Skip to content

Latest Stories

Top Stories

What is ‘legitimate political discourse,’ and does it include the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol?

Capitol insurrection, "legitimate political discourse"
Congress is divided over whether to establish a commission to investigate the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol.
Samuel Corum/Getty Images

Mercieca is a professor of communication at Texas A&M University. Shaffer is an associate professor at Kansas State University.

When the governing body of the Republican Party called the events of Jan. 6, 2021, “legitimate public discourse,” it renewed a sometimes-furious debate about what are, and aren’t, acceptable forms of discussion and debate in a democratic society.

This question has emerged frequently in recent years, with complaints about inappropriate methods of protest, efforts to take particular viewpoints off social media, and accusations that various people are disseminating misleading information. But the issue took on new urgency on Feb. 4, 2022, when the Republican National Committee censured U.S. Reps. Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois.

They are the only Republicans serving on the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol. The governing body of the Republican Party said this meant they were “participating in a Democrat-led persecution of ordinary citizens engaged in legitimate political discourse.”

As researchers who study the relationship between communication and democracy, we believe our insights can help citizens draw the line between “legitimate political discourse” and illegitimate political violence.

There are legal standards defining protected speech, but something that meets the legal definitions may not necessarily help build and maintain democracy. Scholarly definitions of the types of speech that are beneficial for democracy help make the issues clearer.

Sign up for The Fulcrum newsletter

Persuasion, not coercion

Put most simply, speech that is designed to teach people about other viewpoints and persuade them to change their minds – rather than pressuring them to take different actions – is good for democracy.

The key, as pointed out by communication scholar Daniel O'Keefe, is that the audience has “ some measure of freedom” about receiving the message and choosing how to act upon it.

Persuasion, even in its most vigorous and aggressive form, is an invitation. When a person seeks to persuade someone else to agree with their viewpoint or values, or to recall or ignore history in a particular way, the recipient may choose to go along, or not.

Coercion, on the other hand, is a kind of force – a command, not an invitation. Coercion denies others the freedom to choose for themselves whether to agree or disagree. Coercion and violence are anti-democratic because they deny others their ability to consent. Violence and coercion are the very opposite of legitimate political discourse.

Politics is not war, and legitimate political discourse is not violence.

‘Be a citizen, not a partisan,’ says Jennifer Mercieca, a historian of political discourse.

What about protest?

Protests can take many forms. In their most democratic form, political scientist Mary Scudder notes that protests “ can improve the deliberativeness of a political system by putting important problems on the agenda or introducing new arguments into the public sphere.” Protest helps people to be aware of the views held by others, even if different groups disagree vehemently.

In the name of democracy, scholars of communication, free speech and deliberation have said protesters deserve to be heard and given as much latitude as possible to communicate with the public. In part, that is because protesters may represent underprivileged or mistreated people whose messages may be hard for powerful interests to hear.

But impassioned protest can sometimes seem like an attempt at coercion, especially for people who feel targeted by the protesters’ messages.

Persuasion and coercion on Jan. 6

The Republican National Committee would like Americans to focus on the peaceful protesters who gathered on Jan. 6, 2021, to hear President Donald Trump’s speech at the Ellipse – and ignore the violence at the Capitol.

If we look at the Ellipse, we see a vibrant, and legitimate, political protest with signs, chants and speeches. If we look at the Capitol, by contrast, we see illegitimate political violence, including people using bear spray, erecting a hangman’s noose and assaulting others.

The link between them was Trump’s speech. He used a particular combination of rhetorical strategies, calling for a plague to be removed so that the nation could be pure again; threatening force; and claiming that his group was good, strong, pure and sure of victory. He also made claims of victimhood, of having had something stolen from him and his supporters. This specific combination of rhetorical strategies has traditionally been used to motivate a nation for war.

That type of communication from a president can be legitimate political discourse when used to motivate a nation to war against another nation, though there have certainly been circumstances in American history in which that power has been abused. But when the president uses that rhetoric against the democratic process in his own government in order to retain power, it is not legitimate political discourse. Rather, as scholars of authoritarianism have explained, using war rhetoric against your own nation amounts to an “autogolpe,” or “self-coup.”

When Trump urged the Ellipse crowd to march to the Capitol and “ fight like hell,” his words transformed an occasion of legitimate political discourse into an anti-democratic violent insurrection.

The result was real physical violence, characterized by Capitol Police Sgt. Aquilino Gonell, a 42-year-old veteran of the war in Iraq, as a “ medieval battle.” Several people died and many were injured.

American democracy was damaged as well. Lisa Murkowski, a Republican U.S. senator from Alaska, called the Republican National Committee’s characterization “false” and “wrong,” saying on Feb. 5, 2022, that the events at the Capitol were “an effort to overturn a lawful election.”

Democracy isn’t a game. To respond with appropriate seriousness, Americans can’t frame moments such as Jan. 6 simply as a “ competition between left versus right, Democrat versus Republican; a battle of individuals and political factions,” writes communications scholar Dannagal Young. Those violent, coercive events are challenges to the real heart of democracy: peaceful persuasion and the rule of law.

Looking at the entirety of what occurred on Jan. 6, 2021, it’s clear that there was both legitimate protest and illegitimate political violence. When political violence replaces political discourse, and when political leaders refuse to play by the democratic rules of the game, democracies weaken, and may even die.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Click here to read the original article.

Read More

Secret Service agents covering Trump

Secret service agents cover former President Donald Trump after he was wounded in an assassination attempt July 13.

Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Violence lives in all of us

Molineaux is the lead catalyst for American Future, a research project that discovers what Americans prefer for their personal future lives. The research informs community planners with grassroots community preferences. Previously, Molineaux was the president/CEO of The Bridge Alliance.

Whenever we or our loved ones are harmed, it is our human tendency to seek vengeance. Violence begets violence. Violent words lead to violent actions, as we’ve witnessed in the assassination attempt on former President Donald Trump.

The violence of the gunman is his alone.

Our response to violence is about us.

Keep ReadingShow less
Sen. Tammy Duckworth and Rep. Don Bacon

Sen. Tammy Duckworth and Rep. Don Bacon won the "Life in Congress" award from the Congressional Management Foundation.

The best bosses in an unusual work environment: Capitol Hill

Fitch is the president and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation and a former congressional staffer.

Our nation’s capital is known for many things — but good management practices are not among them. Stories regularly surface of bizarre tales of harassment and abuse by members of Congress. An Instagram feed a few years ago unearthed dozens of stories by staff outing less-than-desirable managers and members for their bad practices. But what about the good leaders and good managers?

Like any profession, Congress actually has quite a few exemplary office leaders. And the beneficiaries of these role models are not just their staff — it’s also their constituents. When a congressional office can retain great talent, sometimes over decades, the quality of the final legislative product or constituent service rises immensely.

Keep ReadingShow less
Rep. Gus Bilirakis and Rep. Ayanna Pressley

Rep. Gus Bilirakis and Rep. Ayanna Pressley won the Congressional Management Foundation's Democracy Award for Constituent Accountability and Accessibility.

Official portraits

Some leaders don’t want to be held accountable. These two expect it.

Fitch is president and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation and a former congressional staffer.

There is probably no more important concept in the compact between elected officials and those who elect them than accountability. One of the founding principles of American democracy is that members of Congress are ultimately accountable to their constituents, both politically and morally. Most members of Congress get this, but how they demonstrate and implement that concept varies. The two winners of the Congressional Management Foundation’s Democracy Award for Constituent Accountability and Accessibility clearly understand and excel at this concept.

Keep ReadingShow less
Woman speaking at a microphone

Rep. Lucy McBath is the first lawmaker from Georgia to win a Democracy Awarrd.

Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Surprise: Some great public servants are actually members of Congress

Fitch is the president and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation and a former congressional staffer.

TheCongressional Management Foundation today announced the winners of the seventh annual Democracy Awards, CMF’s program recognizing non-legislative achievement and performance in congressional offices and by members of Congress. Two members of Congress, one Democrat and one Republican, are recognized in four categories related to their work in Congress.

Americans usually only hear about Congress when something goes wrong. The Democracy Awards shines a light on Congress when it does something right. These members of Congress and their staff deserve recognition for their work to improve accountability in government, modernize their work environments and serve their constituents.

Keep ReadingShow less

Can George Washington inspire Biden to greatness?

Clancy is co-founder of Citizen Connect and board member of the Bridge Alliance Education Fund. Citizen Connect is an initiative of the Bridge Alliance Education Fund, which also operates The Fulcrum.

King George III reputedly said George Washington was the greatest man in the world for voluntarily relinquishing power. The indisputable fact is that Washington’s action remains remarkable in human history. And he actually did it at least two times.

On Dec. 23, 1783, Washington resigned his commission as commander of the Continental Army and returned to Mount Vernon. He did it again when he declined to run for a third term as president by publishing his Farewell Address on Sept. 19, 1796. In June 1799 Washington was yet again urged to run for president and declined.

His reasoning on each occasion was a complex mix of the personal and political, but the bedrock was an unwavering commitment to put the good of the nation above personal gain and the factions that would ultimately become our toxic party system.

Keep ReadingShow less