One year ago, we witnessed something we may reasonably assume we never expected to see in our lifetimes. The attempt by a mob to seize the nation’s capitol.
Characterize it any way you like—a demonstration that got out of hand, a planned assault, an aberration of mass hysteria—the salient feature is this: a large gathering, numbering in the thousands, attempted to break into, overwhelm security, and hunt down and intimidate members of our government who were in the process of conducting the legitimate work of the people.
The other salient feature is that this did not occur in a vacuum.
On these points I think most of us, on either side of the ideological field, can agree.
Where it begins to get tricky is whether or not one feels outraged or disappointed. Outraged that it happened, disappointed that it failed. Sorting through the morass of justifications, excuses, and lies will take years.
Let me state up front that what happened on January 6th, 2021, was a violation of our character. Much as we might like to believe otherwise, only a handful of things separate us from other nations and traditions, one of the most important being the peaceful transition of power at the behest of the People via the plebiscite. (Certainly other countries have come to adopt this, but we were the first in modern times, with the longest continuous history of the practice, to the point that it has become a Given, at least till now.) There have been elections in the past that were questionable in terms of who actually won, but we have for a couple of centuries privileged process over momentary stumbles and frustrations and by so doing righted ourselves over time. What happened on January 6th was nothing less than an abrogation of that tradition, a denial of those principles, and a break with our common identity. There is no other way to see it.
Whether you believe that rupture to have been necessary matters less than the fact that it put at risk the possibility of resolving differences and managing our common concerns as a civilization. I say that because for the last couple of decades of feverish rhetoric, it is clear that for many the point of the last administration was to repudiate common ground. That those who thought attempting to kidnap a governor, finding and restraining representatives, and threatening violence against civil servants were the only viable avenues for their message, common ground not only does not exist but cannot.
At least not with the system as it has been.
Ever since the war cry that the government is the problem, the debate has been less about what kind of government than whether there should be one at all. In many ways, all sides accept some of this. The Right wants to be rid of the government that seeks to redress social inequities and regulate financial matters, the Left wants to he rid of the government that defends corporatism and abets foreign wars, both trade and martial. Everyone has something to complain about and instead of trying to create methods for more responsive government, many have given up and decided that government by simply Being is an intractable problem.
This, however, is a species of petulance. This is angrily wiping the pieces from the game board because you’re losing or don’t understand the rules.
The most dangerous aspect of the January 6th debacle is the rejection of fact in favor of a faux heroic narrative. And we’re seeing this play out in areas that are costing people their lives and their health.
The rejection of fact is also a basic trait of American culture. If we don’t like what evidence shows us, we are adept at ignoring it or even violently suppressing it. It’s possible this is an aspect of our frontier days, to which we are closer than many other peoples. What you carry with you into the unknown may make the difference between resolve and despair. Manifest Destiny is little more than a rejection of reality in favor of a mythic narrative that justified genocide, theft, subsequent racism, and ideological colonialism. That even by our own founding principles we had no right to pursue it mattered not at all. We wanted what we wanted.
The 20th Century seemed like it would be different. Partly, as a nation, we’d already acquired what we wanted, so if here and there we started acting like the principled liberty-loving people we claimed to be, what harm? But we ran up against those lingering prejudices bolstered by a national narrative that now included the so-called “taming” of the West and learned that a lot of people cared nothing for truth and fact if it meant redefining who we were.
After World War II, another layer came into play, that of America as world leader. While there are many reasons for this, the primary one is that we were the only industrial power wholly intact when the smoke cleared, and had the resources to jump-start the rest of the world in rebuilding. This was not an altogether bad thing—many good ideas came out of the next couple of decades—but the fact that we had not revisited our own past shortcomings in any effective way led to a re-emergent nativism that then had the tools to dominate in ways it never had before. After Vietnam and the repudiation by Movement Conservatives of everything from the Depression onward, the momentum shifted to feed a narrative that we had lost our way and that the government was the primary obstacle to returning to that “truer” Americanism.
From the Eighties on, our national dialogue has been a tennis match of catch-phrases over issues too few realize are distractions. The massive tax cuts from Reagan onward have sapped our ability to address resource prejudice and alleviate economic and social disparities which are mostly the result of Side Picking, with the poor, the marginalized, the vulnerable overrun by interests seeking advantage over each other. We are and have been such a wealthy country that the effects of this did not overtake us in a politically meaningful way until—just to put a date to it for convenience—2008.
There is, in fact, a lot to be angry about across the political spectrum.
Which makes it all the more important to recognize those aspects of our polity that are vital to our common identity.
There are no justifications for the attempt to overturn the election. If that were how we did things here, then if any election had deserved a reversal, it would have been Trump’s—he lost the popular election, and there was demonstrable interference in the campaigns. But as I said, we have had other elections that were questionable. We opted to remain committed to the process, because without that we could no longer, ever again, have relied on any election. Trump was installed despite problems because to do otherwise would have compromised our ability in future to conduct elections. The solution was the 2020 election. He lost.
The attempt to overturn it—and as we are learning the attempt was many-layered and criminal on several levels—was a rejection of any standard of legitimacy. Success would have meant the end of the experiment, the loss of two-and-a-half centuries of democratic evolution, and the chaos of failed-state power-mongering. It would have meant the end.
Arguing with people who reject anything but their own beliefs in the face of any and all counterargument or fact is a regrettably Sisyphean task. The more one argues, the more entrenched in their own take they seem to become. Those of us who are rightly alarmed must find a way to deal with this that doesn’t include ceding any legitimacy to their view. We have to do this, though, without ourselves becoming locked in an intractable adherence to a particular viewpoint.
It has long been an open secret that one of the problems in our world is the collusion between government and private corporations. By and large, this has been a practical partnership, but it becomes toxic when people on the ground suffer under such systemic cooperation. Government makes it possible for private industry to make and distribute the goods and services we all need, but when that system fails to recognize that in the quest to become More it destroys, then we have the source of most social unrest. It is no wonder that people see government as a problem when it throws its support behind corporations that despoil. The Left wants to separate the two and make government responsive to ordinary people. The Right wants the government to disappear because it seems without government, private concerns could not roll over them at will. When we add the toxic ingredient of High Finance into the mix, people take second place to profit and the problem becomes confused. How do we maintain our civilization without one or the other?
I would be slightly more sympathetic to the Right if they actually had a proposal for going forward, but they do not. They have accepted the notion that Markets are “natural” and that just getting out of their way will solve many if not all problems. Their entire focus seems to be to minimize if not obliterate government regulation so this presumed utopia of free market innate genius can manifest.
Looked at this way, January 6th becomes an ill-conceived attempt to physically prevent the government from having any say in those Markets. The government is the problem, let’s destroy it, and then we’ll all be free!
In a way, I would feel better about it all if this were in fact underlying the insurrection. But this requires more consideration, something I sense few of them bothered with. Unfortunately, I think most of them are indifferent to such considerations. They have fed themselves for too long on the rants of people like Alex Jones and Sean Hannity, who have for their own aggrandizement spun a narrative of Orwellian proportions more akin to bad dystopian fiction than reality, and with Trump as cheerleader sought to be part of history. The teeth of misinformation have sunk into the throat of our country deeply and we may yet bleed out.
Long ago, I used to watch William F. Buckley. He was a masterful debater and his command of language exemplary. He argued conservative issues most eloquently, but there came a point at which it was obvious that he was no longer arguing from principle, but to win. He wanted to make his opponents look foolish, weak, he wanted to undermine their arguments and win the field, not to advance society or democracy or progress, but just to be the last intellectual standing. Some of the tortured positions he advanced became hard to follow because, ultimately, they had left the theater of reason. The world wasn’t like that and he wasn’t really a democrat but an elitist who thought a chosen few should be in charge. While he never quite came out and said that, it was implicit in his later stances.
I thought then that perhaps Conservatism was over. It had lost its way. Rather than seeing his place taken by anyone of comparable intellectual heft, Buckley was superseded by a rogue’s gallery of lightweight demagogues, beginning with Rush Limbaugh. Today, all Conservatism seems in league with is global capital. It’s positions have shifted so far Right that centripetally it has dragged the Left with it so that even centrism looks Far Left compared to the mouthpieces of the Right.
January 6th marks, in my opinion, the stake through the heart of contemporary conservatism. Not because of what the rioters did but because in the intervening year only a few Republicans have stepped forward to repudiate it and advocate for justice. The rest are defending what happened, either openly or by attempting to thwart investigations. By silence and advocacy they have shown themselves in sympathy. Granted, many are looking at their base and trying to secure their office, but that is frankly no excuse. If holding office is more important than the reason the office is there, they do not deserve it. And I’m hearing no third way from any of them. That silence suggests they do not have one. As an ideology, they have nothing.
I do not believe conservatism is dead, but it has left the field in any viable way. Unfortunately, it has done sufficient damage that we will be limping along for years before we learn how to walk again. If we do.
Proof? Well, if the widespread disenfranchisement in states by means of redistricting, voter purges, and curtailment of voting avenues is not sufficient to demonstrate a loss of faith on the part of the GOP in democracy, then the refusal to pass federal voter rights protections should be. There is no justification for this. None. This is an attempt to restrict access to the polls to secure positions otherwise untenable. It’s a cheat.
January 6th has made this evident, visible—and impossible to ignore. What we now do to address it will define us for decades to come.