or anti-majoritarian force. Or to cover politics not as Tip O’Neill and Ronald Reagan — that is, to admit that many GOP officials aren’t acting or arguing in good faith.
julia_azari: Yeah, I was thinking less about these sources and more about legacy media continuing to interview Trump supporters in diners and draw false equivalences between, say, Marjorie Taylor Greene and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
perry: Yeah, the media is complicated and I think the “both sides” dynamic is really strong. Julia might be right on this one.
julia_azari: It sorta depends on the definition of media. (See, we’ve moved on from the definition of change!)
OK, so let’s wrap by wrapping everything up into a too-tidy and over-simplified box. We have elected Democrats and Republicans, the public, the media, the business community, social platforms, etc. — taking a 30,000-foot view of all this … has the nation changed?
perry: Yes. I think that Jan. 6 will end up being a really clarifying moment for the country — where the Democrats, many people in nonpartisan institutions and even some voters, came to clearly see the extremist antidemocratic drift in the Republican Party and understand that it was not just Trump himself and that it needed to be confronted and dealt with directly. That feels big to me.
Kaleigh: I know I said “no” to almost every category, but it’s too depressing to think that the nation hasn’t changed at all after an armed attack on the Capitol from insurrectionists who expressed the desire to kill our elected leaders. I think the changes have been smaller and more subtle than one might anticipate from such an attack, and in many depressing ways some things haven’t changed, but to Julia’s earlier point, those small, subtle changes might amount to meaningful shockwaves decades from now. I wonder how we will ultimately look back at this point in history. Maybe the biggest changes are still to come.
julia_azari: I actually think the impeachment hearings are providing a sort of civic narrative that will only be directly experienced by the biggest of political nerds, but those frameworks have a way of setting the agenda for everyone else. In that sense, I think the narrative is still being developed, and also that, while the Capitol insurrection separated the problem from Trump, it also ties it to Trump and Trumpism.
micah: Thanks, everyone!