Jan. 6: A Crisis of Legitimacy
January 6th was not an “assault on democracy” but rather the culmination of a crisis of legitimacy that manifested as a violent and procedural challenge to the democratic process.
America is not a democracy, not in the full and specific sense of the word. However, we are a constitutionally chartered democratic republic (which most scholars today call a liberal democracy). This means that we do not have a democratic government per se because our government functions according to republican principles circumscribed by constitutional limitations. Our laws are fashioned by representatives of the people and not the people directly, and those laws must abide by the fundamental law as laid out by the U.S. Constitution. However, a primarily democratic process determines the selection of these representatives.
Most of the founders were rigorously opposed to full democracy (even those styled as “democrats” such as Thomas Jefferson adamantly supported the processes of republicanism that ensured leadership by a “natural aristocracy” because they feared the tyranny of unchecked majorities and demagoguery). Their main concern in forming the American Republic was establishing the rule of law, not holding the principles of demokratia aloft as first and foremost.
The founders were by-and-large republicans (small r) and whigs inspired by the commonwealth men of the early eighteenth century. The founders and those who inspired them spoke in terms of popular sovereignty and not absolute popular will. They embraced a democratic process of selecting representatives not to further a belief in democracy as the best form of government but as the only workable way to ensure accountability and respect for popular sovereignty within a republican form of government. The democratic process in the American Republic is important. But not because democracy itself is a shibboleth of a free and just society. It’s because it is, thus far, the only workable way to provide legitimacy and accountability to the republican processes of government that ensure a free and just society.
So, what does any of this have to do with the January 6th insurrection? How do these points color my response to what happened a year ago today (and specifically, how is my response different from how much of the Left has responded)?
The Left has largely characterized January 6th as an “assault on democracy.” The typical narrative labels Republican efforts at the state level to shore up their sense of election integrity as well as Republican opposition to Democratic legislative voting rights initiatives as an ongoing “assault on democracy.” But this is not what January 6th was, nor is it honest to characterize opposition to progressive prerogatives in this way.
Indeed, most of the participants in both the mob action and the demagogic action that challenged the election results a year ago would say they were defending democracy rather than assaulting it. In an atmosphere of charged and inflammatory rhetoric and cultural angst, they had gained an adamant belief in the illegitimacy of the election results. Rather than an “assault on democracy,” January 6th was a crisis of legitimacy that culminated in both a violent and procedural challenge of the democratic process.
Over the last year, there has been a lot of spilled ink as people have argued for various approaches that seek to craft solutions and avoid another January 6th. Most of these approaches have missed the mark in failing to recognize that January 6th represents a crisis of legitimacy at its most basic level. This failure has led to approaches, from both the Left and Right, that risk compounding the crisis rather than answering and solving the root problem.
Republicans, early on, seemed poised to take the most responsible route. There was a general condemnation of the violence on January 6th, and most Republican figures had begun taking steps away from supporting or excusing the procedural challenges to the 2020 election. This condemnation was coupled with ideas and proposals at the state level that would attempt to shore up the sense of legitimacy that many in the conservative electorate had lost, as well as clarify the electoral process at the federal level. If this general spirit had held, the Republican Party would have demonstrated a healthy narrative in the wake of January 6th that condemned violence, condemned procedural shenanigans, clarified the electoral process, and reaffirmed legitimacy in the eyes of Americans who have lost faith in the process.
But this spirit did not hold. Donald Trump’s legitimacy as a political leader in the eyes of his supporters was not as damaged from the fallout of January 6th as so many had assumed it would be. The backpedal by Republican politicians whose initial instinct was to abandon him was astoundingly fast as they realized Trump still had a stranglehold on a sufficiently sizable portion of the conservative electorate.
An ex-communication of Donald Trump by the Republican Party was necessary to fully repudiate both the violent and procedural challenges to the democratic process that resulted from his efforts to stay in office. Not only did this never materialize, but officials in the Republican Party ended up doubling down in their acquiescence to his leadership. Many, if not most, Republican leaders have come to treat Donald Trump like a President-in-exile rather than a failed former president who covered himself with historic shame on his way out of the White House.
Absent a full condemnation of the violent and procedural challenges to the democratic process, the efforts to clarify the federal electoral process and to shore up the sense of legitimacy in the states have had the opposite effect of what they could have. Having failed to disentangle itself from Donald Trump’s subversive plot to thwart an electoral defeat and remain in office, the Republican Party has no credible defense against charges that its efforts are setting the stage for future disruptions of the electoral process.
By refusing to refute the false narratives surrounding the 2020 election, the GOP failed to reintroduce a sense of legitimacy to the American Right. As well, the actions they’ve taken in the last year, which remain wed to the stolen election narrative rather than divorced from it, are compounding a growing sense of illegitimacy on the American Left.
The Democrats, for their part, have largely responded to January 6th as they have responded to most of the crises in the Trump era: with an eye toward political gain and naked partisan maneuvering. The initial Congressional response to January 6th, for example, should have been the drafting of immediate articles of impeachment based on a dereliction of duty by Donald Trump.
The President is oath-bound under the U.S. Constitution as the Executive Power to protect the Legislative Branch from assault and disruption and to respond immediately to any attempt to thwart the processes of government. Donald Trump’s failure to respond when the crowd turned violent, and failure to act in defense of the Capitol as the encroaching mob forced Congress to flee was a violation of his oath of office and represents the most clearly impeachable offense of any sitting President.
But rather than move expeditiously to immediately introduce articles of impeachment that could draw bipartisan support for condemnation of a clearly impeachable lack of action, Democrats chose to wait a full seven days before bringing articles of impeachment to the House floor for a vote and built a shaky case for impeachment based, not on dereliction of duty, but on incitement of a riot, choosing to focus on Trump’s rhetoric before the violence ensued rather than on his failure to respond to an assault on Congress.
It’s doubtful that Nancy Pelosi could have crafted an approach more guaranteed to not result in a conviction of Donald Trump. By waiting a full week to vote for impeachment and then failing to deliver the articles to the Senate while Trump was still in office, she invited the question of the constitutionality of impeaching someone who was no longer in office. Focusing on incitement invited questions as to whether Trump was complicit in the violence simply by the words he had said and sparked a debate over whether he intended violence, a far more complicated question.
A charge that the Democratic Party calculated a response to push away Republicans from supporting the effort rather than crafting an approach that could gain bipartisan support in order to use Republican opposition to impeachment as a campaign bludgeon in the future is difficult to dismiss.
In the ensuing year, the response from the Democratic Party has not gotten any better. Many Democrats, including President Biden, have engaged in irresponsible hyperbole that suggests Republicans are erecting a new Jim Crow era and are engaged in a purposed effort to tear down American democracy and usher in autocratic and fascist government. This rhetoric not only belittles the very real tyranny experienced by those whose rights Jim Crow systematically denied, but it has further compounded a growing and bipartisan moral panic over election integrity and the legitimacy of the democratic process.
Much of this rhetoric from the Left is no less dangerous and no less irresponsible than what Donald Trump engaged in leading up to January 6th. Just as Donald Trump engaged in a systematic propaganda effort during the 2020 campaign that groomed his supporters to view election results contrary to their narrative as fraudulent, much of the Left is similarly grooming their supporters to view Republican victories as fraudulent and illegitimate. Many Democrats have become hellbent on a trajectory that compounds the crisis of legitimacy and spreads it to all sides of the political spectrum.
But the Democratic response goes farther than simply mirroring irresponsible rhetoric. The Democratic Party’s response to the violent and procedural challenge of the democratic process on January 6th has, in far too many ways, been attempts to dismantle the republican processes of government. Far too many Democrats have become blind worshipers at the throne of demokratia rather than guardians of a republic with democratic processes.
With a secular religion whose core article of faith is the immutable righteousness of 50+1, the Democratic Party has embarked on a crusade to pass almost every long-held progressive legislative ambition along the narrowest of majorities possible while lambasting any and all opponents to their grab bag of questionable priorities as allies of the violent insurrectionists of January 6th.
Rather than seeking solutions and linking arms with willing Republicans such as Romney, Sasse, Murkowski, or Collins in order to clasp hands over the chasm of the bipartisan crisis of illegitimacy and forge a path to escape our present political dysfunction and institutional decay, the Democratic Party has responded to this ongoing crisis in a cynical ploy to ensure they use the full measure of this opportunity to ram through an ideological agenda.
Whether it’s the various efforts to nationalize and centralize the election process or the desire to dismantle the Senate filibuster and other devices that check the power of political majorities in order to push through these efforts, the Democratic Party is demonstrating a clear lack of long-term vision.
They believe that if only they could remove the republican and constitutional obstacles they feel are holding back their claim to a righteous nationwide majority, then the irresponsible figures in America’s political Right could never gain power again. Not only does this ignore the political realities on the ground, but it ignores the ways in which the slow dismantling of republican processes in American government over the last hundred years, largely by progressives in the Democratic Party, has set the stage for the political crisis America finds itself in.
The sad reality of not only January 6th but the entire year that followed is that the only constructive forces in our political climate are those few counter-narrative figures willing to stand athwart the populist fervor of their own factions and parties as they alone see past the maelstrom of present fears and anxieties.
Figures like Liz Cheney on one side and Joe Manchin on the other, whose higher sense of principles and institutionalism move them to push back against the efforts of their compatriots that would compound rather than deescalate the crisis, are the ones who should be celebrated by those who wish to chart a course that both reestablishes the legitimacy of our democratic process and reaffirms the necessity and shores up the efficacy of our republican processes.
The question for 2022 and the years to follow is whether such counter-narrative figures can win out in their efforts to reclaim legitimacy or if the narratives of illegitimacy, on both sides of the aisle, have gone too far to reverse without wading through more violence and more decay. The answer to this question largely depends on whether we, the American people, can step back from the demands of the passionate partisan narratives and discover who the responsible actors are and who the demagogues are, and follow the former rather than the latter.
As is always the case in a republic, there is no law, no authority, and no governing prerogative that can save a people from themselves. The American nation does not live or die in the halls of government, and its future does not rest in the outcome of any election. The people must save themselves. Whether January 6th was an aberration or the spark of an impending storm is up to what the people choose to believe and who they choose to follow and empower.