January 6th: Attempted coup or attempted restoration of democracy?

January 5, 2022

~ 10 minutes read

protestors at the Capitol building on 1/6/2021
Photo: Andrew Harnik/AP
Audio version
What happened at the US Capitol building on January 6th, 2021? While we might agree on basic facts — people protested the certification of the 2020 presidential election, some broke windows and doors to get inside the Capitol building, and others attacked police who tried to stop them — our interpretations of these facts can be quite distinct.

Many of us are stumped as to how someone else could see the day’s events so differently, so we at the Narratives Project put together a thought experiment to help bridge this gap. The point of this thought experiment isn’t to change your mind about the validity of the 2020 election or the events of January 6th. Instead, it is to show how rational people can understand the same event so differently.

The Bottom Line: The events of January 6th amounted to an attempted coup, a protest gone wrong, or an unsuccessful attempt to restore democracy depending on whether or not you believe the 2020 election was legitimate.

Choose the tab below that feels closest to your opinion on January 6th and the 2020 election.

After reading this, most people are probably thinking something along the lines of, “Sure, if there was definitive proof the other side was right, they’d be acting rationally, and I’d be willing to accept conclusive evidence.”

The current division around January 6th stems from each side believing that there is conclusive evidence supporting their view. 

So how do people come to such different conclusions about the validity of the 2020 election?

National elections are extraordinarily complex. While there is a correct answer about whether the 2020 election was free and fair, our minds are not truth detectors. We often lead ourselves astray either by giving too much weight to small details or by dismissing key evidence as arbitrary.  

For example: 

To many on the left, court after court ruled that any inconsistencies were negligible or false, and that the 2020 election results are reliable.

To many on the right, rapid changes to voting systems due to COVID-19 led to chaos in vote-counting, and many small irregularities can add up in close elections. We must take all reports about irregularities seriously and investigate them thoroughly.

Part of the issue here is that a set of evidence can feel definitive to one side, but not the other, based on how we weigh different pieces of evidence.

Few people know the exact details of the irregularities flagged by the right, and few know the exact details of why the courts struck down their complaints. If we’re honest with ourselves, essentially no one knows everything about the integrity of the 2020 election. It’s not that we’re all willingly ignorant — it’s that very few of us have the time or energy to comb through all election details in a meaningful way, so we must rely on the people we trust in the media or in power to help us understand such a complicated event.

When we lack a shared understanding of the specifics around the election, we naturally construct narratives around what we think we know to fill in the gaps. Here are a few examples of common narratives around January 6th and the 2020 election: 

  • Maybe you think Republican party leaders planted seeds about election fraud in their supporters’ heads before the election, and took advantage of their nerves and fears about a Biden presidency to try to steal the election.
  • Maybe you think there wasn’t fraud, and are confident in this due to the multiple court rulings confirming the election results. Given this evidence, it’s time to hold those responsible for the violence accountable, and move on.
  • Maybe you think there probably wasn’t fraud, but it’s sketchy that the left refused to even talk about potential fraud. Regardless, this election was a once in a century anomaly, so pushing a revolution isn’t the best way to ensure our long term stability.
  • Maybe you are convinced there was fraud, and that all the court rulings and certification processes were either conducted by people who refused to see the truth, or were a concerted effort to steal the election from Trump.

We chose more absolute stances than these for the thought experiment because understanding the logic behind the position that’s furthest away from your own tends to be the most challenging.  But if you take the time to understand that most foreign view, it’s then a simpler task to see the logic of positions closer to you. 

And when it comes to preserving peace in the fallout of a contested election, understanding the intentions and motivations of our contra-partisans is critical. 

Takeaways

What might not be intuitive is that the desire to save our democracy rests at the core of both sides’ view, as illustrated both in the thought experiment and below:

  • If you wholeheartedly believe that the 2020 election was legitimate and happened without significant interference, any attempt to overturn the results is going to feel like a threat to the long-term stability of our democracy. 
  • If you wholeheartedly believe that the 2020 election was illegitimate and there was widespread fraud which changed the outcome, protesting the certification of the election is a reasonable, logical next step in ensuring the long-term stability of our democracy.

A new poll from Axios and Momentive found that a mere 55% of those polled accept Joe Biden as having legitimately won the 2020 election, while 26% do not (another 19% are either not sure or did not respond). 

What do you think? Do you agree with one side, or do you fall somewhere in between? Give us feedback on TwitterInstagram, and Facebook, or by emailing info@narrativesproject.com.