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Democracy Under Siege: Extremist insurgency continues a year after Jan. 6 attack

read more from 'The Long Path to Insurrection' series

A year ago this week, the world witnessed a stunning scene that few could have imagined – a mob attack on the citadel of American democracy, a deadly insurrection aimed at thwarting the peaceful transfer of power that has endured for more than two centuries.

By the end of that terrifying day, the far-right extremists who sacked the U.S. Capitol – and sent members of Congress, aides and the vice president scurrying for their lives – were defeated, and many of them later arrested and bound for prison.   

But a year later, urgent questions remain: Was that bloody battle the end of the movement to overturn American democracy? Or was it simply a gambit that presages an even more dangerous, long-term threat to the constitutional order?

The signs of peril are everywhere.

Even today, with no evidence whatsoever, more than two-thirds of Republicans continue to believe the Big Lie that the 2020 election was stolen from former President Donald Trump – despite the courts’ rejection of Trump’s arguments as completely unfounded. Perhaps more troubling, according to the same poll released in November by the Public Religion Research Institute, 18% of all Americans agree with the statement that “true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country.”

In a poll released this week by USA Today and Suffolk University, 83% of voters were “very” or “somewhat” worried about the future of the nation’s democracy. But they were starkly polarized about the reasons for their concern. While 85% of Democrats called the Jan. 6 rioters “criminals,” two-thirds of Republicans agreed with the statement: “They went too far, but they had a point.” A poll released by Morning Consult/Politico in October found that just 48% of voters – and a mere 18% of Republicans – approve of the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol.

Public opinion is not the only sign of trouble.

After record turnouts that tilted the balance of power in Washington, D.C., to Democrats, Republican-controlled legislatures in some states moved quickly to enact onerous, new anti-voter laws to restrict ballot access for people of color, people with disabilities and others who are more likely to vote for their opposition. In some states, they’re also stripping powers from local election officials who stood up to the false claims of election fraud. At the same time, the partisan gerrymandering of Congress, state legislatures and local government bodies continues unabated as a way to thwart the will of voters.

In many ways, the insurrection against American democracy didn’t begin or end on Jan. 6. It is, in effect, a broad, ongoing white nationalist assault on the nation’s multicultural democracy, an insurgency that has been years in the making and was propelled into the mainstream by Trump’s campaign and election.

Vigil for January 6 insurrection
People hold signs at a vigil outside the U.S. Capitol on the anniversary of the Jan.6 insurrection on Jan. 6, 2022, in Washington, D.C. (Credit: Pete Kiehart)

It’s a movement that the Southern Poverty Law Center sounded the alarm over long before the assault on the Capitol. And in the aftermath of the insurrection, the SPLC continues its fight by launching a $100 million voter mobilization effort and supporting federal legislation to combat voter suppression.

“I think the important thing to understand is the insurrection didn’t end on Jan. 6,” said Eric K. Ward, a nationally recognized expert on the relationship between authoritarian movements, hate violence and inclusive democracy. “Across the country in small communities and towns, the insurrection is still a daily reality for many Americans. The targets are health workers, educators, local government officials, civil right activists who are facing intimidation, sometimes physical violence, acts of domestic terrorism from those who were supportive of the insurrection and possibly those who took part in the insurrection.”

‘Second Redemption?’

Ward, executive director of the Western States Center and a senior fellow with the SPLC, sees alarming parallels to the white backlash after the Reconstruction era in the late 1800s, a period known to historians as the “Southern Redemption,” the beginning of Jim Crow. It was the period when segregation became the law of the land and Black political power was extinguished for decades.

Now, as census data shows that white people will no longer be a majority of the U.S. population by around 2040, democracy is under attack by a white nationalist movement that rejects the very idea of an inclusive society with fair and equitable elections.   

The election of Trump – who campaigned on naked appeals to white grievance and bigotry – energized and emboldened that movement. Indeed, within days of his election in 2016, The Atlantic asked in a headline: “Is This the Second Redemption?”

Five years later, on Dec. 6, journalist Barton Gellman wrote in the same magazine: “The prospect of this democratic collapse is not remote. People with the motive to make it happen are manufacturing the means. Given the opportunity, they will act. They are acting already.”

Of great concern to Ward is the normalization of political violence, along with the proliferation – and mainstream acceptance – of extremist rhetoric, particularly after Jan. 6.

“Immediately after Jan. 6, most in the Republican leadership at both the national and local levels were appalled by what happened,” Ward said. “We don’t see that level of revulsion from a majority of elected Republicans now. And that tells us our democracy is in danger.

“It’s very concerning when you look at Republican support for the tenets of QAnon, when you look at Republican support for the major tenets of white nationalism, when you look at the number of Republicans who would support a military coup, how many believe the Big Lie, still to this day, that Donald Trump won the election.”

Unprecedented assault on democracy

As unlikely as is a military coup, the dismantling of democracy can be achieved through other means.

In what the Brennan Center for Justice called an “alarming and unprecedented attack on our democracy,” 19 states passed 34 separate laws that restrict access to the polls in the aftermath of the 2020 elections. More than 440 separate voter suppression bills were introduced in 49 states.

“These numbers are extraordinary: State legislatures enacted far more restrictive voting laws in 2021 than in any year since the Brennan Center began tracking voting legislation in 2011,” the Brennan Center wrote in a report released last month. “More than a third of all restrictive voting laws enacted since then were passed this year. And in a new trend this year, legislators introduced bills to allow partisan actors to interfere with election processes or even reject election results entirely.”

This flurry of new laws follows a series of anti-democracy measures already enacted by states since the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013 eviscerated a key provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Georgia voters wait in a long line to vote
Voters wait in a long line to cast a ballot on the first day of in-person early voting for the Georgia Senate runoff election on Monday, Dec. 14, 2020, in Atlanta. (Credit: Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Georgia is a case in point. Its Republican-controlled legislature moved swiftly in 2021, following an election that saw the increasingly diverse state elect two Democrats to the U.S. Senate – including its first Black senator ever – and vote Democratic in the presidential election for the first time since 1992.

Signed last March by Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, the state’s new voter suppression law, SB 202, represents a sweeping – and unconstitutional – repudiation of voter rights in a Southern state with a long history of disenfranchisement, of Black people in particular. It bans mobile voting. It establishes new, narrow identification requirements for requesting and casting absentee ballots. It compresses the period for requesting absentee ballots. It restricts voting drop boxes, drastically reduces early voting in runoff elections, makes it easier to disqualify provisional ballots cast in the wrong precinct and more. It also criminalizes the provision of water and snacks to voters, disproportionately those of color, who wait in needlessly long lines to cast their vote.

The SPLC – along with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), ACLU of Georgia, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc., and law firms WilmerHale and Davis Wright Tremaine – challenged the law in federal court just days after it was signed.

As described in the lawsuit, the law will be felt disproportionately by voters of color, especially Black voters, many of whom lack IDs or access to obtaining them; use early and weekend voting, especially on Sundays when churches conduct “souls to the polls” events; require access to secure drop boxes; rely on food and water to withstand long voting lines; and are more likely to cast provisional ballots.  

In perhaps a harbinger of what is to come after the votes are cast, Georgia’s law also politicizes the counting and certification of votes, granting the Republican-controlled state’s board of elections the power to remove local election officials in specific jurisdictions and seize control of the election and certification process.

More legislatures are likely to pass such laws this year, as more than 100 restrictive voting laws are pending in various states.

Fighting back

The SPLC and other pro-democracy groups aren’t resting in the face of this threat.

In December, the SPLC announced that it will commit $100 million from its endowment over the next decade to its Vote Your Voice initiative. The money will support dozens of voter outreach and civic engagement organizations in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi to help sustain their work during and in between major election cycles.

But organizing and mobilizing voters is just part of the answer.

“To defend and strengthen our democracy, Congress must pass crucial voting rights legislation that will stop partisan actors in the states from suppressing votes, meddling with the election process and drawing district lines that drown out the voices of those who have been historically disenfranchised,” said LaShawn Warren, chief policy officer for the SPLC.

The SPLC and its allies are supporting two bills that would help prevent the subversion of elections:

  • The John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act would restore and strengthen provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act weakened by recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions. It would restore federal oversight of state election laws and procedures and ensure that all citizens can access the ballot box.
  • The Freedom to Vote Act would blunt many of the recent state laws seeking to restrict voting and put an end to partisan redistricting.

To Ward, this is a moment when Americans must be mobilized to guard against the creep of white nationalism. After all, there’s a reason voting rights are under attack.

“We should understand, fundamentally, that the question being debated is, who can be an American and what will America look like,” Ward said. “We have to understand that we should see this as an opportunity to help Americans understand that the despair of white nationalism isn’t the future of America. The future of America is vibrant if we choose it to be, and we can all move forward together.”

Top photo: Workers prepare a rally location for events marking one year since the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2022, in Washington, D.C. (Credit: Jack Gruber/USA TODAY)

More on Jan. 6

To read SPLC's complete coverage of the January 6 insurrection, visit The Long Path to Insurrection.