Image of Stephen Farnsworth courtesy of subject. Graphic treatment by Keith Warther.
Image of Stephen Farnsworth courtesy of subject. Graphic treatment by Keith Warther.

To better understand the events of Jan. 6 and the threats facing the US, we spoke to Stephen Farnsworth, a professor of political science at the University of Mary Washington.

One year ago this week, the worst attack on American democracy in more than 200 years took place just across the Potomac.

Just two months after millions of voters in the commonwealth—and across the country—decisively elected Joe Biden as president, hundreds of armed, violent insurrectionists gathered in Washington, DC, and attacked the US Capitol, seeking to block Congress from certifying the 2020 presidential election results.

Incited by former President Donald Trump and his months of lies about voter fraud and baseless claims that the election was stolen from him, these extremists brutally attacked police officers, hunted lawmakers, and carried out a dangerous attack that left five people dead.

Mercifully, Trump’s attempted coup failed, and over the past year, more than 30 Virginians have been arrested and charged by the US Department of Justice over their roles in the insurrection.

But this horrific assault on democracy didn’t occur in a vacuum; it was actively encouraged and aided by Republican leaders—including Virginia state Sen. Amanda Chase (R-Midlothian) and other state lawmakers—who lied to their supporters about the outcome of the presidential contest and begged them to “Stop The Steal.” 

They listened. And though they might have failed to keep the former president in office, Trump, his allies, and supporters aren’t stopping their attacks on democracy. Instead, they’re ramping them up. 

To better understand the events of Jan. 6 and the threats facing the US, Dogwood spoke to Stephen Farnsworth, a professor of political science at the University of Mary Washington.

The below interview has been condensed for length and clarity.

What was your reaction to the events of Jan. 6, 2021? How did you feel watching the attack on the US Capitol unfold?

Farnsworth: This truly was an unprecedented event, what happened on January 6. When you think about the Civil War, the Confederates never got to the Capitol, but the rebellion of 2021 did and they delayed this process. It is an astonishingly powerful departure from the way American politics has operated in the past. Normally, when one side loses, they accept the outcome. They may not like it, but they don’t try to block it in the way that occurred last January.

Did you have any visceral or gut reaction watching the attack occur? 

Farnsworth: Above all, this is an astonishing moment. No one would expect this, because it hasn’t happened—not only in our lifetimes, but in the lifetimes of our parents, our grandparents, even our great grandparents. One of the most troubling aspects of Jan. 6 is not how close it came to succeeding—as troubling as that is—but the sense among so many people in the country that this is still an illegitimate election. Despite all the rulings of the courts that have given no credence to any of the claims by Donald Trump that the election was stolen, we’re still hearing this conversation from Trump and others about Biden being an illegitimate president. 

If we can’t accept that the people in charge of our elections are conducting them fairly and honestly, we are in a great deal of trouble in this country.

Rioters try to enter the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

How big of a deal was it and what does it say about this moment in time that there was an attack on a Capitol?

Farnsworth: This is why we should be paying a great deal of attention to what’s going on in the legal process, because ultimately—as anyone who is the parent of a toddler knows—rewarded behavior is repeated behavior. If there is not sufficiently aggressive punishment for the people who invaded the Capitol … then we can imagine this as sort of a dress rehearsal for some future attack on our rule of law. This lawlessness simply has to be dealt with severely or else it will happen again. 

One of the things that we see—those people that study the rise of authoritarian movements and the degradation of democracy—they all point to the same sort of thing: These coups don’t always happen the first time. These efforts to undermine the political system take a period of time, take a process of various failures before there is eventually a success. And so anyone who belittles the 2021 attack at the core of our political system is simply asking for another round of trouble in a future election.

Many Republicans have tried to downplay or outright move on from the events of Jan. 6. What do you think about that?

Farnsworth: Ultimately both parties need to be committed to the rule of law or the system isn’t going to work. That fundamentally is a challenge for those Republicans who, for political reasons, are simply being silent or otherwise condoning the actions of Jan. 6. If you say that it wasn’t a big deal—the biggest attack on our Democracy since the War of 1812 and the sacking of the Capitol by a foreign, invading army—then you really are not looking out for the best interests of America long term. 

Our political system is far more important than who wins and who loses a given election. If we can’t accept the rules of the game—rules that will sometimes mean one side wins, sometimes mean that same side loses—then we are in a world of trouble.

The Big Lie seems to have become a litmus test of sorts for Republicans—what kind of impact could that have moving forward?

Farnsworth: I think it’s important to remember that the Republicans still are struggling to figure out how to deal with Donald Trump. In Virginia, where I’m based, the candidate for governor, who was successful, was a Republican who really kept Donald Trump at arm’s length. He had Trump’s endorsement, but you did not hear him talking about The Big Lie, not talking about recounts. There were the occasional comments by Glenn Youngkin about voter integrity and making sure that the system is effective, but by no means was there a full-throated endorsement of Donald Trump for this candidate and by no means did Youngkin want one. 

The reality in Virginia could be the model for some other Republicans in other states. But certainly, as we look around the country now and the midterm elections, there does seem to be in a lot of Republican primaries a movement in the opposite direction to that of Youngkin’s: the idea in many Republican primaries that you want to be the most aggressive defender of Trump. 

It is a fundamentally dangerous thing from the point of view of democracy that the lawlessness is not being treated with the contempt and the disapproval that would be what a party that is truly committed to law and order would endorse.

Trump called into question the election results, a lot of Republicans in the House voted not to certify the election, and at the state level, there have been efforts across the country to change voting laws to make it more difficult to vote. What sort of impact do these anti-democratic efforts have on everyday Americans? 

Farnsworth: If you’re in the process of undermining small-d democratic elections, that really undermines the process itself. If you cannot have free and fair elections monitored, administered, executed by professionals who are committed to following the law—whichever party might win—then you have a world of trouble. 

There has been a lot of conversation about some bills making their way through Congress right now to try to create a system that allows for aggressive monitoring of these efforts to try to undermine elections, to establish certain federal standards that may create an environment where these efforts to undermine the election process to benefit one party will not be able to succeed. 

But failure on the part of the Congress to come up with a system that is more aggressive at defending the voting rights of American citizens wherever they may reside, whatever state may be their home—this is a fundamental question about whether this election process in 2022 will be professionally run, will be fairly run. Without action by the federal government, I think the risks of problems will increase greatly.

How worried are you about the state of democracy and the general political climate in America?

Farnsworth: I think it’s important to recognize that America sometimes has these kinds of political fevers that really come to bear and create very, very difficult times for our political system. Historically though, the fevers kind of break and they pass and we end up with a system that takes us back to more of our conventional respect for the rule of law by all sides. If you think about the period leading up to the Civil War or the Red Scare of the ‘50s or the Jim Crow South of the early 20th century, these things eventually get resolved. We move past them. The passage of time being what it is, one can be hopeful that the fever breaks relatively soon and the Republicans recognize the rule of law is one important than the rule of one man. And when that happens, it will be a good day for all of us. But it hasn’t happened yet.

Do you have any thoughts or concerns about the state of democracy in Virginia?

Over the last couple of years in Virginia, there’s been a very aggressive effort to try to create high standards for voting in the commonwealth. We’ve made it easier in Virginia to vote absentee, no excuses are required. We’ve made it easier to register to vote. We’ve made it easier to drop off ballots and to vote by mail. When you think about all the processes that have been improved—some of them even as a result of COVID but others as a result just simply of the idea that voting should be made more accessible to people—you see a significant improvement. 

Now, there’s been little sense from the Youngkin campaign that they wanted to undo those reforms, but even if they tried, the Senate of Virginia is still under Democratic control, so the Republican majority House and the Republican governor, even if they wished to dramatically scale back the most recent changes in Virginia election mechanics, they don’t seem likely to be able to do so. 

Do you think the US could descend into a second civil war?

I think again the key question is the punishments that are meted out to the people who trespassed on the Capitol. I have my doubts that some of the punishments that have been meted out so far by the judges in the cases that have been resolved so far are sufficiently severe. But it’s also the case that some of the true ringleaders have yet to be brought to trial, so what we will see going forward I think will give us a sense of whether or not people will think there’s enough of an opening for this kind of behavior to be repeated in the future.