This week Americans will experience the one-year anniversary of an assault on constitutional democracy waged by a sitting president and abetted by the main body of the Republican party.
Donald Trump and his allies sought to exploit the many real weaknesses in the American constitutional system to overturn the results of a democratic election that they had lost. It was a unique threat to democracy in America because unlike previous threats—for instance, the Civil War, or WWII—this challenge emanated from the White House itself.
Trump’s effort failed to overturn the election—though we continue to learn more about how close it came to succeeding—but it also marked the beginning of a new phase of the Trumpist assault on democracy. This assault now has three prongs:
(1) The continued promotion of the Big Lie that the election was stolen and only a bitter fight can “restore the will of the people”;
(2) The determined effort of statehouse Republicans to change state election laws, making it harder for many citizens to vote and making it easier for Republican officeholders to overturn election results; and
(3) The determined obstruction, in the U.S. Congress, of any effort to pass federal voting legislation.
The result: The assault on American democracy on January 6, 2021 was an ad hoc gambit drawn up over several weeks. This assault in January of 2022 is being organized along many fronts with four years of lead time to the next presidential election.
It’s difficult to say which will be looked back on as more dangerous.
There is a venerable American tradition of commemorating historical events with prayer, public encomiums to civic virtue, and calls for a new coming together of all Americans regardless of party or creed. It appears that the leaders of the Democratic party are planning such a commemoration for January 6.
Jen Psaki has made this clear: “January 6 was one of the darkest days in our democracy. It was a day when our nation’s capital was under attack and I think there’s no question you’ll see us commemorate that day.” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has gone further, announcing a series of events that includes a prayer and moment of silence on the House floor; a dialogue between Doris Kearns Goodwin and Jon Meacham designed “to establish and preserve the narrative of January 6th”; public testimony from members on their January 6 experience; and a closing prayer vigil with members of Congress on the steps of the Capitol.
First-term Congressman Jamaal Bowman has called for January 6 to be designated a “National Day of Healing,” urging President Biden to
[U]se your executive authority to help create space for the American public and our democracy to heal from the January 6th insurrection. The country is hurting. While the Select Committee on the January 6 Attack and the whole of Congress continue its work to investigate and report on what happened that day to hold those responsible accountable, we must not lose sight of the need to heal from the trauma left unaddressed for almost a year.
It is good and fitting that leaders support a public reckoning with the meaning of the January 6 insurrection. And certainly, national healing can never be a bad thing.
But treating January 6 as an occasion for spiritual edification and public psychotherapy is a disastrous way for political leaders to reckon with a political threat to democracy that is ongoing. And efforts to sacralize that particular day distract attention from the broader attack on democracy that is going on every day—not on the steps of the Capitol, but in statehouses across the country, and on social media, and inside of the Capitol building itself, where House and Senate Republican leaders are doing their part to undermine constitutional democracy.
January 6 should not only be a day of prayers and testimony and healing.
It should be a day focused on the ongoing threats to democracy which were made corporeal on January 6, 2021.
And then focused on the actions that must taken to counter those threats before it is too late.
What would that mean in practice? Some suggestions:
- What is already known about the broader “Stop the Steal” effort in the days leading up to January 6, from journalistic reporting and from the January 6 Committee, ought to be clearly and effectively communicated in a range of media.
- The ways that free and fair elections are currently being undermined in states across the country ought to be clearly explained.
- The legislation that is necessary to counter these measures—the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, the Freedom to Vote Act, and the reform of the Electoral Count Act—should be clearly proposed and explained to the public.
- And the Democratic leaders with most authority to advance this legislation—Speaker Pelosi, Majority Leader Schumer, and especially President Biden—should loudly, energetically, and publicly state, in a major press conference, their absolute commitment to seeing this legislation pass, as their highest priority, early in 2022.
This is the least that we should expect from a Democratic leadership if it is serious about its political responsibility for addressing a political danger.
Representative Cori Bush wants to go further, proposing that “we should commemorate the 1-year anniversary of January 6 by passing my H. Resolution 25 to investigate and expel the members of Congress who helped incite the violent insurrection at our Capitol.”
This proposal has little chance of success. But at least Bush is being seriously political. Instead of flowery patriotic rhetoric and rituals of togetherness, she is proposing that public officials not shy away from naming the ongoing danger, demonizing the villains, and exercising their political authority to take concrete steps to fight the opponents of democracy.
There is a time and place for reconciliation. Typically, that comes after a threat has been neutralized. Preaching reconciliation while still under attack is not often a path to victory.
Much of the commentary about Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s recent passing centered on his deep spiritual commitments and the manner in which he promoted healing through his leadership of South Africa’s post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
But that public healing took place after the political defeat of apartheid.
We are still in a battle for the future of American democracy. And contrary to conventional wisdom, it is not a battle about “the soul of America.” It is a conflict concerning the specific institutions of voting, partisan competition, and election administration at the heart of our constitutional democracy.
There can only be reconciliation, and healing, after the partisans who have rejected normal democratic processes have been defeated and agree once again to hold with the tenets of our Republic.
Until that time, January 6 should not be a day not for commemoration, but for mobilization in defense of democracy.