Comment: Jan. 6 hearings are for the benefit of democracy

Both parties may seek to use them — or ignore them — for their own benefit. Stayed focused on their purpose.

By Jonathan Bernstein / Bloomberg Opinion

The first anniversary of the attack on the U.S. Capitol last Jan. 6 is coming up this week. Congress is going to make a big deal about it. So, too, are the news media. They are both correct to do so.

The New York Times editorial board explains why last year’s riot represents a continuing threat:

“It is regular citizens who threaten election officials and other public servants, who ask, ‘When can we use the guns?’ and who vow to murder politicians who dare to vote their conscience. It is Republican lawmakers scrambling to make it harder for people to vote and easier to subvert their will if they do. It is Donald Trump who continues to stoke the flames of conflict with his rampant lies and limitless resentments and whose twisted version of reality still dominates one of the nation’s two major political parties.”

Marking the day with appropriate ceremonies should be just the beginning. The main public attempt to explain just what happened — the attempt by a president who lost an election to nevertheless remain in office — will be in what is promised to be “weeks” of hearings by the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol. Americans need a full accounting, but even more than that we need a compelling story, threading in the organized attempts of the Trump White House and its allies, the thuggish organized groups that participated, and the ordinary citizens who wound up caught up in the president’s lies.

That story includes, to be sure, courageous people who resisted, from the Capitol police officers to executive office officials to most importantly, the Republicans at the state and local level who may have given up their careers to prevent a monstrous crime from succeeding. Obviously, it is crucial that the story presented in these hearings be accurate. It will, however, be incomplete, in large part because Trump and others are refusing to cooperate. That’s OK. The Senate Watergate Committee’s hearings in the summer of 1973 were extremely effective despite having no access to President Richard Nixon’s Oval Office tapes.

Both Democrats and democrats — that is, the party and all those who wish to defend the republic — should be realistic about what these hearings can accomplish. The Democratic Party should be under no illusion that hearings, no matter how devastating to Trump and other Republicans, will help them in this year’s midterm elections. For better or worse, voters are almost certainly going to judge the incumbent Democrats on the pandemic, on economic growth and jobs and on inflation. As frustrating as it may be for the party in power, it almost never matters what the out-party does or how discredited it seems (to the incumbents anyway) it should be.

And for democrats? No matter how skillfully the committee presents the evidence, and no matter how damning the information may be, it’s unlikely that the American people will rise up and seek to banish Trump and his followers from public life. Most people are simply not going to pay attention. That was true in 1973, and back then it was a lot easier to command the attention of voters. It’s worth remembering, too, that a quarter of the electorate still supported Nixon right before he resigned in August 1974. The hearings have no chance of convincing Trump’s strongest supporters.

But telling the story of Jan. 6 loudly and clearly — on the anniversary, through congressional hearings, in news specials, in courtrooms — can shift things in small but significant ways. It may push high-profile Republicans who support democracy but also have self-interested reasons to stay quiet to realize just how serious the threat really is. It may push the neutral media, who have strong norms (and some self-interest as well) in portraying both parties as equally culpable for problems to realize that doing so is simply bad reporting in this case. It may even, on the margins, help pro-democracy Republicans fight back against authoritarian Republicans in primary elections.

It’s easy to imagine that half the nation is certain that Trump is out to undermine democracy and the other half is convinced that Trump is the only chance to save the nation from liberal Democrats out to undermine it. But the evidence doesn’t really support that view. Many interest groups remain independent of the parties even in these polarized times. And the Republican Party is still a coalition, with some groups enthusiastically supportive of the very worst of Trump and other groups tolerating things they don’t like because the party supports their narrow interests. It’s hardly unusual for coalition members to try to look away and attempt to minimize what’s happening elsewhere among their allies; making that harder to do is a good idea. And it’s best to do so now, when the immediate stakes are the future direction of the Republican Party, rather than waiting until an election is on the line and Republican groups may be acting against their own interests if they turn against their party.

House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy is complaining, again, that the hearings are partisan; that Democrats are treating the Jan. 6 attacks as a “partisan political weapon.” The truth is that it’s not much of an electoral weapon, and one that can only have impact against Republicans if they insist on remaining loyal to a president who attempted to overturn an election that he lost, and to those who tried to help him do so; and are still trying to help him do so. That’s a choice that Republicans are making. Not Democrats. All Republicans have to do to avoid being targeted is to embrace democracy and the Constitution. That really shouldn’t be so hard.

Bring on the hearings.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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