What the Hell Happened on January 6? Critical Junctures and Institutional Theory

So, I had been planning on writing a post on religion in historical political economy. It is something I have long been interested in, mainly for the role that religion plays in legitimating political rule. Then January 6 happened. The freaking Capitol was stormed. Spurred on by the president! That post on religion is gonna have to wait for next time.

But this is not going to be a post trying to explain what Trump or his supporters were thinking. Thousands of those pieces have already been written, and I don’t think I have too much to add. Instead, I want to go back to a post I wrote on the day before the election. In that post, I argued that institutions only work when the norms that support those institutions exist. In the context of a democracy, this means (among other things) norms regarding accepting the winner of a free and fair election. Yikes.

I argued then that the genie had already been let out of the bottle. Democratic norms had eroded enough by that point—prior to the election—that it did not seem like U.S. formal institutions could withstand it. These institutions would need to adjust to the new reality if they were to function at all. But institutional change is a slow process. What happens in the meantime? What does that institutional change look like?

This is where history and institutional theory hold some lessons. My Broadstreet colleague Yuhua Wang noted many of these lessons in his excellent column on Friday. His post described similar frightening experiences of violence used by autocrats to secure power. He focused particularly on the Cultural Revolution in China. In that tragic episode, public officials spurred on attacks by mobs in order to make demands of government officials. Millions ended up dying from political persecution. Although we are far away from any outcome close to that, there is precedent for January 6.

A Critical Juncture?

A key point made in Yuhua’s post is that leadership transitions are especially fraught with peril. Old rulers may not want to give up power. New rulers may have yet to secure their legitimacy. Either scenario can encourage those in power to foment mob violence. But does such violence have lasting ramifications? If so, why might leadership transitions be a particularly vulnerable time?

I think that institutional theory can shed some light on these questions. In particular, what is happening in the U.S. has all the makings of a critical juncture. Theories of critical junctures have long been used to describe periods where big changes occur quickly which set into motion a path-dependent series of events that leads to very different institutions in the long run.

In this telling, we might think of institutions as being somewhat stable most of the time. Perhaps they drift slowly one way or the other.  But there are other times where something big happens, such as massive mob violence (like during the French Revolution or Cultural Revolution) or a big demographic shock (like the Black Death). How a society’s institutions reacts to these “critical junctures” is in part contingent on the institutions in place at the time of the juncture. After the dust has settled, the society’s institutions may follow a very different path than they were on prior to the juncture.

Does this explain what is going on now? Was January 6 and its aftermath a critical juncture? Possibly, but I think more is needed to understand why this might be the case. In particular, we need to consider the role that cultural norms play in supporting political institutions.

Culture and Critical Junctures

What is the role of cultural norms here? As I mentioned before, democratic institutions (or any institutions for that matter) only work when the norms supporting those institutions are present. But what happens when norms are out of sync with a society’s institutions? To take a completely random not at all made up example, what happens to democratic institutions when a leader claims that those very institutions that originally placed him in power are now corrupt and that his followers need to right those wrongs?

Institutional theory would suggest that this is precisely when major institutional change is possible.  One recent book that explains this particularly well is Brazil in Transition: Beliefs, Leadership and Institutional Change, by Lee J. Alston, Marcus André Melo, Bernardo Mueller and Carlos Pereira. Alston et al. study the many attempts to develop the Brazilian economy since its transition to democracy in the 1980s. Like much of the institutional literature on critical junctures, they argue that there were many critical junctures (or as they call it, “windows of opportunity”) for Brazil to follow a very different institutional path. But they emphasize that these critical junctures only arose when it was possible to change beliefs about the way institutions work.

This is a very nice insight. And it is why we need to consider cultural norms when thinking about the possibility of real, long-lasting institutional change. If cultural beliefs are inconsistent with institutions, those institutions will not function as intended. If a large share of the population does not believe their country is running free and fair elections, democratic institutions are unlikely to flourish. When such norms become widespread, new institutional forms that were previously unthinkable can emerge.

Are We Currently at a Critical Juncture?

I think this is why we are likely at a “critical juncture” in U.S. political history. Even prior to the election democratic norms had taken a serious beating. Beliefs in how the system worked have eroded much quicker than many, myself included, expected.

Don’t get me wrong. There is a long and illustrious history in the U.S. of anti-democratic shenanigans. Poll taxes, literacy tests, and English-language requirements were commonly used in the past as ways of suppressing the African-American and immigrant vote. More recently, voter roll purges (in the name of reducing nearly non-existent voter fraud), restrictions on ex-felon voting, and restrictions on early voting have had a similar intent.

But what makes those so different than what has transpired since the election is that those episodes were about shaping who was considered the electorate. Those efforts, as repugnant as they were (and continue to be), have long been lauded by a portion of U.S. society. What has not really been part of that anti-democratic bundle of norms, until (possibly?) now, is that a clear winner is viewed as illegitimate by a decent portion of the population. (Yes, there have been legitimacy issues following tight elections such as 1876 and 2000, and yes, the Russia probe into the 2016 election threatened Trump’s legitimacy, but those are topics for a different day).

This is probably a critical juncture in U.S. history because the beliefs of a startlingly high share of the population seem malleable enough that institutional change might cement these beliefs permanently. What if our democratic institutions had failed us? What if things had gotten way more violent on January 6 and martial law been declared? It certainly seems possible that institutional change could have been unleashed that would have been difficult to reverse. This is what happens in a critical juncture. It is when political institutions become less democratic and beliefs are widely held that those authoritarian institutions are appropriate that you get long-lasting change.

To be clear, the reason that anti-democratic forces would be difficult to reverse is not simply that institutional change is tough. It is because institutional change is difficult to undo when cultural norms and institutions reinforce each other. (This is an insight brilliantly laid out at length by Avner Greif).

Where Does this Leave Us?

It seems very possible that this critical juncture will not lead the U.S. down a path of massive institutional change after all. Perhaps the would-be authoritarians currently in power will retire and the flirtation with anti-democratic norms will be viewed as a quaint little departure a decent fraction of Americans took over the last few months (or longer). Even in this unlikely scenario, it seems unwise to underestimate how close the U.S. came to going down a very different path.

Had some recent events gone just a little differently, the U.S. would look a lot different. The feedback between anti-democratic institutions and complementary beliefs could have easily gained momentum. Although this has not happened—yet—the U.S. is still at a critical juncture. Perhaps we will end up expunging the worst anti-democratic beliefs from civil society. Perhaps that genie will be put back in the bottle. (But probably not).


  • Jared Rubin is a professor of economics at Chapman University. He is an economic historian interested in the role that Islam and Christianity played in the long-run “reversal of fortunes” between the economies of the Middle East and Western Europe. His book, Rulers, Religion, and Riches: Why the West got Rich and the Middle East Did Not (Cambridge University Press, 2017), which addresses these issues, has won multiple book awards.

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