Why Conservatives Attacked the US Capitol: Decline and Radicalization

The US Capitol on January 6th. Photo courtesy of Blink O’fanaye.

Guest post by Andrew H. Kydd

The conservative attack on the United States Capitol on January 6, 2021 was an unprecedented effort to overturn a presidential election in the United States through violence. What were its causes and what can we expect in the future? Despite claims of American exceptionalism, the root cause of the violence—the decline and radicalization of the US conservative movement along demographic and ethnic lines—make the US similar to many countries that have experienced ethnic-related violence. This development will remain a potent cause of violence in the future.

Ever since Thucydides argued that the real cause of the Peloponnesian War was the rise of Athens and the fear that this caused in Sparta, scholars have pointed to relative decline as a cause of conflict. When one country is declining relative to another, it looks to the future with concern. It can defend itself now, but in the future—when it is weaker—it may be subject to extortion or predation from the newly risen power. The same logic applies to ethnic or other identity groups within a country. When majority groups fear decline, they start to consider extreme measures against rising minorities.

Conservatism is almost by definition concerned about decline. Whereas liberals and progressives tend to envision the future as better than the past, conservatives see the past as better than the present and the future as still worse. As William F. Buckley Jr. famously put it, conservatism “stands athwart history, yelling Stop.” It is no accident that Trump’s slogan was “Make America Great Again.”

The decline conservatives fear most is generational and demographic. Youth are perpetually being wooed away by the siren song of liberalism. Polling data show the extent of the ideological generation gap: white millennials support Democrats 52 to 41 percent. Among millennial women the figure is an astonishing 70 to 23 percent. Conservatives also fear demographic decline. The conservative base is rural, Christian and white, and all three characteristics are in decline. Of most concern to conservatives, over the past 40 years, immigration from Latin America has been so great that the percent of foreign-born Americans is near an all-time high. Some states along the southern border are already majority-minority, and whites in the country as a whole may find themselves in the minority within a few decades. Opposition to immigration has therefore become a bedrock of conservatism.

Radicalization is also a potent cause of violence, both in the US and around the world. Radicalization leads to conflict by magnifying the stakes of the struggle for power, thereby justifying extreme measures. If the opponent is perceived as hostile, traitorous, and evil, then every election is vital and power must be seized, or retained, by any means necessary. This can lead to democratic breakdown, and eventually political violence.

Over the past 40 years conservatives have undergone a profound process of radicalization. The two main political parties are now much more neatly sorted by ideology than they were decades ago, and the Republicans have drifted much further to the right. The rise of conservative radio hosts and Fox News mean that conservatives often hear only views that are in harmony with what they already believe. Social media has driven this process even further, destroying the entry barriers that kept conspiracy theories and obvious lies out of the public discourse. The result is a massive failure of the marketplace of ideas. Instead of beliefs competing against each other and truth winning out over lies, conservative media and politicians compete for viewers and support by telling their audience what they want to hear, even if they know it to be false.

The capstone on this process of radicalization is the rise of right-wing armed groups and terrorist attacks. Embracing “replacement theory”—the doctrine that shadowy elites are replacing white Christians with non-whites and Muslims—terrorists have attacked in the US, (Pittsburgh, El Paso) and abroad (Norway, New Zealand), while armed groups like the Proud Boys mobilize to fight Black Lives Matter and ANTIFA activists. The international links among far-right and white supremacist groups highlight the global nature of the problem.

As a result of the decline and radicalization of the conservative movement, when Trump called upon his supporters to stop Congress from certifying Biden’s win, they were ready to fight. The question remains: will future Republican leaders issue the same call?

Two things give cause for concern. First, Trump himself continues to lead the party and is the leading candidate for 2024. It requires no imagination to envision what Trump could do if he is elected to a second term and decides not to relinquish power. Second, even if Trump decides not to run, or is sidelined by illness or criminal prosecution (which itself could lead to violence), his dominance of the party ensures that the 2024 Republican nominee will claim that the 2020 election was stolen.

As a result, close elections in the future may be overturned by partisan officials, leading to democratic breakdown. Alternatively, if state institutions seek to enforce Democratic victories that are disbelieved on the right, conservatives may again respond with political violence as they judge peaceful means to have failed. This could take the form of another, better executed insurrection, assassinations, terrorism, or even a civil war between right-wing forces and elements of the state that remain loyal to the constitution.

Andrew Kydd is a Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin.

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