U.S. Capitol Police officer Aquilino Gonell reacts as he testifies during a U.S. House select committee hearing on the Jan. 6 Capitol riot in Washington, D.C., the United States, on July 27, 2021. A U.S. House panel dedicated to investigating the Jan. 6 Capitol riot kicked off its much-anticipated first hearing Tuesday featuring four police officers who defended the seat of the U.S. legislature during the violence. (Photo: Andrew Harnik/Pool via Xinhua/Getty)

Can the House Select Committee to Investigate January 6 Actually Help to Defend Democracy?

Will the entire process at least motivate and mobilize Democrats in and out of Congress to move forward from this trial to do the real political work of passing legislation, rebuilding the party from below, and building support for 2022 and 2024?

The House Select Committee to Investigate January 6 is off to a good start.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi has appointed a very strong group, chaired by Rep. Bennie Thompson; including Adam Schiff and Jamie Raskin, the two veteran, razor-sharp impeachment managers; and, most importantly, including Republicans Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, both of whom delivered powerful opening statements, and have behaved admirably in recent months. (At the same time, conservative writer Mona Charen has just published a strong piece in The Bulwark arguing that "Cheney and Kinzinger Are Too Late.") And Pelosi's refusal to seat Jim Jordan and Jim Banks on the committee, and Republican Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy's subsequent boycott of the committee, actually enhances the seriousness and integrity of the committee's work. This is all good.

The situation we face continues to be a very grave one, with Republicans still relentlessly pushing the Big Lie, and using it to justify a tsunami of state-level laws restricting voting and setting the stage for statehouse Republicans to overturn election results that don't suit them.

Two headlines from the Washington Post neatly capture the power of the committee's opening hearings on July 27: "Jan. 6 hearings open with visceral accounts of Trump supporters' assault on police" and "Police officers deliver emotional testimony about violent day at the Capitol."

NPR reported "four takeaways" of these opening hearings: (1) the officers pointed the finger directly at Trump for inciting the violence; (2) Rep. Stephanie Murphy (Fla.) revealed that rioters were only 40 paces away from two House members, underscoring the real danger presented by the insurrection; (3) McCarthy's move to boycott the panel has left Trump without a defense; and (4) the committee can subpoena Trump and his Republican associates, and some such subpoenas are clearly in the offing.

And Charlie Sykes summed things up well in The Bulwark, in a piece entitled "Patriot's Day," arguing that the hearing represented a devastating indictment of Trump, Trumpism, and the lies still held by Republican leaders.

The opening hearings made dramatic television viewing, and even on Fox News, at least some efforts were made by some hosts to allow the truth and the power of the testimony to be conveyed. It is doubtful that future hearings--and none have yet been scheduled--will have as much viewership or impact. And while the Committee's investigation will surely produce much truth, and offer a powerful verdict, I fear that the entire effort will ultimately fail to have the powerful public impact that is necessary for it to play an important role in defending constitutional democracy, and preventing future and perhaps more dangerous, violent, and effective "January 6ths."

Previous efforts to use Congressional proceedings for similar purposes do not offer much reason for optimism.

Trump, we must not forget, was twice-impeached. And yet he received almost 74 million votes in the 2020 election, 6 million more than he received in 2016, and after the second impeachment--for trying to subvert the election itself--he still remains the "leader" of the Republican party and its presumptive presidential nominee in 2024. The vast majority of Republicans indeed believe that he actually won the election, which was "stolen" from him by Democrats. Neither impeachment seems to have had any significant political consequence. Because neither was conducted with serious attention to the demanding requirements of public education and public relations in our digital age.

Back in late 2019-early 2020, I published a number of pieces criticizing the Democrats' approach to the first impeachment for being too legalistic, too focused on Ukraine, and insufficiently framed as a broad public exposure of the many ways Trump had assaulted and violated both the spirit of constitutional democracy and the Constitution itself. Instead, that impeachment was rebuffed in the Senate, and indeed the Biden campaign barely mentioned it in the run up to the 2020 election.

After the second impeachment, I published a piece in Common Dreams praising the Jamie Raskin-led prosecution of the case against Trump, arguing that "Trump's guilt [was] clearly demonstrated," but also articulating ""worry about the political effects of this terrific presentation and whether they will be as beneficial as many hope":

It is certain that the Trump defense team will spend the next days throwing shade, changing the subject, demonizing "the left," and furnishing Senate Republicans with the bullshit cover they need. And it is virtually certain that most Senate Republicans will ignore the unimpeachable case made by the House managers, do the wrong thing, and vote to acquit Trump and to "move on."

. . . And so this entire impeachment trial hinges, in the end, not on questions of rightness, which are beyond any reasonable doubt, but on questions of political power.

Will House impeachment managers be able to really reach out to the broad public with their case, and is the Democratic party using every communicative means at its disposal to ensure this, so that some real public learning takes place, and at least some "hearts and minds" are changed as a result (as I indicated yesterday, I am skeptical here)?

Will the entire process at least motivate and mobilize Democrats in and out of Congress to move forward from this trial to do the real political work of passing legislation, rebuilding the party from below, and building support for 2022 and 2024?

If the answers to these questions is not "yes," then we are in for trouble.

Unfortunately, it would appear that the answer to those questions was not "yes."

And the situation we face continues to be a very grave one, with Republicans still relentlessly pushing the Big Lie, and using it to justify a tsunami of state-level laws restricting voting and setting the stage for statehouse Republicans to overturn election results that don't suit them. As a number of commentators have pointed out, if anything the Republican party is now laying the foundation for a perhaps more effective seizure of power than that attempted by Trump in 2020, seriously discussing the need for "an American Caesar," and moving farther along the road to being an outright fascist party. Only a few weeks ago, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt argued in The Atlantic that "The Biggest Threat to Democracy is the GOP Stealing the 2024 Election." The spare and analytical language contained in that title notwithstanding, Levitsky and Ziblatt make very clear that the threat is very real and very threatening--to democracy, to the simple peaceful transfer of power, and thus to civil peace itself. In other words, as Damon Linker has put it, we face a very real "threat of civil war."

In the face of this very real danger, the House Select Committee does not inspire great confidence. That it is deliberative, and non-partisan, is important. But it is equally important that everything the committee does be planned with attention to maximum feasible public exposure and impact on the strengthening of constitutional democracy. Yet, like the previous impeachment efforts, this effort does not seem to be conceived in this public-political way.

There is thus little reason to imagine that the Committee's process will be very different from any other obscure House Committee proceeding that most people know nothing about.

After many increasingly-creative Google searches, I was finally able to locate the Committee's web page, something that proved impossible on first, second, and third tries. Under "about" the page offers a general description of the committee's mission, most of which consists of verbatim text of the House legislation creating the committee--not really reader-friendly for the hoi polloi. Under "committee activity" it includes a link to the July 27 hearing and the information "there are no upcoming hearings." Nothing more. Under "media center" if offers two "Latest News" items, the most recent of which is a week-old July 22 press release announcing the committee's senior staff. And under "Contact," it lists the Rayburn Building office address and phone number of Chair Bennie G. Thompson. "Back to the Future" much?

I am willing to bet that a really smart undergraduate web designer could design a better and more effective website in a matter of hours.

The site contains a link to a dedicated Twitter feed @January6thCmte. The feed contains 11 posts of hearing testimony clips, and has 16.5k followers--less than many teenage influencers. For a simple comparison, Jim Jordan's feed has 2 million followers, Ivanka Trump's feed has 10.2 million followers, and Justin Bieber's feed has 113.8 million followers. Retired NBA player and current announcer Mark Jackson has 264.2k followers! None of the above have re-Tweeted any of the committee's eleven paltry Tweets. Neither has LeBron James-whose feed has 49.9 million followers and who regularly shares political posts. Indeed neither has Barack Obama-whose Twitter account is the single most followed account, with 129.8 million followers. You think someone on the Committee staff reached out to Obama or "King James" asking them to re-Tweet and they said "no?" Not likely.

It does not appear that much effort has thus far been put into rolling out and projecting the Twitter feed. "If you build it, they will come" might be a wonderful approach to a Kevin Costner fantasy about baseball. But the public platforms of a special Committee supposedly defending democracy itself?

The website also links to a dedicated Facebook page that contains seven hearing clips. Seven. It has 522 followers and is liked by 345 people (my own Facebook page, by contrast, has over 3000 followers).

And there is also a link to a dedicated YouTube page that contains one post--to the entire 3.5 hour opening hearing (by contrast, my band, a Bloomington-based band called the Postmodern Jazz Quartet, has posted twelve videos, each of which took me about five minutes to post. When, years ago, we performed and recorded a Duke Ellington tribute concert, we broke down the long video into a separate video for each song; the House Committee's webmaster is apparently too busy to worry about such things).

In short, the Select Committee Investigating January 6, like the two House impeachment efforts that preceded it, appears to have no social media strategy and no strategy of public outreach and public education.

Meanwhile the Republican party continues to spread the Big Lie, to pass anti-democratic state-level legislation, and to obstruct the passage and signing into law of the Ford the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Restoration Act.

And President Biden and Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi allow the question of democracy to be relegated to the backburner while they tout "bipartisan progress" on an infrastructure bill.

And Biden goes so far as to declare, at a nationally televised CNN Town Hall last week, that he refuses to "get wrapped up" in discussion about how the Senate filibuster rule is obstructing necessary federal legislation on voting, and that "the American public, you can't stop them from voting."

New York Times columnist Charles Blow has rightly called this a "contemptible display." Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez responded in a more modulated but no less powerful way:

"Communities cannot 'out-organize' voter suppression when those they organize to elect won't protect the vote.

& Even if the DO out-organize, the ground is being set to overturn results.

The time to fight like hell for democracy is right now. We may not get another chance. #HR1."

She is right. The time to fight like hell for democracy is now.

One front of this fight is the effort to push back against Republican minority obstructionism, and to pass the For the People and the John Lewis Acts.

This must involve concerted pressure on Democratic leaders, on Democratic obstructionists like Senators Manchin and Sinema, and on President Biden himself. Biden ran as the man who could save American democracy. Nothing is more important than his commitment to achieving this purpose.

A second front consists of efforts, like the House Select Committee inquiry, to provide a full public exposure of the role of the Trump administration, its Republican allies, and their supportive mobs, to overturn the 2020 election.

This must involve serious investigation and deliberation. But just as important is serious public outreach and pubic education, and the dedication of significant funding, and staff, to the job of organizing a sustained public relations campaign that rebuts Trumpist lies and explains why "Stop the Steal" is so dangerous, and that is seriously targeted to those people who really need to hear these messages.

It is hard to believe that Democratic party leadership is unable to do a much better job fighting on both of these fronts.

If they don't do a better job, and soon, we will all pay the price.

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