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Editorial: A year later, we still have much work to do, but we can reclaim our republic

Capitol Breach Pelosis Laptop

A year after supporters of then-President Donald Trump climbed the west wall of the U.S. Capitol and pushed past police, our nation remains deeply, but not irreconcilably, divided.  (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana, File)

A year after the most sustained attack on the U.S. Capitol since the War of 1812, our nation remains the most divided it has been since it was literally divided, by the Civil War. But while our divisions are dangerously deep, they are not irreconcilable. And all of us — across the political spectrum — have a role to play in healing our republic.

A poll released in the run-up to the first anniversary of the events of Jan. 6, 2021, found Americans divided over whether the assault on the Capitol was an attempted coup/insurrection, a riot that got out of control or a false flag operation staged by antifa, other leftists or federal agents to discredit then-President Donald Trump.

That’s disturbing, but look more closely, and the NPR/Ipsos poll shows that the main divide is mostly over terminology: 35% use words such as coup and insurrection while 28% use the word riot. Only 17% believe the people who pushed past Capitol police and stormed inside were actually the enemies of Mr. Trump.

Granted, 17% is still a lot of people — and it can sound like a lot more when you follow the right (or wrong) Twitter feed or watch the right (or wrong) cable TV talk show hosts — but that means that 83% of us recognize what happened, even if we disagree on the participants' motivation.

And it’s worth examining that a bit. FBI agents and federal prosecutors have been able to uncover clear evidence that some people did go to Washington a year ago planning to storm the Capitol, planning to attack the leaders of our government, planning to prevent Congress from certifying the results of the 2020 presidential election. But they have found many more people who did not go with those treasonous plans.

That doesn’t excuse those who joined in a riot, illegally entered the seat of American democracy, causing an estimated $1.5 million in damage, and threatened and sometimes injured police; they are being prosecuted, as they should be. But if it’s relevant that the riot that occurred in Charleston after the murder of George Floyd was carried out by a remnant of people who remained after a much larger, daylong peaceful protest had broken up — and we believe it is — then it’s relevant that many (and likely most, although we don’t know yet) of the people who participated in the Capitol riot didn’t go to Washington intending to riot.

Here’s something else that’s relevant: More than 700 people have been arrested for storming the building, and more arrests are expected. That’s a lot of people, but even if the number rises to 1,000, that’s a tiny portion of the 74 million who voted for Donald Trump. It’s a small portion even of the thousands who attended Mr. Trump’s rally earlier in the day.

Even more encouraging is this: The poll, whose findings are consistent with numerous other polls conducted over the past year, found 65% of respondents accept the outcome of the 2020 presidential election.

What’s not so encouraging is that more than half the people who voted for Mr. Trump believe the election was stolen, even though no other U.S. election has been so thoroughly tested in our courts. Those courts — in many cases led by federal judges and Supreme Court justices appointed by Mr. Trump — found the claims of fraud to be wholly without merit.

Even if no one ever attempts again to overturn the results of an election, we should all be horrified that more than 1 in 5 Americans have chosen to believe, without a shred of evidence, that the 2020 election was stolen. And we should be disturbed by the political response to those beliefs.

Republicans in many states have used this manufactured outrage as an excuse to double-down on election law changes they’ve long supported — and, to mollify those who are clamoring about fraud, to repeal some policies they had long supported, such as mail-in absentee voting. Meantime, Democrats in some states and in Congress have used the Republican changes as an excuse to push a grab bag of favorite liberal voting law changes.

We believe that some of the GOP proposals are extremely bad ideas, and that some of the Democratic proposals are extremely bad ideas, although we find few from either side that would actually disenfranchise voters or invite fraud. But we worry that Democrats’ attempts to pass federal laws to supersede those state laws with which they disagree have deepened the distrust.

No, people on the left didn’t storm the Capitol, and they didn’t prime extremists to commit violence. But they did play a role in our nation's division. They have to help get us back, by backing away from most of their federal election-law agenda. And the many Republicans who know better must help by refusing to pander to the conspiracy-believers. And all of us have to engage in patient if difficult conversations with our friends, families and co-workers every time they repeat the conspiracy theories.

We might never convince the people who have made an industry of fabricating these conspiracy theories, but we have to win back ordinary Americans who have been convinced by the con artists that only the con artists can be trusted and that the rest of the world is conspiring against them. All of us have to work to get us back to a place where our approach to politics is to accept it when we lose, agree to disagree and find as many places as possible where we can agree.

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