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Americans and Political Violence, One Year After January 6

Running Numbers by Craig Kafura
US Capitol attack

One year later, Americans remain divided over what happened on January 6, 2021. But they're united in concerns about future political violence.

Thursday, January 6, marks the one-year anniversary of a protest-turned-riot where a violent mob storm the US Capitol. As polls conducted in the immediate aftermath of the attack showed, most Americans opposed the actions of the protesters and opposed the use of violence for political ends. Yet those same polls showed an American public deeply divided along partisan lines in their interpretation of the events, who is to blame, and what should be done. Many of these initial divisions have persisted over the past year.

Views of Rioters’ Actions

The actions of the rioters themselves remain broadly unpopular among the American public. According to a December 27-30, 2021 CBS/YouGov survey, more than eight in ten Americans (83%) disapprove of the actions of those who forced their way into the US Capitol on January 6. And, an ABC News/Ipsos poll fielded December 27-29, 2021 finds seven in ten Americans believe those people involved in the attack were mostly threatening democracy (72%) rather than protecting democracy (25%).

In part, that disapproval is linked to the violence perpetrated that day. A Washington Post/University of Maryland survey conducted December 17-19, 2021 finds that a narrow majority of Americans (54%) describe the January 6 protesters who entered the Capitol as mostly violent, though another 27 percent describe them as equally peaceful and violent. A large majority (87%) also think that some protesters injured police officers.

As the January 6 Select Committee continues its work, most Americans support its work to investigate those involved. CBS/YouGov polling shows that two-thirds of Americans (67%) say that Congress should be investigating the role of public officials in the events of January 6. And the Post/UMD poll finds that half of Americans (51%) say the punishments for those who broke into the Capitol have not been harsh enough (28% fair, 19% too harsh).

Insurrection, Reasonable Protest, or an Out-of-Control Riot?

However, as a December 17-20, 2021 NPR/Ipsos poll finds, different groups of Americans hold wildly differing interpretations of the events of January 6. A third of Americans (32%) and a majority of Democrats (57%) describe them as an attempted coup or insurrection. Another 28 percent of Americans (including 20% of Democrats and 38% of Republicans) say they were a riot that got out of control. Few Americans (6%) of any partisan affiliation (4% Democrats, 9% Republicans) say they were a reasonable protest. But three in ten Republicans (and 17% of Americans overall) say the January 6 protests were actually carried out by opponents of Donald Trump, including Antifa and government agents.

Attitudes toward Trump’s Role on January 6

The same NPR/Ipsos poll finds the public split along party lines on questions about former president Donald Trump’s attempts to overturn the 2020 election results at the state and local level.

A plurality of Americans (39%) say that Trump and his allies broke the law in their efforts to overturn the election, including a majority of Democrats (67%) but few Republicans (14%). Another two in ten Americans (20%) say Trump and his allies were exercising their correct legal right to contest the election, a position more popular with Republicans (39%) than Democrats (8%). A tenth of the public (10%) believes Trump and his allies did not go far enough in contesting the election (18% of Republicans, 4% percent of Democrats); a similar proportion of Americans (11%) say they did go too far, but were within the law (15% Republicans, 8% Democrats).

And for all the discussions of the January 6 events over the past year, American views of Donald Trump’s responsibility for the attack on the Capitol have changed little in the past year. According to the Post/UMD poll, a majority of Americans continue to say he bears a great deal or good amount of responsibility (60%, up from 57% in January 2021). And while nearly all Democrats (92%) say Trump bears at least a good amount of blame for the Capitol attack, only a quarter of Republicans agree (27%).

Americans Fear Rising Political Violence

Much of the discussion since January 6 has focused on the lasting threat to democracy in the United States—a concern shared by many Americans. The 2021 Chicago Council Survey fielded in July found that many Americans believe US democracy has been weakened temporarily (52%) or permanently (25%), but still functions. And as CBS/YouGov polling finds, two-thirds of Americans (66%) see democracy and the rule of law today as under threat.

Not all of those threats to democracy are linked to violent protests. Among those who say democracy is threatened, 83 percent point to the influence of money in politics as a major threat to democracy. Yet another two-thirds identify the potential for political violence (68%) and attempts to overturn elections (66%) as major threats to American democracy. And two-thirds of Americans (68%) see the events of January 6 as a sign of increasing political violence in America.

Consequently, a majority of Americans (57%) expect to see an increase in political violence in the United States in the next few years, and six in ten (62%) believe there will be violence from the losing side in future elections. However, few of those who predict violence in the future support using violence outright as a consequence of losing an election (2%). Indeed, 72 percent oppose using violence, though a quarter (25%) say it depends on the circumstances. Yet Americans’ willingness to resort to violence isn’t just tied to competition over elections. The CBS/YouGov poll finds between a quarter and a third of Americans say that the use of force or violence to achieve political or policy goals might be justified, depending on the issue, ranging from a high of 35 percent for civil rights and equality issues to a low of 24 percent for abortion policies. That reluctance to endorse violence for political ends spans the political spectrum; for no issue does a majority of any partisan group justify the use of force or violence.

About the Author
Assistant Director, Public Opinion and Foreign Policy
Craig Kafura is the assistant director for public opinion and foreign policy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, a Security Fellow with the Truman National Security Project, and a Pacific Forum Young Leader. At the Council, he coordinates work on public opinion and foreign policy and is a regular contributor to the public opinion and foreign policy blog Running Numbers.

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