Q&A with Government Professor and NH State House Representative Russell Muirhead
Muirhead reflects on the one-year anniversary of the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol and what it means for the future of democracy.
Government professor and New Hampshire state representative Russell Muirhead, D-Hanover, has conducted extensive research on conspiracy theories, political partisanship and democracy. He is also a co-director of the Political Economy Project, an interdisciplinary initiative that aims to answer questions located at the intersection of politics, economics and ethics.
The Dartmouth sat down with Muirhead to reflect on the anniversary of the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol.
Thinking back to when the attack happened last year, do you remember what your initial reaction was to the news?
RM: I was in a legislative session — an outdoor legislative session — in a parking lot of the University of New Hampshire when the news hit that the Capitol was being attacked by a mob that had just gathered to listen to President Trump. And in truth, I was aghast. I had written a book published in 2019 called “A Lot of People Are Saying” about conspiratorial thinking and in that book, my co-author and I imagined a scenario where the president would refuse to concede, citing a rigged election. Even though we had contemplated this scenario, we never thought it would actually happen, so I was aghast and appalled.
In “A Lot of People Are Saying,” you defined a new form of conspiracism — has that definition changed in any way post-attack?
RM: Conspiratorial thinking is more about getting power and keeping power than it is about explaining power. I think that has metastasized since we first described it. There is a book about conspiracy theories written by a couple of psychologists called “American Conspiracy Theories” where they lay out the classic view that conspiracy theories are for, as they put it, “losers” — meaning people who have lost status, people who are on the periphery of society. What we saw from 2016 to 2020 was conspiratorial thinking coming from the most powerful person on Earth, not from someone on the periphery — that was different. Ever since we published our book, we thought the conspiratorial thinking might go away, it might recede. Instead, it has redoubled; it has re-amplified. So, I don’t think there’s been a change since we charted this new kind of conspiratorial thinking, but I do think that what we are trying to describe has become even more potent and extensive.
Post-attack, there have been many news reports of immense voter distrust of elections, particularly among those who still feel resentment and believe President Trump’s claims about the election being rigged. How do you think voter distrust will continue to affect future elections and bipartisanship?
RM: Voter distrust is a very, very toxic force. There are hundreds of thousands of people who believe that the 2020 election was decided fraudulently. They think that President Trump won by a landslide — and it doesn’t take that many people to stop believing in democratic processes before democracy itself stops working. So this is a threat of the first order, and I can’t predict what’s going to happen. But I would say that the danger right now is acute.
Multiple news outlets have conducted and released polls whose results cite that a large majority of Americans are worried about the ‘fate of democracy.’ Do you think this is a concern for future political engagement?
RM: The basic rules of democracy right now are up for grabs — they’re at stake. Normally, the political contest is more about policy: more redistribution, less redistribution, more regulation, less regulation. Normally, the contest of democracy is not about democracy itself. When it comes to be about democracy itself, it comes to achieve a kind of revolutionary dimension, meaning there are people who are contesting the nature of the regime itself. So, I think that political engagement will be more engaging, but much more dangerous.
Post-attack, is there anything that hasn’t changed?
RM: Well, the way in which tribal spirit is distorting people’s willingness to see the truth and describe it has not changed. In the immediate aftermath of Jan. 6, many Republicans publicly said that this has gone too far and they broke with President Trump, such as Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy.
That did not last. They started backpedaling and came around to embracing Trump and denying that anything illicit or dangerous happened on Jan. 6. They decided to let their tribal spirit, their team spirit, blind them of the truth and decided to exile Liz Cheney from their party rather than Donald Trump. So, this intense tribal spirit that’s fueling misinformation and delusion has not changed. I thought it would; it didn’t.
Would you consider the attack to be a turning point in history?
RM: Well, I don’t know yet. Donald Trump took over the Republican party, and there were many objections to that: from party officials, party activists, longtime party leaders, governors, representatives, members of Congress, Senators and other presidential aspirates. Nobody wanted him to be the nominee. He was able to prevail in the primary contest and took over the Republican party. That was a turning point. Jan. 6 offered the Republican Party a chance to turn back, to turn away from Trump. And it decided not to. So what that means for the future is far too early to tell.
Finally, as an educator, was there anything specific you took away from the attack?
RM: In the United States, we think that because we’ve had a very stable politics since about 1870, that the ground we walk on is very, very firm. But in fact, we might be skating on some very thin ice. Which is to say that democratic institutions might be more fragile than we have been inclined to think for a long time now.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.