Will the January 6th Committee help save American democracy or be its epitaph?
Ihave a lot of respect for the House Select Committee investigating the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. After meeting in closed session for nearly a year, interviewing more than a thousand witnesses and gathering more than 100,000 documents, the nine-member committee will begin a series of televised public hearings on June 9 and release their findings later this summer.
But what, realistically, can we expect to learn that we don’t already know? More importantly, what impact, if any, will the hearings have?
Representative Jamie Raskin, Democrat of Maryland, has set an extremely high bar for the panel. “The hearings will tell a story that will really blow the roof off the House,” Raskin declared in April at an event hosted by Georgetown University’s Center on Faith and Justice in Washington, D.C.
For Raskin, who is one of seven Democrats on the committee and a recognized constitutional scholar, January 6 is the story of an attempt to overthrow U.S. democracy orchestrated by Donald Trump himself.
“No President has ever come close to doing what happened here in terms of trying to organize an inside coup to overthrow an election and bypass the constitutional order,” Raskin said at Georgetown. And no President, he continued, has ever used “a violent insurrection made up of domestic violent extremist groups, white nationalist and racist, fascist groups in order to support the coup.”
As much as I admire Raskin and consider him a person of measured judgment, it might not matter in the end whether the committee’s hearings blow the roof off or—to invoke a dark metaphor from earlier this century—produce “shock and awe.” The sad truth is that our democracy is so damaged it might be beyond repair.
According to the latest annual report published by Freedom House, a non-profit think tank based in Washington, D.C., the United States has fallen to a new low in global rankings in terms of political rights and civil liberties, dropping from an aggregate score of 94 a decade ago to 83 today. The new score places the United States alongside countries like Panama, Romania, and Croatia, and behind Argentina and Mongolia, both of which earned scores of 84. The United Kingdom, in contrast, received a score of 93, and Canada a 98. Sweden, Finland, and Norway topped the list with perfect tallies of 100.
And while a boatload of blame for the decline in U.S. democracy can be attributed to Trump and his incitement of the insurrection, our political rot runs far deeper than the January 6 committee can ever probe or remedy.
According to another Freedom House study, written last year by Sarah Repucci, the organization’s vice president for research and analysis, this trend ia the result of a decade of decline.
“The deterioration was initially marked by harmful new restrictions on voting, legislative gridlock that has made it nearly impossible for the country to address serious public policy challenges, and the growing political influence of well-funded special interest groups,” Repucci maintains. “The downward trend accelerated considerably over the last four years, as the Trump Administration trampled institutional and normative checks on its authority.”
Repucci identifies “three enduring problems that play an outsized role in undermining the health of the American political system: unequal treatment for people of color, the improper influence of money in politics, and partisan polarization and extremism.”
All of these, she argues, are aggravated by the “realities of wealth distribution in the United States [that] determine who can make … sizable [political] donations, and thus gain special access, to government representatives. Income inequality has deepened without interruption since 1980; by one count, in 2019 the wealthiest 10 percent of Americans controlled roughly 84 percent of the assets traded on Wall Street. Black families’ median and average wealth was less than 15 percent that of White families in 2019, while Hispanic families’ wealth was less than 20 percent that of White families. There is also a wealth gap between ordinary citizens and those who represent them.”
Remedying the ills of democracy that Trump exploited will require not only that he and his enablers be held accountable, but a far-reaching transformation of our basic social and economic institutions—a prospect that seems increasingly remote as the midterm elections approach and a possible Republican takeover of Congress looms.
This does not mean, of course, that the January 6 committee’s hearings won’t be worth watching.
In all, according to a draft schedule obtained by The Guardian, the committee is expected to hold six hearings. Both the opening session on June 9 and the final meeting on June 23 will air on national television and radio stations during prime time. The others will be held during daytime hours on June 13, 15, 16, and 21.
A select committee member will lead each hearing, assisted by the panel’s attorneys. Witnesses will be called, videos will be shown, and text messages will be displayed in an effort to present a detailed multi-media narrative of Trump’s scheme to overthrow U.S. democracy, stretching over a sixty-five-day period from the time Trump falsely declared that he won the 2020 election until the insurrection of January 6.
In addition to the physical assault on the Capitol, the committee is expected to cover the Trump White House’s efforts to coordinate the illegal plan to send fake electors to Congress, the plot to seize voting machines, and the unlawful plan to delay the certification of Joe Biden’s win. The Guardian also reports that the panel likely will delve into the origins of the “Stop the Steal movement” and the Trump campaign’s connections to violent groups like the Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys.
Once the hearings are completed, the committee will prepare a report summarizing its findings, recommend legislation to prevent future insurrections, and make criminal referrals to the Department of Justice. There is speculation the committee will recommend that Trump be prosecuted for obstruction of Congress and conspiracy to defraud the United States for his role in the plot to overturn the 2020 election, but that has yet to be confirmed.
To date, the committee has made four contempt referrals, and the Department of Justice has responded with indictments of former Trump advisers Steve Bannon and Peter Navarro while declining to charge both Mark Meadows and Dan Scavino.
I have no doubt that the committee’s report will be well-crafted and illuminating. What I fear, however, is that it will read more as an epitaph for our democracy than a roadmap toward reckoning and renewal.
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