The hearings of the Jan. 6 committee are the most prominent expression yet of the far-reaching effort to “defend democracy.” The people committed to this undertaking believe, with perfect sincerity, that their political opponents seek to overturn the Constitution of the United States. They are convinced that the nation’s democratic traditions may soon be irrevocably lost. They are prepared to wield force on behalf of their cause, seeking criminal penalties against those they oppose.
In all this, the democracy-defenders are exactly like the protesters who descended on the Capitol on January 6, 2021. The protesters believed they were defending the Constitution against those who sought its overthrow. They saw themselves as fighting for a democracy that was about to be stolen. They were, in at least some cases, prepared to treat their opponents as criminals.
These aren’t the only parallels between the Jan. 6 protest and the Jan. 6 committee. The committee, no less than the protest, is backed by a lie told by a sitting president.
The Jan. 6 protesters were encouraged by former President Donald Trump’s false claim that a different election outcome could be achieved by a proper counting of votes. It is true that the 2020 election took place under the threat of violence. With the George Floyd protests freshly in mind, as businesses were boarded up in Midtown Manhattan and downtown DC, 75 percent of Americans expressed fears of a violent response to the re-election of Trump. And it is true that electoral procedures had been changed in a way that favored Democrats, through a well-funded effort that Time described as “an informal alliance between left-wing activists and business titans.” In this broad sense, one could say the election was stolen. But such a theft could never be remedied by audits of voting machines.
The Jan. 6 hearings are likewise premised on President Biden’s false assertion that the Jan. 6 protest constituted an “armed insurrection.” It did not. But this claim is the basis of the Jan. 6 committee’s work. It is the motive for harsh criminal penalties against protesters. It is an argument for increased surveillance and deployment of force. Biden’s big lie is accepted by far more powerful people than Trump’s ever was, and for that reason alone, it may prove more consequential. It is also less easily fact-checked—fact-checking being the favored method for denying inconvenient realities by refuting inaccurate descriptions of them.
The Jan. 6 hearings may unearth useful facts, but the motives of those behind them—the would-be defenders of democracy—deserve equal scrutiny. For the “defense of democracy” is not merely about ensuring the integrity of electoral processes, a concern shared by the protesters. It is about guaranteeing the dominance of certain ideals and interests. As committee member Jamie Raskin put it, the committee seeks “to fortify democratic institutions and values.”
Which institutions? Not necessarily those of the representative government established by the US Constitution. Zoe Lofgren, a member of the Jan. 6 committee, has cosponsored a bill that would abolish the Electoral College. Which values? Not just the proposition that “all men are created equal.” The cause of “defending democracy” requires adherence to a wider range of progressive causes—diversity, equity, and inclusion, the rule of expertise, and LGBT rights.
The connection between these issues and democratic processes may not be obvious, but it is deeply felt. Jason Stanley, a professor of philosophy at Yale, recently apologized for overlooking the importance of trans rights in his labors on behalf of democracy. “I haven't been focused as much as I should have been on supporting trans rights in the last 12 months,” he wrote. “I now realize that this is where the fight for global democracy is.”
Likewise, anyone who objects to progressive notions of reproductive rights can be viewed as an enemy of democracy. In the words of Raskin: “The same people who are willing to override the constitutional order … and have Trump seize the presidency, are also happy to override the last half century of precedent of personal liberty rights.”
“Defending democracy” also requires preserving the power of certain institutions, notably the media, universities, and nongovernmental organizations. All of these institutions present themselves as defenders of democratic values, despite the fact that they lack democratic accountability. Their wealthy funders generally arise from the professional class and share its values, causing them to be regarded positively by the managers, doctors, professors, educators, and nonprofit workers who make up the managerial elite and the professional bourgeoisie. These groups are sometimes opposed by the small-business bourgeoisie that owns car dealerships, restaurant franchises, and construction companies.
In practice, “defending democracy” means favoring the interests of managers and professionals over the interests of other Americans. It means empowering social-media censors and redoubling anti-bias training. It means deferring to fact-checking journalists and wielders of expertise. It means increasing the power of one class at the expense of another.
The demographics of the Jan. 6 protest bear this out. Robert Pape, a professor of the University of Chicago, found that 26 percent of the protesters owned their own businesses, compared to just 12 percent of the 2020 electorate. Yet these were not the most prosperous small businessmen. As The Washington Post reported, the protesters had a bankruptcy rate of 18 percent, nearly twice the national average; nearly 60 percent had a history of “bankruptcies, notices of eviction or foreclosure, bad debts, or unpaid taxes over the last two decades.”
These are the downwardly mobile members of the small-business bourgeoisie. They are at risk of losing their place in a class that has lost its place in American life: a double dispossession. For more than a century, the small-business bourgeoisie has been losing cultural and economic influence. If its marginal members believe that an election has been stolen from them, it is probably because they feel their country has been, too.
Naturally, this conviction is dismissed as white privilege. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in congressional testimony last year, “I want to understand white rage … What is it that made thousands of people assault this building and try to overturn the Constitution of the United States of America?”
Milley didn’t entertain the idea that, far more than any racial resentment, the protesters felt “rage” at people like him. He didn’t consider the possibility that they sought to overturn not a constitution, but a class, whose institutions and values—far more than any document—now define our regime. Above all, he couldn’t comprehend that these people, too, acted on the belief that they were defending democracy.
This is the common conviction of the Jan. 6 protesters and those who now sit in judgment over them. Both believe that America is, or was until quite recently, a democracy. But there are other ways of describing our regime. The protesters were no match for that “informal alliance” of activists and businessmen. NGOs flush with hundreds of millions of dollars in tax-deductible contributions “got states to change voting systems and laws,” as Time reported, “got millions of people to vote by mail for the first time,” and “successfully pressured social-media companies to take a harder line against disinformation.” All this was done in the name of democracy, even if the methods seemed more typical of oligarchy.