Members Only | June 9, 2022 | Reading Time: 3 minutes
Democracy is controversial
Even if the J6 hearings change nothing, remember that.
The hearings held in the House tonight to investigate the attempted coup on January 6 are vital if we have any hope of holding elected officials accountable – but they are unlikely to change minds.
The truth is the evidence presented at these hearings doesn’t matter. The entire country knows Donald Trump and other Republican politicians were directly involved in trying to overturn a legal election.
The problem is that half the country supports those actions.
Democracy is controversial in America.
In many ways, it has always been.
The entire country knows Donald Trump and other Republican politicians were directly involved in trying to overturn a legal election. The problem is that half the country supports those actions.
The founding included undemocratic mechanisms. Exclusionary voting rights, the Electoral College, the three-fifths compromise and obviously the existence of slavery – these undermined claims to democracy. Our laws didn’t support a universal democracy until 1965.
Election violence isn’t a new either.
Voting in Colonial America was all done in person and often involved rowdy celebrations and bullying as part of the experience. This, unsurprisingly, occasionally turned into outright violence.
In one election in 1742, there was tension between the Quaker party and the Anglican Proprietary Party. On October 1, 1742, which came to be known as “Bloody Election,” the Proprietary Party hired sailors to destroy property to influence the vote. The German and Dutch people supporting the Quakers fought back until the sailors retreated.
Election violence became more common in the 19th century with anti-immigrant fervor and sectional tensions. Kansas’ first election in 1855 was disrupted by political violence over the question of popular sovereignty, if the territory would have slavery or not.
The violence continued for the next few years and this period was dubbed “Bleeding Kansas.” There were a number of “Know Nothing Riots” in the 1850s against immigrants (the Know Nothing Party was a nativist political party). In 1856 violence broke out at the polls all over Baltimore during the municipal election on October 8 and the national election on November 4. Between the two riots more than 20 people were killed. A cannon was fired at police.
The Civil War broke out in response to the 1860 election and elections continued to be a cause for violence clashes into the 20th century.
After the Civil War election, violence increasingly became about preventing Black people from voting than a particular partisan clash, though obviously such efforts had partisan outcomes.
An 1872 contested election for Louisiana governor resulted in dual governments between the Democrat and Republican candidate. Federal troops were sent to support the Republican while Democratic supporters formed a paramilitary group similar to the KKK.
In 1873, an all-Black militia took control of a local courthouse. Former Confederates and Klan members surrounded it. After the Black militia was forced to surrender, the white mob murdered many of them, killing up to 150 in what came to be known as the Colfax Massacre.
In US v. Cruikshank, the Supreme Court ruled that the actions taken during the Colfax Massacre did not violate federal law protecting Black men’s right to vote because the paramilitary group had private actors, not state ones. Violence against Black people trying to vote remained common especially in the South until the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Election violence might be common in American history, but that doesn’t mean we should accept it or that J6 should be ignored.
We also shouldn’t have any illusions about the effect that the hearings could have. According to a poll taken in December 2021, 71 percent of Republicans and a third of all respondents think Biden’s electoral win was likely illegitimate. That means that a third of the country thinks Trump is the rightful president and therefore that the actions taken on January 6 were not an attempt to overturn a legitimate election win.
Only 57 percent supports continuing to charge people for their actions that day. Forty-four percent thinks it’s better to move on than to even hold these hearings and try to learn more about what happened. At least a third considers the events on Jan 6 to be a revolution, uprising or rebellion and almost half of respondents called the events a protest – all words that could frame J6 as positive or at least acceptable.
Therefore, while maybe 10-20 percent of the country could be swayed by evidence at these hearings, at least a third will not be because they support the violent overthrow of the current government.
Despite these numbers, today’s hearing into January 6 are still vitally important. We cannot let an attempted coup be swept under the rug especially when so many elected officials were likely involved.
Democracy must be consistently vigorously fought for, especially in the face of a clear fascist threat – or it will be lost.
Public figures and politicians must be forced to answer questions even if they are never officially charged. If we allow this coup attempt to go uninvestigated, the next one might be more successful.
Mia Brett, PhD, is the Editorial Board's legal historian. She lives with her gorgeous dog, Tchotchke. You can find her @queenmab87.