• University of Bristol Politics Society

Polarisation, Racism, and a Changing Media Ecosystem led to the Capitol Riots

By Maxwell Fuller, Analyst at the University of Bristol Politics Society

The storming of the U.S. Capitol was a stark acceleration in the political rifts of the Trump-era. The events of January 6th were the climax of a months-long conspiracy theory that the election had been stolen with fraudulent ballots and illegal voting (Shear, 2020). To understand why such a conspiracy was so successful and led to the riots, one must consider some of the long-term trends in the politics of the United States that shaped Trump's time in office. Increasingly, members of the Republican and Democratic party feel animosity towards each other. This contributed to the riots as Trump supporters loathed the idea of a Democratic president. The conspiracy theory of a stolen election was only so popular because of the decline in local newspapers, leaving a void for disinformation. Finally, Trump exploited anti-democratic attitudes among some Republicans that are closely tied to racial animosity. These trends led to a more fractured and tense politics under Trump, culminating in the Capitol riots.

Increasing polarisation explains why those in the crowd were susceptible to Trump's rhetoric and felt so strongly about not letting Joe Biden become President. One of the most consistent trends in American politics is the increasing distrust and animosity that the Republican and Democratic party members feel towards one another. In 1994, 17% of Democrats had very unfavourable attitudes towards Republicans and 21% of Republicans negatively felt towards Democrats (Pew, 2016). By the Trump era, these figures grew to almost 60% among both parties (Pew, 2016). This increasing disdain has raised the stakes of elections and made some voters more responsive to Trump's anti-democratic rhetoric as they simply cannot stand the other party entering office.

Closely linked to increasing polarisation is the trend of declining local media which has left a void, filled by disinformation and partisan news. In the past 15 years, a fifth of local papers has dissolved (Abernathy 2018). Instead of local outlets, voters are increasingly getting their news from national partisan news and social media (Ardia et al., 2020). This decline in local newspapers makes conspiracy theories such as the stolen election more successful. One reason for this is that it increases polarisation. Evidence for this is a study which found that voters were more likely to vote for the same party for President and senator after their local newspaper has closed, suggesting it made them stronger partisans (Darr, Hitt and Dunaway, 2018). This happens because voters switch to national media, which tends to be split by party affiliation and frame politics as a game of winners and losers (Darr, Hitt and Dunaway, 2018: 1010). Those that are particularly conspiratorial are the people who have filled their media-void with social media. Research from Pew (Shearer 2018) suggests an increasing number of Americans are getting their news from sites such as Facebook and YouTube. Disinformation is far more likely to appear on these platforms than local news (Ardia et al., 2020). This makes more voters exposed to theories such as the stolen election. Indeed, Facebook was a breeding ground for the conspiracy theory and had to stop its propagation (Isaac 2021). It also makes these theories harder to rebuff because local media cannot play the role it once did of being an authoritative source on local elections (Ardia et al., 2020). As such, outlets such as Fox News and Newsmax were able to propagate election conspiracy theories to a wide audience, encouraging people to go to Washington on the day of the riot.

As shown by the number of confederate flags present at the storming of the Capitol, racism also contributed to the storming of the Capitol. Research by Larry Bartels (2020) suggests that what he calls 'ethnic antagonism' is a significant contributing factor to anti-democratic sentiments among Trump supporters. He put forward several statements that could measure 'ethnic antagonism' to a Republican and Republican-leaning independents sample. He found that those that agreed with statements such as "things have changed so much that I often feel like a stranger in my own country," "speaking English is essential for being a true American," and that African Americans "need to stop using racism as an excuse" also likely agreed with anti-democratic sentiments (Bartels, 2020: 22756). Such sentiments included "[it is] hard to trust the results of elections", "strong leaders sometimes have to bend the rules", and that "a time will come when patriotic Americans have to take the law into their own hands" (Bartels, 2020: 22752). Jefferson (2020) summarises this research by suggesting that one factor contributing to some Republicans expressing anti-democratic attitudes is that they feel democracy benefits those they feel resentment towards. Importantly, these anti-democratic attitudes are not rare among Republicans, with just over a majority agreeing with at least one of the statements (Bartels, 2020: 22754). White supremacists have been arrested for attending the riots suggesting that Bartel's research was borne out in real life on January 6th (Tavernise and Rosenberg, 2021).

Whilst these trends have existed in American politics for some time, the storming of the Capitol provided a stark example of the consequences of their amalgamation. These trends preceded Trump and as such, one would likely be wrong to suggest that the Biden presidency would see their reversal. It is true that Biden has at least signalled that he wishes to usher in a new kind of politics with his inaugural speech mentioning unity 19 times (Economist 2021). We wait to see whether he will be successful in reducing tensions in American politics. If he does not, events like January 6th may become more likely.

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Abernathy, Penelope Muse (2018) 'The Loss of Newspapers and Readers', available at https://www.usnewsdeserts.com/reports/expanding-news-desert/loss-of-local-news/loss-newspapers-readers/#vanishingpapers, date accessed January 20th 2021

Ardia, David, Ringel, Evan, Ekstrand, Victoria Smith and Fox, Ashely (2020) 'Addressing the decline of local news, rise of platforms, and spread of mis- and disinformation online', available at https://citap.unc.edu/local-news-platforms-mis-disinformation/, date accessed January 20th 2020

Bartels, Larry (2020) 'Ethnic antagonism erodes Republicans' commitment to democracy', Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 117(37): 22752 – 22759

Darr, Joshua P., Hitt, Mattew P., Dunaway, Johanna L. (2018) 'Newspaper Closures Polarize Voting Behavior', Journal of Communication, 68(6): 1007-1028

Economist (2021) 'More than any president, Joe Biden emphasised unity at his inauguration', available athttps://www.economist.com/graphic-detail/2021/01/21/more-than-any-president-joe-biden-emphasised-unity-at-his-inauguration, date accessed January 20th

Isaac, Mike (2021) 'Facebook Dropping 'Stop the Steal' Content', available at https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/11/us/facebook-stop-the-steal.html, date accessed January 20th 2021

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Pew (2016) 'Partisanship and Political Animosity in 2016', available at pewresearch.org/politics/2016/06/22/partisanship-and-political-animosity-in-2016/ , date accessed January 20th 2021

Shearer, Elisa (2018) 'Social media outpaces print newspapers in the U.S. as a news source', date accessed January 20th 2021

Sheer, Miachel D. (2020) 'Trump, Trying to Cling to Power, Fans Unrest and Conspiracy Theories', available at https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/15/us/politics/trump-biden-election.html, date accessed January 20th 2021

Tavernise, Sabrina and Rosenberg, Matthew (2021) 'These Are the Rioters Who Stormed the Nation's Capitol', available at https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/07/us/names-of-rioters-capitol.html , date accessed January 20th 2021