What Do We Call What Happened on January 6th?
What Do We Call What Happened on January 6th?
BOTTOM LINE: Using Cline Center definitions, the storming of the US Capitol Building by a violent mob on January 6, 2021 was definitely a politically motivated attack. It might also have been an attempted coup. The Cline Center research team is in the process of answering some key questions that would allow us to make this determination.
January 8, 2021
The storming of the US Capitol Building by a violent mob on January 6, 2021 is an unprecedented stain on American history. But how should we refer to this act of violence against legitimate governing authority: Was it an attempted coup, or something else? There are many types of political violence, each with different consequences and implications for democratic governance. Labels matter.
As a nonpartisan research center with over a decade of experience in systematically categorizing acts of protest and political violence, the Cline Center for Advanced Social Research has developed several approaches to classifying events. In particular, the Cline Center’s Coup d’État Project codebook provides detailed information on how the center’s research team categorizes coups and attempted coups, while the Cline Center’s most recent Social Political Economic Event Dataset (SPEED) project codebook includes definitional criteria for various kinds of politically motivated attacks, protests, and riots.
We use rigorous definitions and concepts to clarify what is happening around the world, and our approaches work best when the information about an event is sufficiently comprehensive and detailed. Although a full accounting of what happened on January 6 still remains to be assembled, the Cline Center team is working as rapidly as possible to apply our definitions in order to categorize the storming of the US Capitol. In the meantime, we can offer some tentative conclusions and point to some questions that we have not yet answered with sufficient clarity.
It is important to underscore that there are no universally-accepted definitions for politically-consequential events like coups d’etat, acts of political violence, and protests. The Cline Center’s definitions, while broadly accepted within the academic community, represent just one way to distinguish various types of conflict behavior. It is also important to recognize that while all of the event types described here can last more than a single day, the assessment that follows considers only the limited information available through the end of the day on January 7th.
Was It An Attempted Coup? Maybe.
The storming of the Capitol on January 6th is potentially relevant for the Cline Center’s Coup d’État Project, which defines a coup as an “organized effort to effect sudden and irregular (e.g., illegal or extra-legal) removal of the incumbent executive authority of a national government, or to displace the authority of the highest levels of one or more branches of government.”
Satisfying this definition requires meeting the following criteria (which are detailed in greater length in the Coup d’État Project codebook):
- There must be some person or persons who initiated the coup.
- The target of the coup must have meaningful control over national policy.
- There must be a credible threat to the leaders' hold on power.
- Illegal or irregular means must be used to seize, remove, or render powerless the target of the coup.
- It must be an organized effort.
Events that satisfy these criteria are defined as coups under the Cline Center’s definition, although it is important to distinguish between realized coups--those that actually succeed in overthrowing legitimate governing authority--and unrealized coups that fail (attempted coups) or that never move beyond the planning stages (coup conspiracies).
An attempted coup might have occurred at the Capitol on January 6th, because at least the first three definitional criteria were met: one or more persons posed a credible threat to the power of the legislative branch of government to make national policy. However, at the time of this writing, we have not yet determined whether the other two criteria are satisfied.
Key Questions to Determine If This Was An Attempted Coup or Not
Two key questions must be clarified for us to determine which--if any--of the remaining coup criteria might have been met in this event.
- The purpose of the violence and the intentions of those who incited it: Were the people who stormed the Capitol merely trying to disrupt the process of governing, or were they attempting to change who controls the government? Clarifying the goals of the participants and the intentions of those who incited them would shed needed light on whether the violence was aimed at either illegally seizing executive power or seizing, removing, or rendering powerless the US Congress. If so, then the fourth criterion would be met. If not, it would be an act of political violence that falls short of an attempted coup.
- The degree of planning behind the violence: How organized was the effort to storm the Capitol? Clarifying the degree of planning and preparation would reveal how organized the effort was. If it was organized and planned in advance to seize power, then the fifth criterion for the Cline Center’s definition would be met. If not, then it would be an act of political violence that falls short of an attempted coup.
If Not An Attempted Coup, What Was It?
If the storming of the Capitol on January 6 wasn’t an attempted coup, then the definitional criteria used in the Cline Center’s Social, Political, and Economic Event Dataset (SPEED) project would categorize it as a destabilizing event. Within the SPEED ontology, what happened in and around the Capitol encompass two specific types of destabilizing events: politically motivated attacks and political expression events.
Politically motivated attacks are acts of violence that occur in the context of political contention. Under the Cline Center’s definitions, the attacks on people and property that occurred in the Capitol are clearly within the category of politically motivated attacks. However, the Cline Center’s approach would exclude use of the term “riot” to characterize the violence. In the SPEED ontology, a riot is a particular type of politically motivated violence that spontaneously erupts from an already tense situation. Given consistent reports that many participants were armed and planning for violence to occur, this requirement for spontaneity is not satisfied.
Political expression events are acts of protest or civil disobedience that include threatening or unwelcome public speeches, large marches that block traffic, demonstrations, and symbolic actions like sit-ins or boycotts. Under the Cline Center’s definitions, well-documented verbal threats against political opponents of the President and nonviolent demonstrations prior to the takeover of the Capitol are clearly within the category of political expression events.
What We Can Say with Confidence at This Time
Using Cline Center definitions, the storming of the US Capitol Building by a violent mob on January 6, 2021 was definitely a politically motivated attack carried out in the context of one or more acts of expressive political protest. When we are able to clarify key areas of ambiguity to our satisfaction, we will be able to determine if the attack was also an attempted coup. The Cline Center team is working diligently to learn more about the events on January 6th in order to provide a more definitive assessment.