January 06, 2022

American Democracy, One Year After January 6

On the one-year anniversary of the January 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol, Center for New American Security experts reflect on the continuing implications for domestic security and the stability of U.S. democracy.

All CNAS experts are available for interviews. To arrange one, contact Sydney Simon at [email protected] or [email protected].

Richard Fontaine, Chief Executive Officer, CNAS:

It’s been a full year since the Capitol attack, but the national security implications endure. America’s standing in the world turns not merely on economic might and the force of arms, but also on the strength of our democracy. January 6, and all that led up to it, undermined that power.

The consequences are real. Allies wonder about U.S. stability, resilience and reliability. Adversaries prey on our divisions, knowing that a divided America is less able to muster national responses to challenges abroad. The democratic model itself has taken a hit, just as authoritarian forces are on the march.

Through it all, however, American democracy endures – battered but far from broken.

The path to renewal lies in strengthening those very features of American life that have long made the country great: a spirit of openness and compromise, respect for institutions and the rule of law, a dedication to the common good and fidelity to our deepest ideals. A year after the Capitol attack, we seem far from that embrace.

But cheap and bitter political division invites real danger. Only by summoning a new spirit of unity and common resolve can the United States deal with an ever-more complicated world. Our national security demands that we make the attempt.

Carrie Cordero, Robert M. Gates Senior Fellow:

On the one-year anniversary of the January 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol, the country continues to wrestle with both domestic security and political consequences. While there has been substantial accountability under our criminal laws for hundreds of the participants on the attack on the Capitol, over 350 participants have yet to be identified. Federal law enforcement needs the public’s help to do so. And while some of those perpetrators who engaged in violence face significant criminal penalties, no one who participated in the planning, financing or incitement of the attack on Congress has yet been held to account. Perhaps the most extensive federal investigation in the nation’s history continues.

Political accountability has been even harder to come by. When the Senate failed to convict the former president for inciting an insurrection in February 2021, some politicians learned that giving life to the lie that the 2020 election result was illegitimate could be politically advantageous. This lack of shared facts about the integrity of our election processes has undermined American democracy. Meanwhile, members of Congress increasingly face threats of violence which also has the potential to improperly influence their independent judgement and faithful execution of their elected duties.

The political disarray resulting from January 6 and its aftermath has national security consequences. With an absence of basic adherence to constitutional principles, America’s voice as a champion for democracy globally is weakened. Domestic security priorities—including domestic terrorism, mass shootings, pandemic response, and emergency response—must be addressed with equal rigor as foreign national security threats, in order to demonstrate that democracy continues to deliver safety at home. The preservation of American constitutional democracy demands a political and societal engagement and consensus that is, one year after a not-peaceful transfer of power, still elusive.

Katherine Kuzminski, Senior Fellow and Director, Military, Veterans, and Society:

The events of January 6 compelled the Department of Defense and the military services to evaluate whether the policies and processes available are sufficient to address and prevent active participation of service members in extremist activities. DoD and the services face the challenge of addressing prohibited activities while maintaining the First Amendment rights of service members.

After a lengthy review process, DoD issued an updated DoD Instruction, which more clearly defines the terms “extremist activities” and “active participation.” The new guidance provides military recruiters with more detailed accession screening questions and outlines a partnership with the FBI to ensure a current understanding of extremist activity at the local and national level. The updated policy further supports the services in ensuring that those service members transitioning out of military service are not vulnerable to recruitment into domestic extremist organizations.

While the updated instruction provides a powerful resource for the services, challenges remain for unit-level commanders and Judge Advocate Generals (JAGs) who are charged with interpreting whether or not individuals under their command meet the criteria of active participation in extremist activities.

All CNAS experts are available for interviews. To arrange one, contact Sydney Simon at [email protected] or [email protected].


  • Richard Fontaine

    Chief Executive Officer

    Richard Fontaine is the Chief Executive Officer of CNAS. He served as President of CNAS from 2012–19 and as Senior Fellow from 2009–12. Prior to CNAS, he was foreign policy ad...

  • Carrie Cordero

    Robert M. Gates Senior Fellow

    Carrie Cordero is the Robert M. Gates Senior Fellow and General Counsel at CNAS. Her research and writing interests focus on homeland security and intelligence community overs...

  • Katherine L. Kuzminski

    Deputy Director of Studies, Director, Military, Veterans, and Society Program

    Katherine L. Kuzminski (formerly Kidder) is the Deputy Director of Studies, and the Director of the Military, Veterans, and Society (MVS) Program at CNAS. Her research special...