What is the Jan. 6 committee for? Committee members and Democratic operatives have been telling reporters what they hope to achieve with the hearings that begin Thursday evening. My Times colleagues Annie Karni and Luke Broadwater wrote an article with the headline, “Jan. 6 Hearings Give Democrats a Chance to Recast Midterm Message.” Democrats, they reported, are hoping to use the hearings to show midterm voters how thoroughly Republicans are to blame for what happened that day.
Other reports have suggested other goals. The committee members are trying to show how much Donald Trump was involved with efforts to overturn the election, so he is forever discredited. They are expected to use witnesses like the former White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson to show exactly what went on inside the administration that day and in the lead-up to it. One lawmaker told The Washington Post that voters have shifted their attention to issues like inflation and the pandemic, so it is key to tell a gripping story that “actually breaks through.”
No offense, but these goals are pathetic.
Using the events of Jan. 6 as campaign fodder is small-minded and likely to be ineffective. If you think you can find the magic moment that will finally discredit Donald Trump in the eyes of the electorate, you haven’t been paying attention over the last six years. Sorry, boomers, but this is not the Watergate scandal in which we need an investigation to find out who said what to whom in the Oval Office. The horrors of Jan. 6 were out in public. The shocking truth of it was what we all saw that day and what we’ve learned about the raw violence since.
We don’t need a committee to simply regurgitate what happened on Jan. 6, 2021. We need a committee that will preserve democracy on Jan. 6, 2025, and Jan. 6, 2029. We need a committee to locate the weaknesses in our democratic system and society and find ways to address them.
The core problem here is not the minutiae of who texted what to chief of staff Mark Meadows on Jan. 6 last year. The core problem is that there are millions of Americans who have three convictions: that the election was stolen, that violence is justified in order to rectify it and that the rules and norms that hold our society together don’t matter.
Those millions of Americans are out there right now. I care more about their present and future activities than about their past. Many of them are running for local office to be in a position to disrupt future elections. I’d like the committee to describe who they are, what motivates them and how much power they already have.
This is a movement, not a conspiracy. We don’t need a criminal-type investigation looking for planners or masterminds as much as we need historians and scholars and journalists to help us understand why the American Republican Party, like the Polish Law and Justice party, or the Turkish Justice and Development Party, has become a predatory semi-democratic faction.
We need a committee to explore just how close America is to rampant political violence. I had some problems with Barbara F. Walter’s recent book, “How Civil Wars Start,” but I wish all the committee members would read it if only to expand their imaginations.
She demonstrates that the conditions for political violence are already all around us: The decline of state effectiveness and democratic norms. The rise of political factions that are not based on issues, but on ethnic identity and the preservation of racial and ethnic privilege. The existence of ferocious splits between urban and rural people. The existence of conflict entrepreneurs — political leaders and media folks who profit from whipping up apocalyptic frenzies. The widespread sense that our political opponents are out to destroy our way of life.
We need a committee to look at how conditions in America compare to conditions in countries around the world that have already seen their democracies slide into autocracy and violence.
We need a committee to explore what political violence might look like in this country. Writing in Foreign Affairs, Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way foresee a future of “endemic regime instability”: frequent constitutional crises, contested or stolen elections, periods of dysfunctional democracy followed by periods of authoritarian rule.
Writing in The Atlantic, George Packer imagines what might happen if a contested election were finally decided by the Supreme Court or Congress: Half the country explodes in rage. Protests turn violent. Buildings get firebombed. Law enforcement officers take sides.
I’m trying to understand why committee members are not gripped by these realities. After more than a century of relative democratic stability maybe it’s hard for some people to imagine precisely how the fits of political violence that bedevil other nations could hit our shores. Maybe the committee members are imprisoned in the categories set by past investigation committees — Watergate and 9/11.
Either way, we need a committee that will be focused not on the specific actions of this or that individual but on the broad social conditions that threaten to bring American democracy to its knees.