One year after the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, a majority of Americans and Canadians alike say democracy in the United States is under threat, a new poll suggests.
The poll, conducted by the Angus Reid Institute and released Thursday, also found stark differences in how the event is viewed by conservatives and liberals in both countries.
The divide is more severe in the U.S., where 68 per cent of respondents who voted for Donald Trump in the 2020 election disagree that the riots were an act of domestic terrorism — an opinion at odds with the FBI and other officials — while nearly three quarters still believe Trump won the election that he lost.
“There are only two (major) political parties in the U.S. … and this has become the narrative of one of those parties,” said Matthew Lebo, a political science professor at Western University who studies U.S. and Canadian politics.
“You cannot have a democracy with only one party that believes in democracy.”
Thursday marked the one-year anniversary of the riots, which saw supporters of Trump violently storm the Capitol building and disrupt the certification of President Joe Biden’s election victory the previous November. Seven people, including police officers, died during and after the siege.
Trump and his allies had spent months falsely declaring the election had been stolen from him, and had urged his supporters to “fight” at a rally held the morning of the attack.
A massive FBI investigation has resulted in criminal charges for over 725 people who participated in the riot, and a parallel investigation by U.S. lawmakers is looking into what Trump and his allies knew before and on Jan. 6 — as well as whether Trump stood by and did nothing as the riot unfolded.
Attorney General Merrick Garland said Wednesday that more than 325 of those rioters face felony charges, and vowed to hold all “perpetrators” accountable — suggesting organizers of the earlier rally could face scrutiny.
For the poll, Angus Reid surveyed over 1,000 Americans and more than 1,000 Canadians online over two days just before the end of 2021.
It found that a quarter of American respondents view the riots as a genuine attempt to defend American democracy, with 15 per cent going further by blaming foreign powers for orchestrating it. A quarter of Americans also believe the riots were a fiction created by the media, the poll suggests.
Overall, just under 60 per cent of Americans who responded to the survey said they agree the riots were an act of domestic terrorism. Among Biden voters, 92 per cent agreed.
Canadians view the riots more negatively, although political divisions were also found north of the border. Three-quarters of Canadian respondents said “domestic terrorism” was an appropriate label, with nearly all Liberal and NDP voters agreeing. One-third of Conservatives disagreed.
Yet Lebo says even the most extreme Conservative voters still believe in Canadian democracy, making the likelihood of a similar riot at the Parliament buildings unlikely.
“They may dislike (Prime Minister Justin) Trudeau and they may dislike Liberal politics, but I don’t think that they see the system as fundamentally against them,” he said.
“Remember, it didn’t just take Donald Trump to get the United States to 2020. It took several decades of slow, democratic decline in lots of American institutions, undermining trust in government. That’s not even remotely happening to the same degree in Canada.”
The poll found an almost equal number of Canadians and Americans — just over 60 per cent — agreeing that the U.S. is no longer a good example of democracy in the world. Yet among Americans, the sentiment was shared by more Trump voters (69 per cent) than Biden voters (56 per cent).
Recent polling by Ipsos in the U.S. found similar sentiments. An NPR/Ipsos poll conducted around the same time as Angus Reid’s found 64 per cent of respondents agreeing American democracy is in crisis and at risk of failing. A separate poll by Ipsos for ABC News suggests even more Americans — 72 per cent — said democracy was threatened specifically by the rioters at the Capitol.
Last November, the Sweden-based International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance added the U.S. to its annual list of “backsliding democracies” for the first time, highlighting a “visible deterioration” it said began at least in 2019.
Lebo pinpoints the start of that decline even earlier, when sections of the landmark Voting Rights Act were repealed by the Supreme Court in 2013.
Since then, Republican state lawmakers have pursued election law reforms that allow them more control over the certification of Electoral College votes, while making it harder for people to cast a ballot in some states.
As those efforts continue — while a majority of the party’s voters continue to believe Trump’s lies about the election — Lebo says the next several years could see democracy backslide even further.
“I’m 51, and I don’t expect it to to be fixed in my lifetime,” he said.
“Until Republicans realize that pursuing this rhetoric and undermining democracy is a losing electoral strategy, this is going to continue. But right now, they’re having to play to where their voters are. And they want Trump back in power at all costs.”
The Angus Reid Institute conducted an online survey from Dec. 29- 30, 2021 among a representative randomized sample of 1,035 Canadian adults who are members of Angus Reid Forum. For comparison purposes only, a probability sample of this size would carry a margin of error of +/- 3 percentage points, 19 times out of 20. ARI conducted an additional online survey from Dec. 29-30, 2021 among a representative randomized sample of 1,025 American adults who are members of the Angus Reid Forum. For comparison purposes only, a probability sample of this size would carry a margin of error of +/- 3 percentage points, 19 times out of 20. Discrepancies in or between totals are due to rounding. The survey was self-commissioned and paid for by ARI. Detailed tables are found at the end of this release.