Researcher: Democracy Can Thrive in Darkness

Fear has invaded many aspects of American political life, but hasn’t quashed political organizing, scholar Emily Van Duyn said at an IDDP-hosted conference on the Jan. 6 insurrection.

American flag raised at Jan. 6 rally.
Repercussions of the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, which left five dead, still resonate for citizens and researchers. (Marco Verch/Flickr)
January 10, 2022

By Ruth Steinhardt

On Jan. 6, 2021, insurrectionists stormed the U.S. Capitol hoping to overturn the legitimate presidential election of Joe Biden. A year later, questions about the event—its origins in disinformation, its effect on the American political climate and its implications for the future of electoral democracy—remain urgent, researchers said last week at “The Capitol Coup One Year Later: How Research Can Assess and Counter Threats to Democracy.”

The two-day conference was jointly hosted by the George Washington University Institute for Data, Democracy and Politics (IDDP) and University of North Carolina Center for Information, Technology and Public Life (CITAP).

“I believe that we as citizens and scholars can play a pivotal role in unpacking what happened a year ago and why, and envisioning a fair and just path forward,” IDDP director Rebekah Tromble said Thursday during the IDDP-hosted part of the conference.

Even before the insurrection, a climate of fear and silence was coalescing around even moderate American politics, researcher Emily Van Duyn said in her Thursday keynote.

An assistant professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, Van Duyn spent two years with a secret progressive women’s group in Texas to which she gives the pseudonym “Community Women’s Group,” or “CWG.” Comprising both Democrats and disaffected Republicans, the group meets to discuss politics and take political action. And they take strong measures to preserve their anonymity, including a signed confidentiality agreement that prohibits members even from naming the group to those outside it.

That focus on secrecy stems from fear of reprisals from their conservative community, Van Duyn said. Their fears range from the social (they’ve seen community members shunned for working Democratic tables at local primaries) to the economic (those who have small businesses are afraid of losing customers if their political views become known) and even the physical. In a state where any adult can buy a firearm without a permit, background check or registration, CWG members who have put out lawn signs for Democratic candidates have found them riddled with bullets.

Though mostly white, straight and middle- to upper-class, the women Van Duyn studied even use language associated with historical marginalization, describing themselves struggling with “coming out” as Democrats to potentially hostile families and communities.

The CWG’s existence is testament to changing mores in a liberal democracy, where typically those “afraid of expressing their beliefs” were people with extreme far right- or left-wing beliefs and historically marginalized people with little social power, Van Duyn said. Now, moderates and people from privileged social groups also feel the chilling effects of polarization. In survey data Van Duyn collected from Texas and national legislators, 22 percent of respondents said they felt a need to hide their political conversations from those around them.

“Mainstream partisans, average Republicans and Democrats, are afraid,” Van Duyn said.

Those feelings of fear or safety about speech depend on how closely an individual’s beliefs align with their community, Van Duyn said. Democrats in CWG’s small rural county, which swung heavily for Donald Trump in the 2016 and 2020 elections, are a political minority likely to fear retaliation. Democrats in Texas cities like Austin might not be.

“Free speech—this foundational principle of liberal democracy, one that is absolutely at the current center of the current debates around the role of platforms and technology—is not ubiquitous, it’s contextual,” Van Duyn said. “If we want to argue about free speech, then we need to think about whose speech and where that speech takes place in addition to how valuable it is to our democratic good.”

But Van Duyn cautioned against a “both sides” approach to these political communities. She pointed out that 43 percent of “Stop the Steal” Facebook groups contained at least five instances of "violent and inciting" content. For comparison, less than 1 percent of all civic groups on Facebook contain such content.

For Van Duyn, the story of the insurrectionists is closely tied to that of the CWG, and both are stories that indicate the need for a new research paradigm on democracy and partisanship. Online spaces complicate the meaning of “community” and change the ways in which people talk—or don’t talk—about politics. The events of Jan. 6, combined with the way even mainstream citizens fear reprisal for their political beliefs, even suggest that the United States is no longer operating as a traditional liberal democracy.

“We are not in the same democracy where many of these theories and methods were built from the beginning. We're in a different place,” Van Duyn said. “That means we as researchers need to be thinking about how can we build new theories and methodologies.”

Both the CWG and the insurrectionists are stories about  the way fear has invaded American political life, Van Duyn said. But while “Stop the Steal” was dedicated to “stoking fear,” she said, pointing to one insurrectionist group’s online rallying cry—“If they won’t hear us, they will fear us”—CWG is a story about “persisting through fear.”

“Our prognosis for democracy is not simple. It’s not black and white,” Van Duyn said. “It is made complicated by the coexistence of fear and persistence that we see in these two stories.”

In other words, democracy is not dead—it is “just in the dark,” she said. “And the public relies on this darkness to do democratic good, just as it does democratic harm.”

Politics and Society