The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Jan. 6 wasn’t the end of a failed plot. It was a new salvo in an unfolding uprising.

President Biden speaks inside the Capitol on the first anniversary of the Jan. 6 insurrection. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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The elevation of commemorative days can be crucial to a nation’s self-definition. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, for example, is the regular reaffirmation of King’s integrationist vision. It sets out an ideal that judges our current practice.

Yet most Americans have no idea how to view the symbolic meaning of Jan. 6.

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) has proposed that flags on public grounds be flown at half-staff on that day. He compares the resulting anti-holiday to National Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day — a period of national reflection on our vulnerability.

Yet Pearl Harbor Day has always been the strangest of commemorations, particularly now that our defined enemy has become one of our closest allies. And for a portion of the population, specifying Jan. 6, 2021, a new “date which will live in infamy” represents a misunderstanding of the task ahead.

The main reason we should not view Jan. 6 as a discrete day of recollection is that the attack on the constitutional order it revealed has not ended. The day not only resulted from pernicious legal theories designed to prevent the peaceful transfer of presidential authority — theories resisted at the highest levels by a frighteningly small group of responsible Republicans — it was also the effective beginning of a national movement to turn the Republican Party into the carrier of pernicious legal theories that threaten the American project in self-government. In this light, the authors of Jan. 6 have won their first year of struggle.

Opinions interactive: The insurrectionists' roll call

By The Post’s count, at least 163 Republicans who embrace the election lie are running for statewide positions with authority over elections. Over a dozen GOP candidates for secretary of state positions are campaigning to defend the stolen-election lie and (if necessary) to enforce a scheme in which state legislatures seize control of the next presidential election’s outcome.

Donald Trump’s political movement — now almost indistinguishable from the Republican Party in many places — is engaged in a candidate recruitment drive in which the main qualifications are credulity and corruption.

The events of Jan. 6 were not the evidence of a failed plot; they were one rallying point in an unfolding uprising. We still need to understand exactly what happened that day. But more important than such events is the attitudes that enabled them.

The Post obtained hours of video footage, some exclusively, and placed it within a digital 3-D model of the building. (Video: The Washington Post)

At issue is the question of democratic legitimacy: Do citizens seek solutions to their problems outside the structures of democracy? This is what motivates people who believe they have found loopholes in the constitutional order that allow them to rule like a majority without winning a majority of support. This is what causes a sitting president to contemplate martial law when a democratic outcome defies his will.

In the United States, patriotism is linked to process. The classical liberalism of the founders — affirming universal rights while carefully balancing power against power — is the common language of the American experiment. People of varied philosophies and religions have found their political aspirations met within this tradition.

It is not a complete moral description of the world. It does not promise final victory in a culture war. It does not produce supreme goods like holiness, enlightenment or salvation. Rather, the rule of procedure promises a modicum of justice and peace in a world hostile to both.

In one sense, this lowers the sights of politics. It means, in the public realm, that we suspend the search for ultimate truth. And we distrust the primal appeals of identity derived from blood and soil.

America has never been a “fatherland” we blindly serve. Thomas Jefferson called America an “empire of liberty.” Better still is the description used by Winston Churchill: “the great republic.” History has entrusted to us the secondary good of self-government. But this has a gravity and honorability all its own. It requires the rejection of anger as a cause and dehumanization as a method. It creates the stable context in which human beings seek their own highest goods. And that calling has moral dignity.

On Jan. 6, 2021, we saw what can happen when the protection of procedure is thrown aside by those who govern us. Since then, we have seen the appeal of undemocratic ideals only expand on the right. This has highlighted the most difficult, recurrent debates of U.S. history. Can a nation with so much regional diversity unite in common public purposes? And will the people remain loyal to democratic procedures against the appeal of political demagogues?

Moving forward, Jan. 6 does not deserve special distinction — except to celebrate the courage and sacrifice of those who defended the Capitol against attack. It is one more day of a concerted, ongoing assault on democratic institutions. Defeating that assault will require Americans who rise to the defense of self-government with the same intensity as those who pursue victory in the culture wars.

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