‘It’s Going to Be the White House Next’: Nine Democrats Grapple With Jan. 6

This article is based on a focus group we held with Democratic voters about the events of Jan. 6, 2021, and the health of American democracy. You can also read the article about our Republican voter focus group on the same issues here. Patrick Healy, the deputy Opinion editor, expands on the takeaways from the focus groups and the intent behind them here in the Opinion Today newsletter.

One year after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, a Times Opinion focus group of Democratic voters found them frustrated that President Trump’s inner circle had not been held accountable for what happened that day — but also empathetic toward some of the rioters and their frustrations with “the system.”

You don’t hear much empathy between progressives and conservatives these days, but some of the nine Democrats were clearly angry about politics and power in America and felt that Republicans probably shared that anger as well. One focus group member said of Jan. 6, “I want future historians to remember that all of that happened because of the corrupt system that already existed.”

This transcript of the discussion among the nine Democrats (along with our separate focus group of eight Republicans) are part of a new series of Opinion focus groups exploring Americans’ views on issues facing the country. The Democrats largely agreed about what happened on Jan. 6 (as opposed to the Republican focus group members), but they disagreed about whether the attack was surprising — and whether they should have seen it coming. Several feared even worse violence around the 2024 election.

The most surprising thing to us was their shaky faith in the Democratic Party itself — and its ability to do anything either to stop Republicans from doing more violence or change the root problems with “the system.” Listening to both focus groups, you really understand that we live in a country that is at once so radical and so conservative, and that what unites the left and the right is a mistrust in people at the top. There was little enthusiasm among the Democrats for President Biden to run again in 2024 — and ditto forthe Republicans and Mr. Trump.

As is customary in focus groups, our role as moderators was not to argue with or fact-check the speakers. Two veteran focus group moderators, Margie Omero and Kristen Soltis Anderson, led the Democratic and Republican discussions respectively. (Times Opinion paid them for the work; they do similar work for political candidates, parties and special interest groups.)

This transcript has been edited for length; an audio recording and video clips of the session are also below. As is common with focus groups, the speakers’ last names are not included.

Margie Omero: What were some of the biggest things that happened in 2021?

Scott W. (from North Carolina): The Capitol in January.

Sue (from Kentucky): Definitely.

Scott Z. (from Connecticut): Absolutely.

Margie Omero: How many people have that on their list?

[Six of the nine raise their hands.]

Sue: I think Jan. 6 just because of America’s place in the world. But I think on a more national level, I think the mental health crisis that our country is facing.

Katelyn (from Colorado): Everything is a crisis, a terrifying thing. Mental health, Jan. 6, all the different variants we had, the vaccinated vs. not vaccinated.

Margie Omero: Sue, when you say a mental health crisis, what specifically are you talking about?

Sue: I work with middle school and elementary students. Our biggest issue in my middle school is kids’ mental health and getting their parents to understand that it is a critical issue, and this is why they’re not performing to the level. But state government still wants those [standardized] test results, and they want to see advancement. So I think it puts a lot of pressure on the kids and their families.

Scott Z.: I have granddaughters, and my 2-and-a-half-year-old doesn’t know a time in her life where she didn’t wear a mask. And how is that going to affect her as she grows?

Margie Omero: Thanks, everybody, for that. I want to go back to our 2021 year in review. What’s the first word that comes to mind when I say “Jan. 6”?

Scott Z.: How close we’re coming to the end of a real democracy.

Lawrence (from Ohio): Shocking.

Amanpreet (from California): A little disturbing.

Harold (from Florida): Lawlessness.

Tracy (from Missouri): Devastating. Some people went to work that day and did not return home.

Katelyn: I would just call it infantile behavior.

Scott Z.: My surprise is how predictable, in hindsight, it actually was.

Harold: It didn’t surprise me at all. I mean, everything’s been escalating and growing. Rioting in the street. Lawlessness. It was just growing up to the Capitol being stormed. It’s going to be the White House next. I mean, the riots, and the whole thing with “police can’t be police” anymore.

Democratic Focus Group on Jan. 6 and Democracy

Margie Omero: Has your view on what happened on Jan. 6 changed over the last year?

Susan (from Texas): I’ve gained a more nuanced view of what led to that. So all of this stuff that’s happening — what Harold refers to as all the lawlessness. It’s an inevitable boiling point of flawed systems that were put into place and have only gotten worse over the years. And with all these flawed systems that are put into place, everybody’s got to find an enemy. And some people might realize that the true enemy is the system which keeps us all in a harsh place unless you’re the top of the top. But some people, they buy into these lies that they’re told by people in order to keep their power, such as, oh, it’s the immigrants coming in and stealing jobs. It’s the blue-haired liberals and all that. It’s like, no, that’s not who the enemy is. The enemy is the system that needs either a complete makeover or severe reform in order to protect the livelihoods of the people, not the rich who are just gonna run the planet into the ground and move on to the next one.

Margie Omero: Susan, thank you for that explanation. OK, Patrick had a couple questions.

Patrick Healy: I’m going to say some words, and I want to see a show of hands if you felt like this when you learned what was happening or had happened on Jan. 6 at the Capitol.

The first word is angry.

[Five people raise their hands.]

Patrick Healy: Upset?

[Four people raise their hands.]

Patrick Healy: Ashamed?

[Five people raise their hands.]

Patrick Healy: Ambivalent?

[No one raises their hands.]

Patrick Healy: How important is Jan. 6 as a day now in American history? 9/11 is also a date that by itself connotes a specific terrible event. Or Pearl Harbor. How does it compare?

Sue: Pearl Harbor and 9/11 tended to bring us together as a country. Jan. 6 was a time that I felt totally betrayed by someone in an elected office. No offense to you from The Times, but I felt very betrayed by the media. The media did not show us in those days immediately or shortly thereafter what truly happened to the men and women trying to guard the Capitol.

Scott Z.: Jan. 6 was Americans attacking Americans. The Civil War might be a better analogy.

Lawrence: Some people don’t even know what happened. It’s so interesting what makes the news on it. For instance, one of the guys that got — he was organic food only. The judge allowed him — and I’m like, how was this news? That was making the news as opposed to — people are getting sentenced.

Margie Omero: In the run-up to Jan. 6, what were the events that made it happen?

Tracy: I think it was the frustration of the American people. I’m not saying it was right, but I believe it was more of the American people fed up. People are fed up with politics, telling you lies, and this, that, and the other. They stormed the Capitol for different reasons. But it was mainly the frustration of the American people. I’ve been to the Capitol. I marched on Medicaid. So yeah, people are frustrated, you know what I’m saying? And they took it — they took it way too far. It was like, what are y’all doing? And then, this is the choices that we have?

Amanpreet: They just wanted their frustration to be heard out to everyone. But that was not the right way.

Margie Omero: What were they frustrated about?

Amanpreet: Well, the system. They don’t want Biden. They don’t want immigrants to come into their country to get their jobs. They want America to be American. But they don’t know America is, again, a country of immigrants.

Margie Omero: Was there something that Donald Trump could have done differently to have prevented Jan. 6 from happening?

Harold: He said, fight. He said, fight. Now — please forgive me — I love Donald Trump. I voted for Donald Trump. He’s successful, and I wanted to see him be successful in office. But that, I did not like. I do believe he sort of incited that. I think it’s a stupid mistake people made by listening to it.

Margie Omero: How do you think Vice President Mike Pence handled everything that happened on Jan. 6?

Sue: Well, I think the man had to be legitimately afraid when they had a gallows hanging out on the front lawn. I can’t imagine how he must have — betrayed he must have felt.

Scott Z.: I think he acted better than I would have expected or hoped. I think he did an honorable job.

Patrick Healy: How seriously do you think the 2020 election was in danger of being overturned on Jan. 6 at the time when Pence allowed the certification to go on?

Sue: Very much so. If that election hadn’t been certified, where would we be as a nation, especially in the view of the rest of the world? So as much as it pains me, I respect him greatly for that moment in time.

Lawrence: I didn’t really have much thought on it. I guess I just had come home from the gym, and I turned on the TV, and I started watching it. And then, after, like, six hours, I was like, all right, this is enough. It’s dark now. I didn’t put much thought into it till the next day. And then, I’m like, oh, they’ve certified everything.

Margie Omero: What do you think, if anything, has changed? Is there something that’s changed in the country as a result of Jan. 6?

Tracy: No.

Scott W.: I’m actually fearful that somebody could go and break into a government building, and threaten harm on people, and not have ramifications.

Harold: It’s not going to be the Capitol next time. It’s going to be the president’s bedroom. It’s going to be —

Tracy: Yeah.

[Several people nod their heads in agreement.]

Susan: It’s set a dangerous precedent.

Scott Z.: I actually think there were consequences for the people that have been sentenced. My concern is there are no consequences for the politicians. One of the videos, there was a congressman from, I think, Alabama, Mo Brooks — let’s take names and kick ass. And now, instead of him losing an election for the House of Representatives, he’s running for the Senate. He’s looking for a promotion. And they’re gonna elect him. So to me, there’s no consequences for the politicians on either side.

Harold: You’re right, you’re right.

Margie Omero: What have you heard about investigations into Jan. 6?

Sue: Ignoring subpoenas, which — I do not understand why we have not hauled them out of their homes with their hands cuffed behind their back, like they would me if I ignored a subpoena.

Tracy: Absolutely.

Lawrence: I agree. We learn by example. And here are our elected officials, and they’re not being held to the same standards as we would be. So it’s like, wait a minute! And they’re going to stay working? How is this possible?

Sue: I think it’s really shaken a lot of people on both sides of the political fence. For those people I know that will admit to supporting Trump even after the 6th, they’re even stunned that these people do not have to follow the law. I also feel like we need to hold Democrats [accountable] that pull shenanigans. We have laws in this country, and we are held — as common people — to those laws. And a certain behavior is expected of us. It’s like, these are supposedly intellectual, influential, affluent members of our society that should know what the law is, and I just can’t grasp why they’re not held accountable, both by the law and their constituents, and how impotent we felt to make a change in that. There was so little, as a constituent, that I could do. In the 2024 elections, we better buckle our seatbelts, because I think it has the potential to be really, really ugly.

Katelyn: Mm-hmm.

Margie Omero: The committee that we’re talking about, the investigation into Jan. 6 — how important is that compared to the other things that are going on in Congress, the other things that Congress should be and is working on?

Susan: The pandemic, the climate crisis, the water crisis — all of that, I think, should be higher up than the insurrection.

Scott Z.: I’m more concerned about why I can’t buy a home test kit. I mean, we’re the greatest nation in the world, and I can’t get the PCR test for two weeks.

Sue: Or if you can get one, you can’t afford it.


How Healthy Is Our Democracy?

“So we’re going to wrap up. We’re headed toward the end. And so we have one last section. And we’re going to zoom out a little bit from some of the stuff that we’ve been talking about and talk about our democracy. People have referred to that and talked about that. So we’re going to talk a little bit more specifically about it. So think about, I mean speaking of health care, think about our democracy as if it’s a patient at a hospital or at the doctor. How would you characterize the health of our democracy? Healthy, fair, fair condition, poor, or in critical condition. Right.” “The I.C.U.” “It’s in a pandemic.” “Critical condition.” “Critical condition, poisoned.” “OK.” [INTERPOSING VOICES] “And who here says critical condition? Show of hands, critical condition. So it’s healthy, fair, poor, or critical condition. O.K.” “Political pandemic.” “OK. Scott Z, where are you?” “Poor. I don’t think we’re in danger, but the life will be saved.” “Lawrence, where are you?” “The last one.” “Oh, critical condition, OK. Was there anyone else who was not critical condition other than Scott Z.? OK. Tell me why. Harold, where were you? Political pandemic.” “I.C.U.” “I.C.U., OK. OK. So tell me about that, guys. Amanpreet, how about you? Guys and gals.” “I think 2024 election, if I think about that, then I kind of worry about that time. And I feel if Donald Trump is going to stand up again, things are going to get worse.” “OK.” “It’s going to increase more. It doesn’t have to be the Capitol all the time. It could be another place. People just need the encouragement. People just need a leader who says things who encourage them to do these kind of things. So with that, I think it’s in very critical condition. I would be scared to go out and vote at that time.” “Mhm, mhm. OK, Tracy, how about you? Critical condition, tell me.” “Why is it in critical condition?” “Yeah.” “I believe it’s in critical condition, because there’s so many phases that need to be addressed. And like Lawrence G. was saying— no that was Scott Z. I know, you say you did a thing on vaccines. But I believe vaccines should be at the top of the list. You know what I’m saying? I think we should be accessing to several more things that we aren’t that have to do with the vaccines. And I believe the different phases, the reason why we is in such a critical condition, because we can never get one thing done before another part of the Consti — not to mention the Constitution, but the whole political system, we can’t — once we address one thing and start working on that, something else breaks down. There’s so many phases to this thing, to political, to the whole political realm. So that’s why I feel like we’re in a state of, we’re in worse than critical condition. We’re in a state of crisis in everything, our finances and all.” “O.K.” “All of it.” “O.K., O.K.”

Margie Omero: We’re going to zoom out a little bit and talk about our democracy. Think about our democracy as if it’s a patient at a hospital or at the doctor. How would you characterize the health of our democracy? Healthy? Fair condition? Poor? Or in critical condition?

Sue: In the I.C.U.

Harold: It’s in a pandemic.

Tracy: Critical condition.

Susan: Critical condition, poisoned.

Scott Z.: Poor. But the life will be saved.

Amanpreet: The 2024 election — I kind of worry about that time. And I feel if Donald Trump is going to [run] again, things are going to get worse. It doesn’t have to be the Capitol all the time. It could be another place. People just need a leader who says things, who encourages them to do these kind of things. I think it’s in very critical condition. I would be scared to go out and vote at that time.

Margie Omero: How do you think our democracy works now compared to a few decades ago? Would you say it’s better, or worse, or the same?

Scott Z.: Worse.

Scott W.: Worse.

Tracy: I say worse.

Margie Omero: How long has that been true? Is that just a recent thing?

Susan: I actually think it’s been progressively or slowly getting worse. Twenty or 30 years or so, is when it’s really started to exponentially get worse. But the system was kind of — the way it was set up, I get that it was what worked at the time. But the way that it’s been upheld, and —

Tracy: It’s not working now.

Susan: We barely qualify as a democracy anymore.

Sue: I think that the control of the lobbyists and the lobbyist interests —

Susan: The lobbyists —

Sue: — are truly what run this country, as opposed to our politicians.

Margie Omero: I’ve heard a couple of people talk about “the system.” Is it, like, the system in place that people feel is problematic? Or, are there bad actors within our system?

Susan: Both.

Tracy: It’s the system. It’s the agenda that has been set up and been set forward. And the people just continue to go by the agenda.

Sue: I think the bad actors that you’re talking about.

Sue: So they pass an agenda to keep themselves in place.

Margie Omero: How concerned are people about the next election — the 2022 election midterms, the 2024 elections further on — about the results of those elections reflecting the true will of the people?

Susan: I don’t think they have for a while. I think the Electoral College needs to be done away with. Because it says that certain people’s votes are worth more than others.

Amanpreet: I agree with that.

Scott Z.: I’m concerned about people being allowed to vote and not having their voice be heard.

Patrick Healy: Is there anything you want to see Biden and the Democratic Congress do to help democracy? Or is the system the system, and there’s not much they can do?

Scott Z.: Reinstate the Voting Rights Act.

Tracy: Rewrite the Constitution that set up laws 1,000 years old.

Sue: I think it’s some of those amendments to the Constitution.

Susan: Term limits.

Sue: Our lobbyists are truly too influential with our legislature.

Scott Z.: Why should Wyoming have the same number of senators as New York, you know?


Should Biden Run Again?

“Who among you voted for President Biden in 2020? Show of hands. OK. So most of you. Seven of nine. And then a show of hands, how many of you want President Biden to run again for re-election in 2024? A show of hands on that.” “Well, what are the options?” “Yeah. I mean, that’s the problem.” “Yeah. Who’s the alternative?” “Right. Got it. OK. Back to you, Margie. Thanks, everybody.”

Patrick Healy: And just two show of hand questions. Who among you voted for President Biden in 2020?

[Seven people raise their hands.]

Patrick Healy: And then, how many of you want President Biden to run again for re-election in 2024?

[One person raises her hand; three others rock their hands to gesture ambivalence.]

Scott Z.: What are the options? I mean —

Sue: Yeah. I mean, that’s where I’m at.

Susan: Yeah, who’s the alternative?

Margie Omero: OK, one last question. It’s probably the case that 100 years from now, historians will write about Jan. 6, 2021 as a moment in American history. What would you want those historians to know?

Lawrence: Just a divisive nation with a lot of false things going on.

Katelyn: I would just like the truth to be shown. Because I know there’s questions on what gets shown in textbooks for kids today. And things like the Holocaust are being questioned, which is absolutely ridiculous. So I just want the actual truth.

Scott W.: I would hope that the attention goes to the victims and not the people who did the violence.

Amanpreet: If you don’t have control, if you don’t have proper policies, this is going to happen every time, or every voting time. I don’t think it’s going to be history if Donald Trump is going to stand up in 2024. I feel it’s going to happen again.

Harold: They concentrate more on the victims, and not the instigators and the lawlessness, yeah.

Tracy: I want the truth to be told about the now and the then. What can the American people do to change it? Because we’ve got to do something. Or, like Harold said, it’s just a matter of time before another devastating occurrence occurs.

Scott Z.: How close we’ve come to losing democracy.

Sue: Democracy stood strong.

Susan: I want future historians to remember that all of that happened because of the corrupt system that already existed. It was a response to a real problem. Even if they couldn’t identify the true source.

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