Exploring the threats to democracy that remain 2 years after Jan. 6

In the first general election after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, many of the most high-profile election deniers lost their races. But threats to democracy remain as extremist political factions remain emboldened, Trump’s presidential bid is built on lies and cities are reporting record numbers of hate crimes. Cynthia Miller-Idriss and Kim Lane Scheppele joined Laura Barrón-López to discuss.

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  • Geoff Bennett:

    In the first general election after the attack on the Capitol, many of the most high-profile election deniers lost their races, but threats to democracy remain.

    Laura Barrón-López has more.

  • Laura Barrón-López:

    Extremist political factions remain emboldened.

    Former President Donald Trump's third presidential bid is built on lies about U.S. elections, and cities are reporting record number of hate crimes.

    Here to discuss is Cynthia Miller-Idriss, the director of American University's Polarization and Extremism Research Innovation Lab, and Kim Scheppele, a constitutional scholar at Princeton University.

    Thank you, ladies, for joining the "NewsHour."

    Cynthia, I want to start with you.

    One of the biggest takeaways after the midterms was that a lot of election deniers that were running in statewide races lost. They suffered big defeats. But you have said that the fever still hasn't broken. Why?

  • Cynthia Miller-Idriss, American University:

    Yes.

    I think that people want to think that the fever has broken. And, of course, that's understandable. And we should — we should acknowledge and celebrate the fact that not all of the election deniers won their races, but many did. And we still have — we're seeing right now a faction in the Republican Party of election deniers who are holding up the democratic process in a way that is making us laughable to the rest of the world.

    And so there are many ways that democracy can be chipped away at and eroded. And I think we're continuing to see the repercussions of election denialism even today.

  • Laura Barrón-López:

    Spreading beyond the midterms

    Kim, Congress recently passed reforms to the 1987 Electoral Reform Act. But are their legal threats to democracy still out there and — or do you think, are there other ways to harden the laws to prevent a future January 6?

  • Kim Lane Scheppele, Princeton University:

    Yes.

    Well, it was good that Congress fixed some of the problems with this rickety law called the Electoral Count Act, which was the law that Trump and his associates are trying to game by making January 6 an event where the results of the election might have been overturned.

    So, that particular threat has been minimized. But there's still a great many threats, because we have a Constitution that puts running federal elections in the hands of states. And we are still seeing states enacting new laws that restrict voting, and that the most worrisome ones might actually put the selection of presidential electors in the hands of state legislatures, instead of in the hands of voters, or, rather, in state legislatures in cases where the voting is unclear.

    And, as we have seen in the last election, voting can be made unclear after the fact, even if it wasn't. So there are still some very serious dangers out there in the legal structure of our election system.

  • Laura Barrón-López:

    And I should say that that was actually the Electoral Count Act of 1887. I think I said 1987.

    Cynthia, we're at the two-year anniversary mark of January 6. What has the U.S. done since then to crack down on domestic extremist groups?

  • Cynthia Miller-Idriss:

    Well, to be honest, we have seen a lot of movement on the prevention side that I think really has to be acknowledged.

    I think we have several states. Washington state, for example, just came out with a major report on countering and combating domestic terrorism and domestic violent extremism, which I think is a model for the nation that argues for a public health and preventative approach that uses all agencies, that embeds it in the arts in education, uses public libraries, that sees this as a much more upstream problem.

    We had President Biden hold the first summit on hate-fueled violence in September and lay out a whole suite of options that are going to be out laid out, including Department of Education and Health and Human Services engagement. So there's been a lot on the prevention side.

    But we're — also obviously haven't solved it. And we have still been very much caught up in issues of accountability and seeing this through a law enforcement lens as the primary strategy. So I wouldn't say we have made the progress I would have hoped that we'd see by now, but I think we should celebrate some of the wins that we have seen in the last two years.

  • Laura Barrón-López:

    And I spoke to a former FBI agent recently who said that they thought there should be a domestic terrorism statute to help define exactly what that is.

    Do you agree with that?

  • Cynthia Miller-Idriss:

    So, we have a definition of domestic terrorism, but we don't have a way to independently charge actors with a federal crime that's independent of other crimes.

    So, what you end up having is a lot of work-arounds. And it is sloppy, and it makes it confusing to the public and to everyone to, if you're seeing someone who's charged with weapons offenses or child pornography, instead of domestic terrorism, because that's what's easier to charge them with and can carry a heavier sentence.

    So I do think there should be some cleanup, but I don't like to see the prosecution and accountability lens distract from the prevention lens, because, ultimately, it's a Band-Aid. And it doesn't solve the problem. It just tries to address it once criminal acts have occurred.

  • Laura Barrón-López:

    And, Kim, when we talk about the political movement that was inspired by January 6 or ahead of January 6 by the former president, there were at least two incoming freshmen, Republican freshmen, that were at the Stop the Steal rally on January 6. That's Wisconsin's Van Orden and New York's George Santos.

    Do you think that this political movement will survive beyond the former president?

  • Kim Lane Scheppele:

    Well, I think one thing we have seen is that it existed before the former president, and it's existing even as his hold on the Republican Party is slipping.

    In fact, the worry is that what this has done now is set a new standard for what counts as not outrageous enough to not hold off this behavior. And so we're seeing a lot of people running for office who have a lot of very unusual views and who don't have very many qualifications for actually holding office.

    So the worry is that this isn't really just about one person or isn't just about one day, January 6, but that it's something that really has become part of a culture of a whole political party in the United States, and in a two-party system that can't exactly do without one party.

    So, what we really need are two parties that actually honor the Constitution, forswear violence, and actually are in favor of free and fair elections. So, as long as we aren't certain about that, democracy is in danger.

  • Laura Barrón-López:

    On forswearing that violence, Cynthia, former Washington, D.C., police Officer Michael Fanone was speaking to a crowd outside the Capitol today, and here's what he had to say about January 6.

  • Michael Fanone, Former D.C. Metropolitan Police Department Officer:

    To the new speaker of the House, whoever the hell that ends up being, and other GOP House leaders, here's my message to you. You have this job because you promised to represent the people.

    We, the people, are calling on you to condemn political violence. As you take on your new roles, I will be watching and waiting for public statements from each and every one of you to do just that.

  • Laura Barrón-López:

    So what role, Cynthia, do you think that the Republican Party, is Fanone is saying, has in combating this political violence?

  • Cynthia Miller-Idriss:

    Well, I think there's two things going on in what he said that are really important to call out.

    One is the absolute — and Kim said it as well — the need to have unequivocal condemnation of political violence. And we need to hear that from every elected official at the local and the national level. And we're not hearing that in strong enough terms or sometimes at all, sometimes in terms of actually encourage it. And I think that that's really dangerous, dangerous for democracy and dangerous for public safety.

    But you also hear in his words some of the frustration that I think we're seeing citizens increasingly feel about what's happening this week, in the lack of trust and the increasing frustration that people feel watching people who are supposed to be just doing their jobs of democracy having infighting and sort of childish tactics that prevent the work of democracy from getting on.

    And so I think we're seeing many different ways that democracy gets eroded here, and some of it is happening from right from within.

  • Laura Barrón-López:

    And many of it, we will be tracking as we head towards 2024.

    Kim Lane Scheppele and Cynthia Miller-Idriss, thank you so much for joining the "NewsHour."

  • Cynthia Miller-Idriss:

    Thanks.

  • Kim Lane Scheppele:

    Thank you.

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