Oklahoma’s all-Republican congressional delegation has been pretty quiet about the first anniversary of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.
All were present that afternoon. U.S. Sen. James Lankford had to break off a speech to flee the Senate chamber. Second District Congressman Markwayne Mullin was famously photographed crouching behind some seats, trying to talk rioters out of breaking into the U.S. House of Representatives.
This week, when each of Oklahoma’s seven members of Congress was asked for his or her reflections on the assault, none responded.
Their reticence may be explained by polling such as that conducted by Bright Line Watch, a political science research group studying what many believe is the erosion of American democracy.
In November, Bright Line Watch found that just 27% of Republicans nationwide were at least somewhat confident that Democrat Joe Biden was the rightful winner of the 2020 election. Only 10% were completely confident.
That compared with 97% of Democrats and 64% of independents, with all three virtually unchanged from just after the election.
“Confidence in the 2022 elections is already more polarized than confidence in the 2020 election was in October of that year,” the researchers concluded.
Six of Oklahoma’s seven members of Congress are up for reelection in 2022 — the exception being U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, who was reelected in 2020 and says he won’t seek another term when this one expires in 2026.
Of those who will be on the ballot, U.S. Sen. James Lankford has drawn the most strident opposition — not because he went along for several weeks with an unprecedented effort to delay certification of a presidential election but because he dropped it after supposed allies invaded the Capitol, attacked law officers and threatened to kill members of Congress and Vice President Mike Pence.
All five of the state’s U.S. House members voted to reject or in some manner delay Biden’s certification as the next president. Some, including Mullin, insisted there were reasons to believe fraud or error may have played a role in Biden’s defeat of incumbent Republican President Donald Trump.
All five appear destined for easy reelection.
When the rioters broke into the Capitol, Lankford was speaking on the Senate floor in favor of a proposal by Texas’ Ted Cruz to create a 10-day commission to look further into some of those claims. Recent revelations by former members of the Trump administration and documents obtained by the House investigation into the attack suggest that Cruz’s undertaking may have been, in fact, part of a larger plan to overturn the election altogether.
A year later, more than 60 challenges to the 2020 presidential election have failed at just about every level. Almost all have been disproved. A few members of Oklahoma’s congressional delegation, including Inhofe, have quietly suggested it’s time to move on.
Many of their constituents — the ones who vote in Republican primaries — disagree.
Last spring, the state GOP was taken over by Trump loyalists who tried unsuccessfully to expel Lankford and Inhofe from the party because they did not back the attempt — which Inhofe characterized as unconstitutional — to delay and ultimately overturn the election. Lankford’s two most vocal opponents praise the Capitol attackers and denigrate Lankford for ultimately reversing course.
Oklahoma Democratic Party Chairwoman Alicia Andrews says she understands the members’ dilemma but that it doesn’t absolve them from addressing the lingering belief that the election was rigged.
“Some of their constituents had questions,” she said. “What do you do when someone has questions you don’t know the answer to? You go away, you find the answers, and you come back with the truth. And the truth is the 2020 elections were, by far, the most fair, most transparent elections that we have ever held as a nation.”
The members of Oklahoma’s congressional delegation, Andrews said, “owe the people of Oklahoma a fact-based (explanation).”
This is not just Andrews’ partisan opinion. It was also the conclusion of Trump’s own Department of Homeland Security.
Many doubt that the true believers will ever be swayed, though. Rightly or wrongly, their faith in elections — a cornerstone of American democracy — has been damaged, and perhaps dangerously so.
This is illustrated by Bright Line Watch polling that shows a that substantial portion of Americans still say violence and other law-breaking are sometimes justified, especially if the opposing party is in power.
Part of this, said Oklahoma State University political science professor Matthew Motta, is because people aligned with the two major parties do not accurately perceive each other.
“Both Democrats and Republicans tend to underestimate the other side’s commitment to Democratic values,” said Motta, citing Bright Line Watch data. “Whether that’s (upholding) freedom of the press or abstaining from violence after an election result we don’t like, Republicans and Democrats think the other side is more likely not to do those things.
“The bad news is that there is still plenty of support of illiberal action on both the left and the right,” he said.
Outright insurrection, such as last year’s attack on the Capitol, has more support on the “ideological right,” Motta said, but he thinks suppression of speech and press is “something both Republicans and Democrats can get behind.”
Many argue that this either signals or feeds — or both — a dangerous erosion of American democratic traditions. It’s one thing to shout insults or even to clash in the streets. It’s another to attack the seat of government and deny the validity of the ballot box.
“We see the other side winning as an existential threat to not just our politics but our way of life,” Motta said. “If you view people that way — that they’re out to get you — then you’re going to use force and more and more extreme things.
“Democracy has lots of written rules,” he said. “But it also has lots of unwritten rules. Those unwritten rules are really, really important. … When those erode, laws are not enough. You have to have some cohesion on what the unwritten rules are and who is willing to play by them in order for a democracy to work.
“I think we’re increasingly getting away from that,” Motta concluded. “And that’s pretty scary.”
Featured January 2021 video: Sen. Lankford interrupted while speaking before Senate as rioters enter Capitol