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Dissecting Chaos: an interdisciplinary examination of the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol

February 04, 2021

Penn faculty analyze the events that took place at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

This story originally appears in Penn Today

Just over a month ago, a violent mob stormed the U.S. Capitol in a failed effort to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election, killing five people and injuring dozens more. How did that happen, and what can be done to prevent it from happening again?

Faculty from five disciplines at the University took part in a virtual panel discussion last week to look at those questions — an effort to unpack the policies, messages and conditions that led to the events of Jan. 6, and to explore how America moves forward. The discussion was moderated by Dean Erika James of The Wharton School, and was followed by a Q&A session facilitated by Dean Ted Ruger of the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School.

Panelists included historian Mary Frances Berry from the School of Arts and Sciences (SAS); professor Damon Centola of the Annenberg School for Communication; professor Dennis Culhane, of the school of Social Policy & Practice; Penn law professor Jean Galbraith; political scientist Daniel Gillion of SAS; and Wharton marketing professor Cait Lamberton.

The 90-minute discussion covered a wide range of topics including how social networks played a role in the insurrection; the legal risks former President Donald Trump might have taken and possible precedents set; policy failures that led to the unrest; consumer psychology techniques Trump used with his base; and inaccurate comparisons of the riot to the summer protests over George Floyd murder by police.

The talk wrapped up with a discussion of ways to move forward, and how Penn faculty can help their students be leaders in those efforts in the years to come.

“We need to do more to reinforce the values of integrity and empathy,” Galbraith said.

Role of social networks

The role online social networks played in both polarizing political behavior and providing an organizing platform are key issues in the Jan. 6 riot, Centola said.

Decisions like those made by Facebook and Twitter to muzzle Trump can be good because they limit autocratic voices and hate speech activists from reaching lots of people, he said.

The bad side is that if you exclude those sorts of voices from a mainstream conversation and force them onto niche sites, those sites can gain a lot of traction and amplify falsehoods and hate speech.

“We need to take a very careful look at both the moral implications of decisions about how social media is used, and also the social and economic dynamics of how these markets evolve and develop thoughtful policies, so that we can design markets that amplify the kinds of democratic discourse we want to see,” he said.

He talked about a study that featured Democrats or Republicans talking about climate change data on social media. Once researchers removed political imagery, both Democrats and Republicans came to about a 90% understanding and agreement about what the data said and what climate trends were, he said.

“It was a really effective space and it’s remarkable how when you take away these factors on social media that amplify party loyalty, how natural democratic deliberation becomes and how productive it becomes.”

These platforms weren’t designed to be good for deliberative democracy or productive social discourse, he notes, but were designed for entertainment.

“Now we’re saddled with a problem where these spaces are used for genuine political discourse, for social organizing and so forth,” he said. “There needs to be a very serious dialogue between our public policy offices, and CEOs of these for-profit companies figuring out what the purposes are of those spaces and how to design that most effectively.”

Legal issues, precedents and punishments

As a scholar of the separation of powers, Galbraith studies the way in which different institutions check and balance each other and she was struck by how many institutions Trump pressured in the months from the election until Jan. 6.

From the meritless cases in the courts, to pressuring state election officials in Georgia, to trying to get the department of justice to support his bogus election claims, none of Trump’s efforts changed the election, she said.

“Then on Jan. 6, we saw another, even more appalling manifestation,” she said.

She said she thinks it’s too early to know what precedents might be set as a result of Trump’s actions, and it will depend on what the senate decides in his impeachment trial.

“If the bean counters are right, and he’s again acquitted, then one depressing precedent that’s going to come out of the Trump administration not once but twice, is the remedy for abuse of power that the framers put into the constitution — the impeachment process — is a failure,” she said. The framers didn’t foresee the party system and assumed that congress and the president would act as checks against each other, she said.

Galbraith sees most of the federal cases against the rioters ending in plea bargains.

“One thing to keep in mind is that prisons are places where people can be radicalized further, and where they can radicalize others, and I very much hope that the federal government is thinking ahead on those issues,” she said.

Comparisons to Black Lives Matter protests

For Gillian, who has written extensively about the importance of protest in American politics, any comparisons between what the Capital rioters did relative to Black Lives Matter protesters last summer is faulty.

“The Black Lives Matter movement was about upholding the American creed put forth by Thomas Jefferson of liberty and equality, it’s about saving lives. It’s about not having black men down in the street with a knee on their neck,” he said. “January 6th was about an insurrectionist group that looked to walk in to hinder the democratic process.”

He said the lack of awareness of the Capitol rioters’ potential for violence stems from their being white and therefore not a perceived threat, and it “allows for a startling difference between the way race plays out when individuals are pushing back in society. It was disappointing and it was troubling.”

Berry said she was pleased to hear federal prosecutors are carefully sorting out those who engaged in violence and doesn’t want to see people who were simply protesting being prosecuted as well.

“I just hope that whatever we do, we don’t go so far to extremes that it makes it impossible on the left — including the Black Lives Matter protests — to push on and to try to get change in society, which is very much needed,” she said.

Social policies leading to unrest

Trumpism is not about promoting particular social policies but rather about channeling the resentment of the white working class, said Culhane, but that resentment derives from social policy failures in the U.S.

“Social policies have wreaked havoc on the lives and communities of working-class people of all races and Trumpism is in large part a backlash against this loss of communities, jobs, marriages,” he said.

The inequalities have widened in the last two decades at the expense of the bottom 50% of the income distribution, he said.

“People’s fears that the pie is getting smaller are in fact founded because the income distribution upward has in fact shrunk the pie for the bottom 50%,” relative to gains in the GDP, he said.

“We have a long way to go to reforming social policies to recover from this moment, because it’s been such a long time in the making and is so deeply embedded in the systems of our country,”

Trump’s marketing and consumer psychology

“We always tell Marketing 101 that people need to know how you’re different from everyone else. Donald Trump did that extremely effectively,” Lamberton said. “He matched up what people were looking for and what he could provide that nobody else really could, and in marketing that’s a magical space.”

He built his brand using everything from slogan crafting, to portraying himself on “the side of the angels and everybody else is on the side of the devils” to reaching out to people who felt they hadn’t been seen or heard and affirming that for them, she said.

“He presented something that was really authentic and when I say authentic I don’t mean true, but in his very lack of self control he seemed authentic and that was a huge part of his brand,” she said. “People like authentic brands; he wasn’t censored; he wasn’t scripted, which was in contrast to his opponent in 2016, and that authenticity resonated with a lot of people.”

Ways forward

Key to moving forward is making sure Americans are engaging with each other as real people with real concerns, Berry said.

“It’s easy to dismiss people, to just say ‘well they’re all racists.’ But they are concerned about jobs and poverty and homelessness and opioids and feel overlooked,” she said.

Lamberton echoed those thoughts, adding “we want a culture that builds dignity and we need every part of the marketplace to give people a chance to be seen and to be heard.”

On the political side, reducing gerrymandering, more primaries so only two people advance to the ticket, and better access to the ballot are some solutions, Galbraith said.

“This election brings home to us the importance of federal election officials but also of state election officials and the need for people of integrity in those positions,” she said. “Attention to that process is one of many solutions that need to be had and conversations need to be had now.”

For Culhane, social policy changes would be a start: increasing the minimum wage, boosting infrastructure spending to both create jobs but also deal with issues of the need for housing, building school, roads, transit; and recreating a safety net for American.

“We’ve had 40 years of attacks on the safety net. Political football has been played with all these programs by both sides to look like they’re tough on welfare, and it’s just whittled away at the supports that were intended to help people bridge difficult economic times,” he said. “We have a lot of places where we can improve social policy that would increase the pie for the bottom 50% of the population,” he said.

Rather than thinking of social media as ways to build career networks and to get ahead career-wise, Centola urges students to think of their social media participation as building an infrastructure that can help them be more effective citizens. His group is doing that already with the medical students and residents, working with them to build networks that help reduce implicit bias, he said.

For students looking to make societal changes, Berry had this advice:

“Don’t look at just one side of the issue. When you think about the kind of social change that you want, think about all the people who have been left out or marginalized or feel that they are overlooked,” she said. “Then I think we can have progress, and we won’t be as polarized in this country.”

Mary Frances Berry is the Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought and professor of history in the School of Arts & Sciences.

Damon Centola is a professor of communication, sociology and engineering at the Annenberg School for Communication.

Dennis Culhane is the Dana and Andrew Stone Chair in Social Policy, a professor and a co-principal investigator in actionable intelligence for social policy in the school of Social Policy & Practice.

Jean Galbraith is a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania Carey School of Law.

Daniel Gillion is the Julie Beren Platt and Marc E. Platt Presidential Distinguished Professor of Political Science in the School of Arts & Sciences.

Cait Lamberton is the Alberto I. Duran President’s Distinguished Professor and a professor of marketing at The Wharton School.