We are, my fellow Americans, at a defining moment — literally.
With the first anniversary of the Jan. 6 insurrection upon us, the insurrectionists themselves — the hordes who stormed the U.S. Capitol, to stop the certification of Pres. Joe Biden and reinstate the losing incumbent, Donald Trump — are now being redefined as mere “peaceful protesters.” And those arrested and charged for insurrection are now being redefined as “political prisoners.”
Doing the redefining are the Republicans (also here), who understand so much better than Democrats the need to control the narrative and vocabulary. Perhaps most egregiously: Trump, Inciter-in-Chief of the insurrection and master brander, now brands the honorific “patriot” on the insurrectionists.
Before this narrative becomes lore — and rallying cry for more insurrections — Democrats need to seize, now, both narrative and vocabulary: No, anyone rampaging the U.S. Capitol is not a patriot but an insurrectionist. Since we’re about defining here, Merriam-Webster defines insurrection as “a violent attempt to take control of a government”; to rampage is to act “violently, riotously, or recklessly.” That’s exactly what millions of us, heart-in-throat, saw happen last year on this day.
While during the insurrection itself, Republican members of Congress ducked fearfully for cover, as did their Democratic colleagues, just hours later in a joint session 147 Republican lawmakers still voted against Pres. Biden’s certification; that is, they effectively carried out the work of the insurrectionists — to interfere with the peaceful transfer of power. This work Republicans are now carrying out in GOP-controlled states: by enacting laws disenfranchising sectors of voters (of color), reserving the right to declare elections fraudulent, changing out nonpartisan for partisan election officials, imposing penalties on those officials who refuse to obey.
These moves are the very definition of despotism, that is, the exercise of power through force. If democracy is government of, by, and for the people, that is, self-government by consensus, these moves are, by definition, anti-democratic. And Republicans are rampaging the states with them.
Make no mistake: This is not mere semantics, nor new talking points, nor reversion to childish “Are too”/“Am not” arguing. To define a thing is to take control of it, and if the thing is slipping away, to regain control of it. With vast swaths of the country saying American democracy is in crisis — that is, it is slipping away from us — to define the actors in this crisis as “patriotic” or “unpatriotic,” and the business they are about as “democratic” or “anti-democratic,” will go a long way to getting the train of American democracy back on track. Americans like to talk about “getting real.” Naming things for what they truly are is, in essence, getting real; it is reckoning.
Of course, defining/redefining is only the tee-up. The puppeteers of the insurrection — from Trump on down, to White House staff, assorted gadflies, GOP allies in Congress and in the states — must be held to account. Accountability: It is hollow cliché by now, but meaning can be reinfused through the investigative work of the House select committee on Jan. 6 and the prosecution of the Department of Justice of both the insurrectionists and their puppet-masters. To date, 700+ alleged insurrectionists have been arrested, while none — repeat: none — of the puppet-masters have been. These latter numbers include 1,000+ public figures — figures who took an oath to protect and defend. While DOJ proceedings can’t be made public, the House committee can, and should, asap. Thanks to its work so far, and to great investigative reporting, we now know there was considerable planning and coordination in the run-up to Jan. 6. Those revelations should be played out, nonstop, til November, when Republicans will likely regain the House and, very first thing, will dismantle this investigation (and duck History, or try to).
In parallel, and to counter the Republican rampage in the states, the two voting rights packages now before the U.S. Senate must be passed. It’s no accident that the GOP’s focus in the states is on who can and cannot vote: Democracy begins — and ends — on this point of the franchise. I am glad to see Pres. Biden and Senate Democratic majority leader Chuck Schumer now making voting rights a top federal priority, with Schumer targeting Jan. 17, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Meanwhile, in the states “all legal means” must be used to challenge GOP gerrymandering and efforts to “dilute minority voters’ influence,” per Harvard law professor emeritus Laurence Tribe. Democrats should make democracy the theme in 2022 and ‘24.
Democracy can seem amorphous, more like an immersive environment — the sea we all swim in — than the machinery we must operate, machinery needing constant care and maintenance. For the individual, democracy’s toolbox may seem slight — vote, be informed, sign petitions, etc. But now, with a violent insurrection attempted, we citizens must go on the defensive, to prevent a coup that is successful — a dire scenario all too possible, thanks to a once-grand old party bent on regaining power even if they destroy democracy. We Dems do this by holding the line — by insisting, as Republicans try to gaslight the entire country, that, no, that was an attempted insurrection last Jan. 6, not a peaceful protest; that those who rampage the U.S. Capitol, and American democracy, are no patriots, they are in fact domestic terrorists. And we must say this over and over publicly: in letters to the editor, online comments threads. Merriam-Webster defines patriot as: “one who loves and supports his or her country.” We will see, among the citizenry, whose love is life-affirming and whose death-dealing.
(The Economist, whose current cover story is titled “Walking away: The Republican party and democracy,” extends the hand: “Republican renewal, if it comes, will not be in the form of some Reaganite renaissance…. [T]his person will be in charge of a party that still contains a large number of decent, patriotic voters who have been manipulated by a cynical group of leaders and propagandists into believing that, in saying the election was stolen, they are defending democracy. To presume these people can be permanently treated as dupes would be a mistake.”)
The hour is late. It’s rather late to rue the lack of civics education, which lack allows a citizen to think it a legitimate exercise of First Amendment rights to come armed to the U.S. Capitol, assault law enforcement, threaten to kill members of Congress — and seek to overturn an election. But we can self-tutor ourselves on the civics we need, as we come to American democracy’s defense. There’s also the question of limits: Adam Smith said of industrialized economies, “There’s a lot of ruin in a nation,” meaning the capacity to absorb damage and recover. Americans might well wonder if we have exceeded that capacity.
Like many of you, I returned to work after the Holidays under-energized, tired in advance of the slog ahead — Jan. 6 redux, COVID extended. But after quick review I’m on duty again, also after learning this: President Abraham Lincoln, Uniter-in-Chief — he prosecuted the Civil War so as to preserve the Union — had construction of the dome of the Capitol completed during the war’s fighting. Talk about metaphor. Thus this is no time for fatigue. The forces of anti-democracy and political violence cannot become normalized. Along with millions of others, I so want to see America get to maturity, to Renaissance. Back to the barricades.
For The Insurrection Index, going live today, hosted by Public Wise, see here. Tor The New York Times’ extended editorial, “Every Day Is Jan. 6 Now,” see here. For full documentary, “American Insurrection,” at PBS’ “Frontline,” see here. For trailer to HBO’s documentary, “Four Hours at the Capitol,” see here.