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US Capitol attack: how the public reaction to the January 6 hearings reflects deep divisions in the US
After nearly a year of investigating the attack on the US Capitol on January 6 2021, the Democrat-led House Select committee is holding a series of public hearings to present its findings to the US public. These findings include that the former US president, Donald Trump, and his allies engaged in illegal efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election.
The committee, which has a Republican co-chair, Liz Cheney, also found they knowingly spread lies regarding the integrity of the electoral system, which culminated in the attack on the heart of American democracy.
According to one report in the New York Times, at least 20 million people watched the first primetime hearing. It was carried live by all major public and private news outlets in the US, with the notable exception of Fox News.
It bears repeating that, by all measures, the 2020 general election was one of the most secure elections in American history, with no evidence of widespread voter fraud. These facts have been confirmed over and over again by federal agencies and courts – most recently by the Trump administration’s attorney general, Bill Barr, via video testimony presented at the hearings. Barr recounted telling Trump following the election that his claims of fraud were “bullshit”.
Notwithstanding these facts, Trump led an aggressive disinformation campaign for the purpose of undermining the public’s faith in the integrity of the 2020 presidential election. It’s a campaign that continues to this day. Trump and other Republicans, including those running for elected office, continue to spread lies regarding that election.
During its convention in mid-June, the Republican Party of Texas approved its 2022 policy platform, which relies on false claims of voter fraud to formally reject the results of the 2020 election and proclaim Joe Biden’s victory as illegitimate.
While much attention is being paid to Americans’ attitudes generally, more focus on partisan divisions is warranted. An ABC News/Ipsos poll released on January 19 found the American public’s attitudes about Trump’s culpability in the January 6 attack remain largely unchanged.
Partisanship appears to be the largest factor driving Americans’ views of the attack. For example, 91% of Democrats believe Trump is responsible, versus only 19% of Republicans.
Democrats are also more likely to be following the committee hearings – 43% versus just 22% of Republicans. Additionally, while 88% of Democrats approve of the work of the committee, only 32% of Republicans share this view.
Polling also reveals the enduring success of Trump’s disinformation campaign. For example, in January 2022 only 17% of Republicans said they would consider voting for a candidate who accurately characterised Biden’s victory as legitimate. Additionally, while there is no legitimate basis for concerns regarding voter fraud at the state level, Republicans are three or four more times more likely than Democrats to say voter fraud is a problem in their state.
Divergences in the attitudes of Democrats and Republicans concerning January 6 and Trump’s false election claims, while deeply concerning, are unsurprising given partisan differences in how and where Americans access information on matters of public concern.
For example, a Pew Research Center report published in January 2020 revealed that Republicans and Democrats place their trust in two “nearly inverse news media environments”. Republicans place less trust in – and are growing increasingly alienated from – more established news sources, while Democrats’ confidence in them remains stable.
The study also found that Republicans use news sources less frequently than Democrats. Recent declines in trust in, and engagement with, traditional media by Republicans coincide with a recent increase in illiberalism of the Republican Party.
Such a concerning trend is not evident in European democracies. Comparative research suggests the US has much higher levels of partisan news production, consumption and polarisation than Europe, and lower levels of trust in traditional media.
Even when accounting for the differences within European states and the rise in the use of social media as a news source across Europe, the American information ecosystem is significantly more polluted, fragmented and polarised. For example, according to Ofcom, BBC One remains the most-used news source for people living in the UK. This contrasts starkly with the US, where the largest public news outlets rank far lower than many of the country’s private news outlets.
The declining level of trust in – and disengagement from – traditional media is worrying. Traditional mainstream media serves the important democratic functions of accurately informing the public regarding matters of public concern and holding those in power to account. Without these safeguards, democracies become more vulnerable to disinformation campaigns and other threats to democracy, particularly from politicians.
Democracy at work?
The committee hearings offer an opportunity for the US to share a collective experience that facilitates public understanding of the events surrounding January 6, and the ongoing threat to American democracy from those seeking to undermine democratic institutions. This includes the spread of disinformation and the laying of foundations for overturning future elections if Democrats prevail.
However, so far we have seen only a relatively small percentage of Americans – mostly Democrats – closely engaging with the hearings. Opinions regarding the legitimacy of the investigation and the lies that fuelled the attack tend to be more reflective of party affiliation than engagement with facts and the search for truth.
This demonstrates the enduring viability of disinformation campaigns led by leaders and politicians, particularly when the public’s access to information is heavily informed by party affiliation and one party is actively endeavouring to misinform its base. It further suggests that, while the US prides itself on maintaining a marketplace of ideas where truth ultimately prevails, such faith in the power of unencumbered public discourse is a folly.
This raises the question of whether the committee hearings will bring the political and legal reckoning required to neutralise the threat to American democracy posed by Trump and his allies. So far, there is little reason for optimism.