June 8, 2022
This week, the House select committee investigation of the January 6 attack on the United States Capitol will enter a new phase: a series of public, prime-time televised hearings.
There’s more to the hearings than whether it will result in prosecution for former President Donald Trump, or even capture the attention of the American public. For New America’s Political Reform program, the question is: What does it all mean for our democracy?
Below, our team discusses some of the developments we’re watching for — from what the committee finds to how our politics and the public at large react to it.
- January 6 in the Shadow of Watergate – Mark Schmitt
- How Americans Are Thinking About January 6 – Alexandra Stark
- Election Reform Needs a Win, Any Win — Maresa Strano
- The Insurrection through the Lens of Inequality — Lizbeth Lucero
- January 6 as a Springboard for Renewing and Reforming American Democracy — Lee Drutman
January 6 in the Shadow of Watergate — Mark Schmitt
“The system works” is a phrase reminiscent of the 1970s, when after the dual debacles of the Vietnam War and Watergate, the United States briefly seemed able to confront a criminal president and the darkest corners of the Cold War era.
Renata Adler, a journalist and novelist who also briefly worked for the House Judiciary Committee during impeachment proceedings against President Richard M. Nixon, described the ambivalence behind the phrase in her quasi-autobiographical 1976 novel Speedboat:
“For a time, our people used to mill about, saying ‘The system works. The system works’ — the way kids used to run off the field shouting, ‘We won. We won. We won,’ when the game had been called on account of rain, or darkness, or because somebody had decided to take his baseball home. ”
Watergate — not the crimes themselves, but the hearings, investigations, trials, dramatic revelations, and ultimately, impeachment — looms large in the expectations for the House committee whose hearings on the political violence of January 6, 2021, are soon to begin. Once again, we hope that hearings will trigger a reset of the system, expunging the incitements to violence and pervasive disrespect for the rule of law that characterized the years since Trump first dominated his party.
The post-Watergate process worked, to the extent that it did, by focusing intense public attention on Nixon’s crimes. One could not turn on the television without seeing the hearings of the special Senate committee — quite literally. For five days, all three broadcast networks — and there were only three — traded in their standard daytime fare of soap operas and game shows to air the tedious workings of a committee of four Democrats and three Republicans, after which they rotated coverage for a total of 235 hours. The then-new Public Broadcasting Service offered gavel-to-gavel coverage and a nightly summary that became the PBS NewsHour. More than 85 percent of households said they watched at least some of the hearings, which featured dramatic revelations of an Oval Office tape-recording system and the confessions of former White House counsel John Dean.
The intense public scrutiny shifted attitudes toward Nixon so dramatically, both among the public and members of Congress so dramatically that, at 24 percent approval, Nixon was forced to resign his office less than two years after winning reelection in a 49-state landslide. Of the 17 Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee, seven voted for at least one article of impeachment against Nixon.
It’s difficult to imagine recreating that level of sustained attention in 2022, or at any point since the rise of cable television later in the 1970s. There is nothing today that 85 percent of households are paying attention to. Noteworthy” news events — harbingers of climate change or democratic collapse, the latest mass shooting, celebrity trials, and viral memes — flicker by in a wide-open competition for our attention. And partisan alignments are locked solid in a way that they weren’t in the 1970s: Congress impeached Trump twice on grounds at least as serious as those against Nixon, including bribery of Ukraine for political favors, and the incitement to riot to overturn the election. But none of it mattered, because unlike in Nixon’s case, no House Republicans backed the first impeachment and only ten out of 211 voted to impeach him in the second. (In a poll after the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine, only about half the respondents remembered the reason for the impeachment, and of those, only 25 percent mentioned Ukraine.)
American democracy has often needed such interventions. The Watergate proceedings are only the best known of more than a dozen cases, mostly in the second half of the 20th century, in which special committees, hearings, or detailed reports were used to establish accountability for failures, inspire legislation, and get American government back on track.
Start with the Pecora Commission on the causes of the 1929 stock market crash, or then-Senator Harry Truman’s committee on World War II profiteering, or the 1968 Kerner Commission on the causes of urban violence. Soon after Watergate, the Church and Pike Committees revealed decades of malfeasance by the Central Intelligence Agency, leading to reforms that included the creation of permanent oversight committees. A decade later, hearings that most closely resembled Watergate — the 26-member House-Senate panel investigating the Iran-Contra scandal — fizzled because of the story’s complexity. More recently, the 9/11 Commission revealed many, though not all, of the mistakes and misjudgments that led to that tragedy.
Two things to note about this incomplete history: First, the impact of such hyped-up hearings and commissions seems to have gradually declined over time. There have been few notable hearings since 9/11, and those few have been defined by partisan — specifically, Republican — intransigence, whether on offense, in the case of the 2015 hearings on Benghazi, which were explicitly designed to harm Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, or in resistance, as in the Trump impeachments and the formation of the January 6 committee.
Second, many of the earlier interventions that seemed to “work” were of-the-moment improvisations. They weren’t “the system” operating under normal order through established congressional oversight committees. Those who wanted to confront the crisis devised new solutions fit for the moment, such as the Senate Watergate Committee of just seven members, the Iran-Contra panel with almost four times as many, or in other cases, elite commissions of respected outsiders. Some of these improvisations worked better than others.
The January 6 committee is another improvisation, limited by the refusal of Republican leadership to participate in any way, forcing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to appoint two renegade Republicans willing to follow the evidence. It is likely to help us understand the full story of the political violence and attempted coup of the late Trump administration, including the machinations within the White House. But it’s unlikely to have the dramatic impact of the Watergate hearings, or to end with any of us declaring that “the system worked,” even in Adler’s tentative, ironic sense.
How Americans Are Thinking About January 6 — Alexandra Stark
On January 6, 2021, Americans turned on their TVs to see undeniable images of political violence in our nation’s capital. A violent mob had forced its way into the U.S. Capitol building while Congress was certifying the results of the 2020 election in an attempt to overturn the results. The Justice Department estimates that about 140 police officers were assaulted during the attack, and 85 defendants have since been arrested and charged with using a deadly or dangerous weapon or causing serious bodily injury to an officer.
On that day, Americans were united in horror. There was little dispute about what we were collectively seeing. That same day, Senator Mitch McConnell said of the insurrectionists in a speech before the reconvened Congress, “They tried to disrupt our democracy. They failed… They failed to attempt to obstruct the Congress.”
This unified account of what happened on January 6 — that a violent, right-wing, insurrectionist mob attacked the Capitol in an attempt to overturn the results of the election — felt like it could be a turning point in the backsliding of our democratic institutions. It could have been a moment for Republican leaders to draw a line in the sand and stand against efforts to further undermine our democracy.
Instead, one year later, Americans’ views of what happened on January 6 had become shockingly polarized. This is in part in response to elite Republican politicians and media figures misleadingly claiming that the January 6 insurrectionists were engaged in “legitimate political discourse” or mostly “peaceful protest,” or falsely claiming that the rioters were actually antifa members.
With our partners Over Zero and Protect Democracy, the Political Reform program here at New America conducted polling earlier this year around the one-year anniversary of the January 6 attack to examine Americans’ opinions of that day now and their views on who is responsible.
The poll shows that Americans are sharply divided along political lines about whether they believe the select committee will undertake an impartial investigation of January 6. More than 70 percent of self-identified liberals said they believed that the select committee’s work will benefit the country, while just 12 percent of conservatives did. Instead, about 73 percent of conservatives believe that the select committee is only interested in damaging Donald Trump.
Americans are also divided along partisan lines about who they think is responsible for the events of January 6. While 77 percent of liberals and 42 percent of moderates surveyed say those who entered the Capitol on January 6 as insurrectionists, only 12 percent of conservatives did. Likewise, while 86 percent of liberals and 48 percent of conservatives saw Donald Trump as responsible for the violence on January 6, 47 percent of conservatives blamed “the far-left including antifa.” Conservatives also tended to characterize the insurrectionists as “good people who got swept up in the moment."
Our polling found that there is a real opportunity for the select committee’s work to influence how some Americans think about January 6: About 25 percent of conservatives reported being open to the select committee’s work, and to accountability efforts around January 6 more broadly. In total, the findings suggest that there is significant space for the select committee hearings to build a cross-ideological coalition in support of accountability for January 6. In that sense, the committee has its work cut out for it.
Election Reform Needs a Win, Any Win — Maresa Strano
Republicans in Congress uniformly opposed legislation to modernize and shore up trust in our electoral institutions before January 6, and held firm afterward. Far from being an inflection point for serious election reform, the insurrection, and specifically Republicans’ calculated campaigns to whitewash both what happened and what caused it to happen, only made “democracy” issues more untouchable to the GOP.
So far, the one exception to this inaction and the only chance for any legislative response from Congress is a bipartisan effort currently underway in both the Senate and House to reform the Electoral Count Act (ECA), a widely criticized 1887 law that governs how electoral votes are tallied and certified.
We know the ECA is going to play a role in the select committee hearings. According to emails released by the January 6 committee this month, the law featured heavily in the Trump team’s legal strategies to overturn the election results. That strategy birthed the chant “Hang Mike Pence,” among other horrors. But whether this reform succeeds may hinge on the way the ECA’s role in the insurrection is framed throughout the hearings.
The ECA was enacted in response to the 1876 Hayes-Tilden presidential election in which multiple states sent conflicting slates of electors to Congress. There was no procedure in place to resolve the dispute, and the political climate at the time made repeat episodes likely. Back then, like today, competition between the two parties in national elections was fierce: Congressional partisans were liable to use whatever tactics were available to them to gain an edge. Like today, people feared that the majority party in Congress would exploit future uncertainty in the counting to deliver the presidency to their party’s nominee. And, like today, they tried to fix it. The ECA brought rules and a schedule (including the famous “safe harbor” deadline) to the interregnum. It also aimed to limit Congress’s involvement in the certification, placing most of the burden to manage disputes on the states, which were more independent when the act was passed.
Despite a solid run, the ECA is full of ambiguities and outdated language that invite misinterpretation and manipulation by bad actors. When it became clear that Trump had lost his bid for re-election in 2020, his allies seized on these ambiguities to stop Congress from certifying the election for Biden. It was the first real stress-test for the ECA — and, as many experts warn — it won’t be the last, unless Congress updates the statute. At minimum, that should entail: clarifying the Vice President’s strictly ceremonial role in the proceedings, refining the definition of a “failed” election in a state, and raising the threshold for Congress to challenge a state’s electors.
Right now, there is bipartisan momentum behind ECA reform. However, time is running out. A bill has not been introduced yet, and one is unlikely to be introduced before the hearings conclude. (The select committee plans to include ECA reform recommendations in its post-hearings report.) That leaves a very short window for the reform to advance and before peak midterm season scrambles the calculus. Pro-ECA reform Republicans might find on the campaign trail that the stance is too close for comfort to supporting other election reforms. And there are plenty of Trump loyalists in Congress who would prefer to leave the ECA as it is — to keep the door open for further abuse in 2024 and beyond. If Republicans retake the House in 2022, as they’re predicted to do, that’s game over for this reform effort.
The hearings, by raising awareness of the vulnerabilities within the ECA, can help expedite passage of ECA reform. But it depends on how they handle the evidence that the Trump team planned to knowingly violate the ECA. Will the law’s vulnerabilities be a focus, and a main takeaway for the media? Or will the (understandable) desire to shame and blame the guilty drown out the story of institutional weakness? The committee has promised a blockbuster media event and a page-turner of a report, which suggests more of the latter.
We should be clear-eyed about the audience of these hearings. Ultimately, the hearings will not change people’s minds about what happened on January 6. Few “Big Lie” subscribers will tune in, and for those who do, confirmation bias will likely prevent any breakthrough. However, if the committee members and the media approach the hearings from a strategic problem-solving angle — that is, if they use the opportunity to amplify the specific dangers of preserving the ECA — these hearings could accomplish more than either of Trump’s impeachments.
No, ECA reform is not what we had hoped, and it’s certainly no substitute for a comprehensive bill like the Freedom to Vote Act. But if it’s passed, we might be able to look back on this troubling chapter in U.S. history with a little less shame, knowing that something was done.
The Insurrection through the Lens of Inequality — Lizbeth Lucero
On January 6, 2021, as people across the country and the world witnessed the attack on our nation’s capital, one thing was very evident: The vast majority of the insurrectionists were white and more specifically, they were white men.
In months following the insurrection, the Chicago Project on Security & Threats (CPOST) analyzed court records and found that those involved were indeed 95 percent white and 85 percent men. And while we still have yet to uncover the Republican members of Congress involved in inciting the insurrection, we do know that then-president Donald Trump urged his supporters to fight, “And if you don't fight like hell, you're not going to have a country anymore.”
As the nation continues to grapple with deep-rooted social and economic inequality, particularly along racial lines, we cannot consider the events of January 6 without acknowledging one of our nation's greatest threats to democracy: white supremacy.
In an era of widespread mis- and disinformation and political polarization, domestic terrorism — as we know it — is largely influenced by white supremacist attitudes. According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, violent far-right attacks ranked the most frequent type of domestic terrorism in 2021 and most violent far-right perpetrators were motived by white supremacist or anti-government sentiments. And given the right-wing backlash to Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality and racial injustice across the U.S. in the summer of 2020, it’s hard not to look at the January 6 insurrection through a racial and social justice lens.
More than 700 people have been arrested for storming the Capitol on January 6, 2021. And yet, in the aftermath, Americans need reassurance that our institutions are bold and resilient — and that GOP members of Congress and others in power are held accountable for their role in inciting the insurrection. In particular, it is paramount that we hold our leaders in government to the same level of responsibility as the insurrectionists themselves.
Yet this will be no easy feat: An independent commission was blocked last year, Republican leaders refused to cooperate with the investigating committee, and shockingly polarized accounts of what happened on January 6 persist among the American public. This, unfortunately, leaves room for lawmakers to deny cooperation, reframe the events that took place, or mitigate their involvement in inciting the insurrection. This, in turn, opens an escape hatch for GOP lawmakers, allowing them to dodge any form of accountability for their potential involvement in the insurrection.
Unfortunately, this kind of institutional impunity is not a new phenomenon. It has plagued systems in society and continues to damage the democratic values of our nation, especially for the most vulnerable communities. Too often, those in positions of power and authority — from Wall Street executives to government officials — avoid any serious consequences for crimes and other violations. In law enforcement, in particular, we’ve witnessed police officers being protected by a “blue wall of silence,” an unofficial code of honor within the police force that conceals any wrongdoing of officers by encouraging them to remain silent. Thus, police officers remain loyal to one another by not speaking out against their colleagues in law enforcement. This practice is increasingly dangerous and only furthers the divide between police officers and citizens.
We also see a version of this code play out among Republican leaders. This sense of party loyalty seems to be more powerful than their loyalty to the law and to American democracy. In law enforcement, the “wall of silence” protects those in power and allows them to act without consequences. It serves the same purpose for the GOP. These systemic levels of protection for violations and crimes committed by people in positions of power make it nearly impossible to implement any level of accountability, an institutional flaw that is dangerously unjust.
Given this level of institutional impunity, along with the GOP’s refusal to cooperate, the growing levels of political divide, and the countdown to the midterms, it’s hard to imagine what actual accountability could look like in our democracy today — especially for those in positions of power.
Nonetheless, the select committee has an unique opportunity to utilize their powers to fully uncover what happened on January 6. By investigating who was involved, and holding them fully accountable for the attack on the Capitol, these hearings can serve as a tool to tackle institutional inequities that protect those in power and serve as a safeguard to protect our democracy.
The nationally televised hearings offer a potential turning point in how we view accountability and justice in our nation. However, this will only work if we hold those responsible to account for the attack on our democratic institutions.
January 6 as a Springboard for Renewing and Reforming American Democracy — Lee Drutman
Recently, the former House Speaker Paul Ryan gave an interview in which he said the thing that everybody already knew: “There were a lot of people who wanted to vote like Tom [Rice, who supported impeachment], but who just didn't have the guts to do it.”
Tom Rice, who represents the 7th congressional district of South Carolina, has drawn a number of primary challengers for his impeachment vote. A difficult primary is the predictable consequence for his vote, and thus a good explanation for why many of Rice’s colleagues voted against impeachment publicly, even if they would have supported it privately. Ryan, for his part, had already left Congress, part of a steady exodus of incumbent Republicans who found Trump and his brand of politics distasteful.
Parties change by replacement as much as anything. Who decides to stay and who decides to leave; who decides to run and who decides to pass — these are the factors that determine who gets to define a political party over time. In 2022, the new crop of aspiring Republicans are more devoted to a kind of confrontational “Trumpism” that goes even beyond Trump in some cases, making up for what Trump had in comedic timing and charisma with “own the libs” pugilism that would make Mike Tyson blanch, and blatant promises to overturn election results if Democrats attempt to win again.
Ironically, the events of January 6 only furthered the rightward lurch of the Republican Party (if “rightward” is even the right word anymore, since the lurch seems to defy the traditional left-right spectrum and rather move in an entirely different direction, better described as authoritarian). That’s because in order to differentiate themselves from Democrats, elected Republicans have downplayed, excused, or even defended the rioters on January 6, and doubled-down further on the fantastical theories of a stolen election.
This is the two-party doom loop in action. In our era of nationalized hyper-partisan polarization, every major event pushes the two sides further apart, since the electoral imperatives of close elections force them to vigorously disagree.
For many Republicans, once the initial shock of January 6 wore off, the political realities set in. Much as they might have blamed Trump, an impeachment would be a victory for the Democrats. At least Trump was a Republican. Sure Trump had done a bad thing, but the Democrats were out for blood. Wouldn’t it be better to censure him? Why rush to impeach? And what about the upcoming primary? Trump wouldn’t be convicted in the Senate, right, where he’d need two-thirds support? And the House was going to vote to impeach him anyway, given that Democrats had the votes? The partisan mind is capable of all kinds of self-serving rationales.
In our binary zero-sum, two-party system, the rationale of “I’m against whatever the other party is for” is a powerful one. But it wasn’t always this way. Had Richard Nixon been impeached (he resigned first), many Republicans would have voted to impeach Nixon. Indeed, this is why Nixon resigned. But in the 1970s, the two parties were overlapping coalitions, looking something more like a four-party system, with liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats, alongside conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats.
In practice, this meant that liberal Republicans who represented more liberal parts of the country were often at odds with their Republican colleagues, but that was okay. The Republican Party was a very big-tent party, as was the Democratic Party. Voting to impeach a Republican president in 1974 wasn’t going to endanger their reelection. It might even help it, by distinguishing them from a national Republican Party brand that was in the gutter.
Fast forward to 2021, and the Republican Party had become a thoroughly conservative party, in which public loyalty to the president was crucial. The GOP was no longer a big-tent party (again, parties change by replacement, and conservative Republicans from the South had replaced liberal Republicans from the North and the West over five decades). It was a party where an impeachment vote would be the nail that sticks out begging for a hammer. There was little room for a Republican to vote to impeach Trump and not come under sustained attack from fellow Republicans, especially voters and media commentators. This is why Rice was one of only a handful of Republicans to do so, and why a few of the others who did so have subsequently retired
A big problem is that as the Republican Party further radicalizes, there is even less room for a reasonable pro-democracy member in the GOP. Voters take cues from the partisan elites who hold office, not those who retire or don’t run in the first place. The more the Republicans in Congress legitimize, defend, and even valorize Trump and the January 6 protestors, the more this becomes the viewpoint that rank-and-file Republican voters accept, and then hold future candidates to.
But the core problem is that in the current two-party system, there is no way out. Democracy depends on political parties, and in particular, it depends on political parties who support the basic tenets of democracy — that it’s okay for parties to sometimes lose elections. But right now the current Republican Party does not believe this, and perhaps the Democratic Party doesn’t either (given the widespread belief that the Democrats are the only party that supports democracy).
The only way forward is for a new, multiparty system to emerge. We need a new center-right party that can support and defend democracy with a conservative identity. We also need more parties to break the binary zero-sum “two-party doom loop,” in which partisans define their positions to be against whatever the opposing party is for — even if it’s the basic norms of free and fair elections. The existence of more parties undermines the “you win, I lose” logic, since governing in multiparty systems involves broad coalition-building, not narrow majorities attempting to impose their will on narrow minorities.
Indeed, this broad coalition-building process is how the American political system used to work, when elections were seen as widely fair and legitimate, and a losing president didn’t send angry mobs to storm the capitol. But the conditions that supported this have changed. American politics has nationalized, and the two parties have sorted geographically. The multidimensional four-party system has collapsed into a two-party system organized around a single “us-against-them” dimension. This will not correct on its own. We have to actively reform the system.
The necessary reform is proportional representation, through large multimember districts, to make room for ideally five or six parties. This does not require a constitutional amendment. Congress could pass legislation today. This would break the two-party binary. It would allow reasonable center-right Republicans to offer an alternative to the authoritarian nihilism that has overtaken the political right.
More importantly, it would mean that every voter would matter equally, regardless of where they live, since all votes count the same under proportional representation. By contrast, under single-member districts, most votes are “wasted” since they do not meaningfully contribute to a candidate’s victory. Moreover, with more choices, more voters would feel represented.
If there is a silver lining to the horror that gripped the capitol on January 6, perhaps it will be that we realize that January 6 was not an isolated event, but the logical progression of the two-party doom loop that has hijacked our political system. If so, maybe it can be the pivot point that helped Americans to realize that yes, we have a problem. And confronting a problem is the first step towards solving it.