Even as so many Americans decry the events of January 6, the day has had lasting impacts on the nation’s psyche, the most immediate of which is that millions of Americans think more violence is coming, and that democracy itself might be threatened.
The reality — and this won’t allay all those fears — is that there are some Americans who generally view force or political violence undertaken by others as justifiable, depending on the situation. That applies to the violence on January 6, and to a few for whom 2020 remains unsettled, but also extends to other issues, from abortion to gun policy to civil rights. And it’s partially related to beliefs that political opponents are an existential threat, or being convinced they’ll do worse to you. We stress this is not how most people feel, and that those who do are a low number in percentage terms. But then, we’ve also seen that it doesn’t take large numbers to provoke these wider concerns in the nation.
So, when people feel democracy is threatened, their concerns about violence become even more critical, and here’s where public opinion really matters: democracy depends on its citizens adhering to its norms both because they believe in them, and because they expect others will, too.
More violence to come?
The implications of January 6 are reverberating through the polity: two-thirds see the events as a harbinger of increasing political violence, not an isolated incident. That leads to larger misgivings. When people see it as a sign of increasing violence, they’re more likely to think violence is a reason democracy is threatened.
January 6 views — then and now
The events of January 6 were widely condemned when they happened and still are today by majorities of both parties. But there is an alternative set of descriptors and interpretations of those events, and of what should happen next, largely on the right, along with a softening of their disapproval that’s worthy of attention.
Despite overall disapproval of the events on January 6, Republicans do stand apart from others in offering descriptions that are less harsh. One, the intensity with which Republicans disapprove softened over the summer and has stayed softer. A year ago, most Republicans strongly disapproved, but today, their disapproval is spread between strongly and a bit more only somewhat disapproving.
Americans who no longer strongly disapprove are less likely to describe the day’s events as an insurrection than they were in January. They are also much likelier to consume conservative media than those consistent in strongly disapproving.
Moreover, four in 10 Republicans have a different conception of who was involved in the first place, saying most of those who forced their way into the Capitol were left-leaning groups pretending to be Trump supporters.
Outright approval of what happened comes only from a minority of Americans, but it certainly is there. Those who approve are younger and use right-leaning news sources and social media more, but they also have what seem like larger items than just their views about 2020 or an election. They are more likely to say the United States should divide into “red” and “blue” countries. There’s a relationship between approval and conspiracy theories: among Americans who think QAnon ideas are at least probably true, approval of the Capitol events goes up to 50%.
Descriptions of what happened are also similar to how they were a year ago after it happened. People widely call it a protest that went too far, but how much further becomes more partisan. Most Americans — including most Democrats, but just a fifth of Republicans — call it an insurrection and describe it as an attempt to overturn the election and the government.
Four in 10 Republicans say those who went into the Capitol were actually left-leaning groups pretending to be Trump supporters.
Only a quarter of Americans call what happened “patriotism” or “defending freedom.” They tend to be on the political right, identifying as conservatives. When asked why they describe it that way, they say those who entered the Capitol were “exercising their right to protest” and drawing attention to (what they see as) election fraud — more than twice as often as they say January 6 participants were trying to stop the electoral count, per se. So, they are still supportive of the act, even though it didn’t meet its alleged goals, which could partially explain why they’re also willing to see other actions as justified.
What should Trump do next?
So, what do they want now? There is 12% of the country, and a fifth of Trump’s 2020 voters, that want Trump to fight to retake the presidency right now, before the next election.
When we follow up with them on that idea, they mostly say they would like to see that done through legal channels. But then a third of the people within that 12% say he should use force if necessary. While that only amounts to 4% of the population, it still translates into millions of Americans effectively willing to see a forceful change in the executive branch.
The specter hanging over the next election
In particular — and perhaps because it’s still so tangible — a majority of the nation now expect there will be violence from the losing side of a future presidential election.
We then followed up and asked, “If that’s your side that loses and there is in fact violence, would you be in favor of that or not?” It’s an abstraction right now, of course, and a mere 2% would favor it. But another quarter left it open, saying it depends on the circumstance — and in that, we start to see political differences, with 2020 Trump voters twice as likely as Biden voters to say that it depends.
Specifically, those who claim widespread voter fraud in 2020 and those who don’t consider Biden legitimate now are relatively more likely to be in favor, should violence occur after their side loses a future election. And they’re more likely to say that violence over election results might be justified in general.
It’s not just elections
The idea of political violence historically isn’t confined to anger over elections, of course. And to be clear, most don’t condone it on the left or right. But there are some Americans who could see justification for political violence over some issues, at least in principle. We’d also stress this by no means suggests they would do it themselves.
Gun policies, abortion policies, civil rights, labor issues, and even vaccine and coronavirus issues are each issues at least a quarter of Americans say are important enough that violence might be justified, depending on the situation.
Among liberals and Democrats, about four in 10 say civil rights and equality issues are important enough that violence might be justified over them, and a quarter name labor issues and abortion policies. For the right — that is, conservatives and Republicans — it’s more likely to be gun policies and election results, with about four in ten saying force might be justified on these issues.
Then there’s how people respond to political actors who might call for violence, or otherwise violate political norms. It’s 14% who feel that elected officials or candidates might be justified in calling for violence in public speeches. This is somewhat lower than the one in five who say that public insults might be justified.
Within each group, those who would justify violence tend to be younger, and somewhat more ideologically extreme — that is, identifying as very liberal or conservative. It’s important to note they also report being less likely to vote, which may reflect an inclination to seek political outcomes by other, less traditional means.
But it’s also associated with attitudes toward opponents: the partisans among them are more inclined to think the other side threatens their way of life and less likely to favor compromise in general.
On that, too, we see what looks like a vicious circle: Americans who consider violence potentially justified aren’t necessarily eager for it, but may feel it is forced upon them. For example, looking at people who say that calls for force from political leaders can be justified, about half say this approach can be justified because their opponents do the same or worse.
This is not wholly relegated to one ideology or political party, because on several issues, like labor issues, civil rights, abortion, and vaccines, we find comparable numbers of Democrats and Republicans saying violence might be justified, though Republicans are more apt to say so on elections and guns. Across all six issues tested, Republicans are slightly more likely than Democrats to select at least one issue as important enough to possibly justify violence. The formation of citizen militias — which for the purposes of this study, is not directly measuring action or violence — is acceptable to three in 10 Americans, driven by those on the right.
The good news?
It’s not necessarily related to violence but speaks to some of the mood that underpins animosity: not all partisans think of the opposition as enemies threatening their way of life. Those who do tend to be more ideological, though. And few Americans favor the idea — as far-fetched as it might be — of a “national divorce” between red and blue states.
Given all this, going forward, the important divisions into 2022 and beyond might be not just along partisan lines, but between that large group of Americans who don’t condone violence, along with those who don’t see themselves as engaged in an existential struggle with an opposing party, and those smaller numbers who do.
What does run throughout public sentiment, though, is that wider apprehension about the state of democracy, and that measure may be the most important of all to watch. On a certain level, democracy has to be self-reinforcing; when people adhere to its norms, they need to believe and trust in its stability, particularly that others will adhere to them as well.
This CBS News/YouGov survey was conducted with a nationally representative sample of 2,063 U.S. adult residents interviewed between December 27-30, 2021. The sample was weighted according to gender, age, race, and education based on the U.S. Census American Community Survey and Current Population Survey, as well as to 2020 presidential vote. The margin of error is ±2.6 points.