January 6 Committee Hearing

The January 6 Committee offers a vision to America:

America belongs to Republicans, but they ought (which is not to say that they must) govern according to orderly processes.

Reading between the lines of how independent observers summarized and commented on the Committee’s first prime time hearing, this is the prevailing conceptual framework whether or not most people realize it.

America is ailing badly from a rotten, toxic system. (Either extreme inequality, mass shootings, an appalling COVID response etc., etc., have been adequate to establish that context, or else just never mind any of this.) The January 6 Committee is, above all, a reaction to Donald Trump’s guidance for Republicans, to exploit people by encouraging the rottenness.

Rep. Liz Cheney calls on her party to reject Trump’s guidance, and instead exploit people by preserving the system. It’s an entirely logical entreaty: The system advantages Republicans, and Democrats are willing to help uphold it nonetheless. Even now, the system is furthering Republican policy, and it was and remains irrational for Republicans to risk that simply to prevent a non-Republican from getting Air Force One for a few years. Cheney and her colleagues ask Republicans to wise up, embrace the system and strategic victory, and accept relatively trivial tactical reverses.

Nowhere in any of this is reform, or liberalism, or even democracy. The narrative being generated by the Committee uses that last word a lot, certainly, but the word is very firmly betrayed by the story being told around it.

(I wrote a short version of this analysis a couple of days ago.)

Coverage of the Committee hearing, like coverage of the Committee’s activity before now, makes it clear that the ball is in Republicans’ court. Liz Cheney is recognized as the leader. The hearing turned again and again to other Republicans, present and past, to make its case against Trump and insurrection.

  • Susan Glasser: “Cheney was given the starring role in laying out the select committee’s case against Trump.”
  • Marcy Wheeler: “the Jan6 Committee is using Republican voices to make this case”
  • EJ Dionne: “Liz Cheney made an airtight case”

The implied conceptual framework is plain enough and, in the sense of a de facto reality, it is one which I recognize very readily. Republicans no longer trust any authority outside their own ranks. America has little left in the way of “neutral” authority, at least for anything with partisan political implications. In catering to this—in foregoing much real attempt to establish objective facts which stand on their own even if Democrats present them without Republican partnership—the Committee advises us that the Republican Party is too big to fail. Even faced with the extreme of a top-supported violent putsch, political leadership’s consensus is that the rest of America cannot impose any constraint on the Republican Party. It can only petition for restraint.

In a sense I agree with this, not as a preference but as a reality. The Republican Party is no longer an organization which proposes policy and personnel options to society at large, but instead is tens of millions’ group identity, with its own culture. It’s too big to jail. It obviously doesn’t respect authority from outside its own ranks. It’s also ultimately a choice, for the rest of American society to treat this nation within a nation as an essential participant in our political system, but the January 6 Committee hearing is effective confirmation that no alternative is even up for mainstream discussion.

Democrats and a minority of Republicans stand for for preserving the system as uppermost priority. The majority of Republicans seem ready to go beyond even the system’s generosity, to them. In aggregate, America’s governing class takes for granted that Republicans come first, and the disagreement is simply by how much.

The political system which Cheney and the Committee defend is not democracy. It’s scarcely even the rule of law. The political system on which Cheney—plus whatever limited faction of Republicans she represents—and Democratic leadership are clearly willing to compromise is procedure as legitimacy, with practical bias toward Republicans.

This, too, should be beyond the need of explanation, though obviously it is not.

America’s political system is not democracy in a meaningful, practical sense. National government is not responsive to the people. National government is less and less functional, at all, except for a radical, unaccountable judiciary, dominated by Republicans despite Americans voting for Democratic presidents in all but one election since 1988. When Democratic presidents do manage to take office, they are increasingly crippled as actual national leaders, owing to sabotage from elsewhere in the political system. Congress plays little positive role no matter what party holds the gavels, owing to layers of rules and customs which reflect the idea of Republican support as necessary for government to do anything. Meanwhile, more and more power defaults to the aforementioned judiciary, to gerrymandered state legislatures, and to private fortunes, all of which suit Republican preferences and are insulated from rejection by voters.

This system is not about the Constitution or federalism or the law, but simply about procedure which for a variety of reasons benefits Republicans. Republicans break the law, for example, but even if convicted use presidential pardons to get away with it. Or they break the law but sabotage the enforcement mechanisms, like the FEC. The literal and political heir to Dick Cheney is a very appropriate defender of this system, although Ohio’s latest redistricting may be the simplest example of the distinction. Ohio will vote in 2022 using state legislature and Congressional districts which are officially, indisputably, formally illegal—but doing so is the outcome of a process.

I don’t know that believers in this system can be reached or persuaded. If one wants to see a democracy with imperfections, rather than a rigged system which defies both petitioning for better outcomes and attempts at reform, then that’s what one will see.

But the January 6 Committee is a wagon-circling defense of this system, including “imperfections” which fully legitimize repeatedly overturning a vote for a Democratic president and installing a Republican president instead—as long as it’s done through formal procedures.

Various defenses may be offered for the Committee. Some can hope that it’s about furthering the arrest of lawbreakers, but I don’t believe anything of the kind. The committee is not going to hurry along the Department of Justice, nor is enforcement of the law adequate amid a rotten, toxic system. Some can hope that the facts of a Republican-led violent putsch, even though it took place live on national television, can sway lots of voters if these facts are packaged and marketed effectively. I doubt this is the case but I know that it is not relevant. A Committee narrative promoting both the near deification of procedural conservatism in general, and the necessity of Republican support for doing anything in particular, is not going to open a window for bold progressive reforms. To the contrary, this committee and the broader embrace of its narratives amounts to American liberalism’s leadership cooperating in the fortification of its own prison.

The January 6 Committee is not about emergency firefighting. A belief persists, more than five years after a panic button “resistance” effort against the Trump presidency as well as 18 months after a Trump-encouraged violent putsch, that it makes sense to “just focus on escaping the immediate peril right now, we can fix other things once democracy is out of danger.” This does not make sense generally, or in the case of the Committee.

America isn’t going through a temporary disruption of the political system, any more than the Republican Party’s toxicity is “a fever” which will break, soon. The paralysis of government except as and where Republicans want it to function is the present political system.

A year of work by this Committee is not an emergency firefighting measure, after the political system swept up the Capitol and and immediately resumed “regular order” as though nothing had happened. The decision of this Committee, and its creators, to focus on the Capitol putsch as a disruptive event defined narrowly enough that various Republicans agree that it was not acceptable—rather than to examine in any way a larger context which no Republicans want reformed—is a confirmation of the decision to normalize the entire Trump presidency which created the putsch. The Committee says that violating procedure is the serious crime.

There are obviously plenty of elites who agree. Part of their reason is probably just legalistic bias. There is also a belief, certainly, that procedure is somehow the ultimate guarantee of fairness. As long as a system is consistent, in other words, this is acceptable. An anonymous member of the Biden administration spoke for most of American liberal democracy’s leadership, when telling The Atlantic “I think our feeling is, show us what the rules are and we will figure out a way to educate our voters and make sure they understand how they can vote and we will get them out to vote… there are work-arounds to some of these provisions.” I cannot disagree more with this arrogant dismissal of rigged systems, yet I have concluded that elites ultimately have a bias toward that which is familiar and reassuring of their own status.

Democracy is not an object or a building, but elites have incentive to conflate democracy with the US Capitol because they have special access to it. The fate of boxes of papers or an arcane ritual does not alter the fact of which candidate America (or even the wretched Electoral College) chose to be president, but elevating the importance of established, publicly accessible information reduces the relative importance of elites who have access to the boxes and rituals. Ultimately, a great majority of Democratic legislators are entirely comfortable with securing their personal importance at the cost of never doing real good for average people; they are content being essentially the permanent junior partner in a conservative governing coalition, as long as they can have titles and floor speeches and Sunday Show appearances, etc.

The January 6 Committee represents something of a pro-system unity campaign to dissuade the majority of Republicans from breaking that system, with which, despite its advantages to them, they have grown impatient.

The morning after the first Committee hearing, I visited the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, and I thought often of the January 6 Committee’s parallels with the “Redeemer” politics which ended Reconstruction. Once again, the separatist culture which birthed a violent attempt to overthrow the union is beseeched: “We need you. Forswear further endangerment of the system, and return to the system as respected participants. The system will guarantee and protect your privilege, and be complicit in sacrificing those who are comparatively disadvantaged. Unity of the system is more important.”

I don’t know how it will turn out, this time. I just know that nothing coming from elites is a real solution to what ails America.

Sunday’s announcement of a “bipartisan deal” for supposed gun safety legislation is a useful bookend to the January 6 Committee Hearing. The only way which legislative reform will even get a “real” vote in Congress is with enough Republican participants to effectively guarantee a permanent veto for the party over national law. Far more than just two Democrats want to maintain that system. For all the ways in which parties are polarized, the uppermost elites still overlap substantially in wanting the ball to be in Republicans’ court, permanently. This does not amount to a responsive government, even by the pathetic definition of “incremental progress” to which most politically engaged liberals have been beaten down. Even when Republican legislators do support some tepid reform, the judges they install (on a decidedly unilateral basis) will readily overturn it, without any dissatisfaction from the Republicans.

It’s fascinating, then, that even Republican elites are divided on whether or not to support a rear-guard defense of that system.

Disagreement among Republicans can certainly be exaggerated—the good Republicans who support reasonable, respectful coexistence under democracy are basically imaginary—but disagreement is not entirely an illusion. Republican elites genuinely wanted to avoid Trump’s nomination, I believe, but couldn’t. Around the same time those elites mostly wanted to enact the Trans Pacific Partnership, along with Obama, but could not. In 2020 Trump had legitimate interest, and on alternate days explicitly advocated, a deal with the Democrats who wanted to vote him a big bag of goodies to hand out, but Congressional Republicans were firmly opposed. Republicans outside the Senate “gang of 20” lost no time in denouncing even its decoy gun safety bill [it’s only a “framework” right now, there is no bill], today, and calling for its defeat at all costs; they may succeed.

In this context, I remain of the opinion that Liz Cheney’s bipartisan bid to rescue exploitative, procedural conservatism from exploitative accelerationists could very well fail. Even The Wall Street Journal has already dismissed the committee’s obsessively Republican-led message as a partisan Democratic scheme.

I know, meanwhile, that there is no leadership to root for anywhere, in here, if one believes in progressive reform or even just representative democracy.

The Democrats are making it clear that they want a partnership of procedural conservatism, which offers no path to genuine reforms. The procedural conservative Republicans offer the same, at least for as long as it advantages them, which it seems likely to for the foreseeable future. Yet, after the financial crisis, and a Trump presidency, COVID, and the Capitol putsch, I can no longer really be confident that extremes of dysfunction are “better” because rot will eventually give way to positive reform. More rot may instead lead to collapse into even more authoritarian structures, or more rot may simply lead to more rot.

If forced to choose, sure, I hope that voters turn away from Republicans rather than turning toward them. But absent some credible, positive place which voters might turn to—and if such a place exists, the January 6 Committee hearings represent a bipartisan effort to keep such a place from achieving prominent notice—that’s simply a choice among poisons.

Ideas matter, stories matter, abstract symbols matter. The January 6 Committee, I think, gets this, as do various other people reporting about it. The stories and ideas which this committee is promoting, and the choice by such a cross section of elites to promote those rather than any others, is not only unhelpful but dangerous.

If the Committee might, generously, be described as an attempt to preserve the America which is, it needs to be understood as an attempt to preserve gun violence, oligarchy, rape culture, environmental destruction, unionbusting, criminalization of gender nonconformity, voter suppression, gerrymandering, regulatory capture, court capture, etc., etc.

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