Like many people, I disagree with the vast majority of the beliefs and ideals that have been attributed to the people who showed up to protest in Washington, DC on January 6. COVID was not planned, the election was not stolen, and the Democrats are not running a pedophile ring. However, there are some serious problems with how powerful groups and the media have framed the events. In particular, the storming of the United States Capitol building is being used to reaffirm the greatness of America’s pre-Trump “democracy” even though capitalism has existed in opposition to that democracy for more than a century. The events in Washington were driven not by Trump, but by a long-term legacy of polarizing power and popular alienation.
Therefore, we can’t buy into the simple explanation that these are “radicalized” “extremists” or “terrorists.” Those terms are used to distract us from asking serious questions about why people do the things they do. The question shifts from “why did they do that?” to “how did they become radicalized?” This has taken the discussion away from long-term economic and political structures that set the basis for any kind of revolution.
We have to consider that many of the people in Washington had very legitimate reasons, including some who entered the Capitol building. This is not a case of a great democratic nation being assaulted by anti-democratic forces. This can be better understood as a result of how “democracy” as a label has been stretched and applied over the decades, and how that relates to the experiences and expectations of the population.
Social scientist Philippe C. Schmitter’s concept of “real-existing democracy” can be used to explain this. Basically, this refers to the fact that democracy is a label that has been attached to a wide range of societies whose actual policies are very different from each other. Also, the label often stays connected to a country over time even if its governmental structure and policies change greatly. Since the term is seen as a positive thing, societal rulers have an interest in maintaining the label because it suggests that their system is a great one. This is why we so often (and especially in recent days) hear our political leaders talk about how we have a “great democracy” and how precious it is—the expectation being that we should protect it by keeping our grievances and related actions within an acceptable margin. Storming the Capitol, of course, is beyond the pale.
Contrasting those who entered the Capitol with “our great democracy” is an easy way to vilify them. After all, if you are attacking something that is great, you must be depraved. Real-existing democracy has three characteristics: a) it calls itself democratic, b) it is recognized by other self-declared democracies as a rightful member of the group, and c) social scientists using conventional methods will classify it as democratic since the nature of the concept becomes embedded within intellectual and academic culture (which is part of how the application of the label is reproduced).
But as the actual policies and conditions of life change for people, there becomes a disconnect between democracy and real life. While ideal democracy spreads decision-making power evenly across a population, capitalism does the opposite. In a capitalist system over time, decision-making power and resources become more concentrated in fewer hands. This means that the vast majority of the population expects to be involved in decision-making (since they have learned to see their society as a “democracy”), but in reality they are not (since it’s actually an oligarchic capitalist system).
According to Schmitter, over time, symptoms of this contradiction are that citizens become less likely to vote, less likely to identify with political parties, less likely to trust politicians, and less likely to be satisfied with how they are being governed and the benefits they receive from government. Sound familiar? Back to Washington. As I watched countless hours of video and other testimony of the events, I noticed a short ad-hoc interview with a young man named Thomas Berany. His interview occurred spontaneously within a six-hour live stream on Global News, but has not been mentioned anywhere in mass media reports since. Berany was standing right beside Ashli Babbitt when she was shot, and he had her blood on his hand. He can also be seen in videos of the shooting. Berany (wearing a medical mask) was one of the first to enter the Capitol from a nearby scaffold. Based on mass media reports, this would make him a “right-wing extremist,” “terrorist,” and “thug.” But his interview did not show any of those things.
Clearly shaken by his experience, Berany described the whole event. He explained that he was among those who “tore through the scaffolding through flash bangs and tear gas.” He and his cohorts were “just trying to get into Congress or get into wherever we could get to and tell them that we need some kind of investigation into this.” Then he spoke about politics. “They don’t represent anyone. Not Republican, Democrat, nobody. And now they’ll kill people.”
When asked who will kill people, his response was “police, Congressmen and women, they don’t care—they think we’re a joke.” Referring to the government’s lame support for workers during the pandemic, Berany went on: “$2,000 cheques was a joke to them… at the Department of Justice there was a man laughing at us and filming us. We were a joke to them until we got inside and then the guns came out.” To see his sincerity, I encourage you to see the interview (the video is available on YouTube, and the interview takes place at the 1:46:50 mark).
This clearly articulate person is an illustration of what can happen when someone experiences the disparity between the democratic ideal professed by our leaders and the reality of their day-to-day lives. The mistrust for the political system and feelings of betrayal and alienation from decision-making is characteristic of the growing separation between our “great democracy” and what really exists in its place.
What drove many people to Washington is their belief that they are in an ideal democratic society combined with the reality that they aren’t, and the implications go way beyond punishing a bunch of thugs. Focusing entirely on the hate groups that have hijacked the movement does a disservice to most of the population and blindly defends the state of today’s politics.
Curtis Pankratz is an associate professor at the University of Winnipeg.