The insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, was an unprecedented moment in the country’s history. The School of Arts and Sciences has gathered leading voices from government, journalism, academia, and think tanks to discuss the causes and meaning of the Capitol riot in their 2021 Spring Speakers’ Series, “American Impasse: Politics, Citizenship, and Democracy in 2021” sponsored by the school’s Board of Visitors.
The online series considers the attack on the Capitol from several perspectives: its broader social causes; its political causes and consequences; race, memory, and parallels with the U.S. Civil War; and what the attack tells us about the future of American citizenship and democracy.
Thomas Smith, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, kicked off the series on March 25 by introducing the panel that discussed the social causes of the events on Jan. 6.
“The theme of the series this year rose out of the insurrection of the Capitol on Jan 6. It goes without saying these events were shocking and we wanted to find a positive way to respond,” said Smith. “This series is the first in what we hope to be an annual event. We want to continue to make CatholicU a place where such important conversations happen. Where ideas are shared in a spirit of openness and dialog, and through which we reach for understanding across differences.”
The speakers of the social causes panel included Ross Douthat, columnist at The New York Times; Yuval Levin, director of Social, Cultural, and Constitutional Studies at the American Enterprise Institute; and Theda Skocpol, Victor S. Thomas professor of government and sociology at Harvard University. It was moderated by Michael Kimmage, professor and department chair of history.
Douthat said he believed the development of the Capitol riot was a three step process which included the internet itself, the accelerator effects of the pandemic, and the instigation of President Trump. “The most important social factor is the interaction between a broad trend towards declining trust in American institutions, hostility to established media entities, established narratives with the unusual role of the internet in creating what you might call communities of political fantasy,” said Douthat.
“What the internet has done is somewhat novel and created an immediate participatory communal conspiracizing, that is most famously now embodied in the QAnon phenomenon. You have conspiracy theories instigated in some way (in the case of QAnon) and a person or group of people who seeded a narrative of what was happening in the presidency of Trump. But once that's seeded it takes on a life of its own and becomes a role playing game,” he said. “The pandemic is a completely unique social context in which you had a combination of lockdown measures that reduced normal, real world human interaction with the availability of technology as an alternative to human interaction.”
Levin identified three factors that led to the insurrection. “First, two political parties are each drawn into itself to talk about each other, nor are they engaged with each other — each is living out a story that's built around the obvious villainy of each other,” said Levin. “Second is the resurgence of conspiracism and fantasy — they’ve come to play a bigger role in the mainstream experience of politics than they have in some time, in part because of the information environment which happens on both sides of the parties.” The third factor is the alienation of the American Right. “Over the past several decades the left and right have switched places when it comes to who is the insider and who is the outsider in our political culture,“ said Levin.
Skocpol did not see anything fantasy-related about the insurrection. “We had a president who was communicating with them (rioters) before the event, during the event, and a substantial proportion of the elected Repblican Party in Congress, who have been questioning the legitimacy of the election before the riot, and in varying degrees toddle with acts and the use of force to try to change how elections operate from this election and going forward,” she said.
Skocpol argued that the country is in a dangerous period of extreme polarization. “People are surrounded by others who vote and think like them, and find it very hard to imagine the other side has as many supporters as they know they’re surrounded by,” she said. “The seeds of this have been underway for quite some time and the crossing over of the significant number of elected officials to accepting violence and threats has happened during the Trump era. It is a devastatingly frightening threat to American institutions moving forward.”