january 6 committee

Is the January 6 Committee Really Saving Democracy?

Photo: Shawn Thew/Pool via REUTERS

Here’s something I’m slightly ashamed to admit: I’ve barely watched any of the January 6 hearings. Given the significance the committee’s work holds for many segments of the mainstream media, I’ve assumed that I’ll be made aware — in dozens of tweets, articles, and op-eds — of anything particularly interesting or devastating that goes on. This heuristic has kept me reasonably well informed. After receiving several enticing New York Times alerts, I caught up on Cassidy Hutchinson’s riveting account of Donald Trump’s wild, reckless, and menacing behavior on the day in question, which left a series of cinematic images lodged in my brain: the ketchup-stained White House wall, the president petulantly demanding that his armed supporters be allowed to pass through security unmolested (“They’re not here to hurt me!”), and, in a scene choreographed to thrill, appall, and amuse in equal measure, the president grabbing desperately for the wheel of his armored car, like a mad king denied the full expression of his destructive impulses but also like a toddler who finds out he is going to the dentist instead of the video arcade. Hutchinson’s drama has the ring of truth, if only because Trump appears as pathetic as he does dangerous in every act.

But there is something else that troubles me about the January 6 investigation. The hearings, even those as revelatory as Hutchinson’s, are plagued by an unnerving sense of belatedness, as if everyone involved were fighting — valiantly, with evident dedication but also a kind of lunacy — the last war, one we’ve already lost. I know that’s not quite right; the committee has revealed new crimes (some committed, others contemplated or barely thwarted), and there may yet be consequences for Trump and his coterie. Nevertheless, the inquisitors often seem to inhabit another reality, a quixotic fiction in which painstaking juridical and parliamentary procedure might still determine political outcomes or, perhaps, inspire popular fervor.

To put it another way, the committee’s champions frequently claim that the survival of our democracy is at stake in these proceedings. So why does it feel like a postmortem?

I want to know more about what happened on January 6 as much as anyone, but I doubt democracy is going to be saved by the discovery of new facts. This super-investment in the metaphysics of norms and evidence is a signal pathology of Democratic elites, especially futile given the total abandonment of such hoary faith by the political right. After all, the damage of January 6 was done the moment conservatives decided to ignore norms altogether, discovering, as they have over and over since 2016, that they are bound by no rule that they choose to disregard. In the battle for America’s tenuous future, liberal elites didn’t bring knives to a gunfight; they brought grave admonishments and lectures.

But even as political theater — designed to enrage, agitate, mobilize — I find the January 6 spectacle lacking. The Democrats have sought to inspire us to outrage over insults against institutions in which we have already lost faith. Meanwhile, they have cast themselves as protagonists in the fight for decency and democracy, the very elites whose dereliction and cowardice and general uselessness have contributed to our crisis of legitimacy. Even among progressives, it is hard to inspire citizens to action in defense of norms, procedures, and politicians whose erstwhile dominance was such a flimsy bulwark against the conservative onslaught. Every day — thanks, most of all, to the Supreme Court — conservatives notch new victories against the rights of the vulnerable and the needs of the poor, and every day their Democratic opponents show they are outmatched.

Can those who have experienced democracy only as disappointment, as thwarted hopes, venality, and sloth, be expected to risk anything to save it? That’s what I keep asking myself.

Last week, as I read about shuttered abortion clinics in red and purple states, about the Supreme Court’s evisceration of the Environmental Protection Agency, and, indeed, about Trump’s apparent desire on January 6 to personally lead a mob of armed insurgents inside the Capitol building, a phrase kept replaying in my mind: Democracy may not exist, but we’ll miss it when it’s gone.

That lovely sentence is the title of a 2019 book by the writer, documentarian, and activist Astra Taylor. Taylor’s work has been useful for thinking about my dissatisfactions with the prevalent discourse of “democratic erosion.” Her elegant maxim allows for radical critiques of the “democratic” status quo — the Senate, the Electoral College, and all the features of a constitutional order designed to insulate political elites from popular will — to coexist with an urgent need to defend its minimal guarantees. In other words, we need not ratify our existing system, or to concede that we should even call it “democracy,” to fear losing it altogether. By treating democracy as a dynamic horizon for liberatory politics — one that passes through our workplaces, our schools, and our homes — rather than a static political category, Taylor’s work reinvests the fight to defend democracy with urgency and far-reaching vision.

She points to a key paradox: If most people don’t experience democracy as a reality in their lives, how can we expect them to fight for its survival? As Taylor writes, “Democracy may not exist, yet it still manages to disappoint.” Indeed, for many Americans, democratic life is synonymous with such dissatisfactions:

Political gridlock, corruption, unaccountable representatives, and the lack of meaningful alternatives incense people across the ideological spectrum; their anger simmers at dehumanizing bureaucracy, blatant hypocrisy, and lack of voice. Leaders are not accountable and voters rightly feel their choices are limited, all while the rich keep getting richer and regular people scramble to survive.

For progressives, this pessimism has been underscored by the overturning of Roe v. Wade. Fifty-nine percent of Americans disapproved of the Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. And the political party that installed the 6-3 Dobbs majority has won the national presidential popular vote exactly one time since 1988. (Trump, who lost the popular vote twice, nominated three of those justices.) It’s no wonder entreaties to “vote harder” from geriatric Democrats like Joe Biden — or youthful but tedious New York Magazine columnists — ring so hollow. If democratic means have led to these undemocratic outcomes, what possible good are those means now?

Deprived of opportunities to experience and practice democracy, to see and feel its fruits, Americans have lost faith in its possibilities — even as those possibilities (not just voting but organizing, persuading, gathering, marching, disobeying, and striking) remain our best hope for fighting back and preserving an arena in which such fights are even thinkable.

Tocqueville, an aristocrat who lived and thought in the shadow of the Jacobin guillotine, admired American democracy precisely for its cultural and constitutional antibodies against social and economic leveling — those features that today are rearing their heads and stifling change. But he also glimpsed something true about democracy as an imaginative act and as a practice somehow both quotidian and potentially transformative. As Jedediah Britton-Purdy recently wrote in The New Republic, Tocqueville “saw that there is nothing magical about counting votes: For people to accept one another as their equals and co-rulers takes a great act of imagination, sustained — or undermined — by millions of small acts in daily life.”

If, as I suspect, we can save democracy only by practicing it, we may need to take Taylor’s paradox to heart and accept that what we are fighting to defend is something that has never existed — something that, through our collective activity, is still struggling to be born.

Is the January 6 Committee Really Saving Democracy?