The United States Capitol is supposed to act as the architectural embodiment of America’s highest ideals. Last week, it was the scene of an ugly mob that devolved into a deadly riot. Words like “sedition” and “insurrection” sound hyperbolic; yet by definition, they work in this case.
In the ensuing (and notably bipartisan) criticism of this disturbing demonstration, one theme that keeps popping up is the characterization of these protests as “anti-democratic.” This moniker isn’t so neat a fit.
It is true that the Capitol rioters’ immediate goal was to reverse the outcome of the election, yet it’s worth noting their motivations. They had apparently fooled themselves (with the validation of one very powerful voice who ought to know better) into believing that anecdotes about election irregularities constitute widespread fraud. Under that set of beliefs, storming the Capitol must have seemed like a righteous mission — not just to a fringe few who organized it, but also (as I wrote about on Medium) to the hundreds of others who joined the insurrection and to countless others who may have felt the same but weren’t there that day.
Mobs are not “undemocratic.” In fact the knock against democracy has always been the chance for majority rule to degenerate into mob rule, and for popular whims of the moment to become laws chiseled into stone. Flip through the Federalist Papers and you’ll see plenty of ink spilled discussing how the U.S. Constitution mitigates the effects of majority rule. Concepts like checks and balances, diffused power, and frequent elections all exist to help temper the effects of “the will of the people.”
That will could have used some tempering last week, and some powerful people who may have been in a position to do so clearly misread how upset their followers were and are. However you feel about last week’s events, there are more people out there who share in the frustration and anger that boiled up into the Capitol. We can and should prosecute the actual rioters, but that alone isn’t going to solve the problems that caused the riot to happen in the first place.