The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The Jan. 6 committee’s audience won’t match Watergate’s. But it should.

Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), center, flanked by Reps. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), left, and Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) in D.C. on March 28. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
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Almost 50 years ago, the American public was riveted by the Watergate hearings. This week, the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 sacking of the Capitol promises an equally riveting show as it releases “previously unseen material” and lays out facts that, in the words of Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), “will blow the roof off the House.”

Yet the chances that the Jan. 6 hearings will exert the same kind of pull on the public as their Watergate precursors are slim, for all the wrong reasons.

The committee will necessarily focus on the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol, and the many-faceted conspiracy led by Donald Trump and his allies, from White House aides to Proud Boys street gangs, to discredit and overturn the results of the 2020 election. The evidence already in the public record is compelling. The problem is that the issue has already been litigated in the court of public opinion, and Trump and his “big lie” about the election have won the argument among Republican politicians and voters alike. The initial outrage expressed by corporate and deep-pocketed donors has also been shelved for business as usual.

The contrast with Watergate is stark. In those hearings, it was Republican senators such as Howard H. Baker Jr. who helped drive the inquiry. And when the evidence of Richard M. Nixon’s malfeasance came out, it was Republicans from Baker to right-wing hero Barry Goldwater who told Nixon it was time to go.

Today’s Republican leadership has sought to sabotage any effort at accountability. Led by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), it blocked the effort to set up an independent special commission like the one that investigated the 9/11 attacks. It blocked efforts to set up a bipartisan special committee with both House and Senate members. When House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) created the committee, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) first tried to appoint members who were implicated in the conspiracy and then refused to cooperate at all. Republican legislators and White House aides fought the committee’s subpoenas and refused to testify. Senate Republicans thus far have united to block efforts to strengthen our flawed system for certifying election results. In the end, the Republican National Committee even passed a resolution defining the attack on the Capitol as citizens engaged in “legitimate political discourse.”

As Trump and the right-wing media spread the “big lie,” Republicans nationwide not only embraced it; they used it as an excuse to pass voter suppression laws wherever they held power — in 19 states as of December. Pushed by Trump, Republicans have sought to elect zealots to manage future elections and passed laws empowering Republican majorities in state legislatures to overturn results if they so choose. Add to that the surge of physical threats against state and local election officials — Reuters has documented nearly 800 in 12 states. Nearly two-thirds of Republican voters believe that Joe Biden is not the legitimate winner of the 2020 presidential election and that the election was stolen from Trump.

The Jan. 6 committee will necessarily focus on Trump and the conspiracies that led to that terrible day — but the threat to democracy comes from a Republican Party grounded in White Christian voters that appears to believe it cannot win elections when everyone votes. Republicans appear to believe that votes are generally counted fairly in areas where they tend to win — suburban and rural areas — while fraud is rampant in cities such as Atlanta, Detroit and Philadelphia, where Black people and Hispanics are more numerous and Democrats tend to win.

The second major obstacle the committee faces is that its televised hearings will not have the reach that the Watergate hearings had. Then, the United States had three major networks and respected national and regional newspapers featuring the story. Now, not only has social media fragmented the audience, but the right-wing Wurlitzer — from Fox News to Newsmax and One America News plus the ubiquitous national, regional and local right-wing talk radio — is dedicated to debunking the investigation and spreading the “big lie.”

Still, it is vital that the hearings take place — and that they gain as much attention as possible. A detailed public record of the conspiracy’s extent — of the number of Republican politicians, operatives and donors who were part of the plot — is imperative. Clear public condemnation is needed to provide at least a caution to those continuing to attack democracy.

Even the best hearings might not be able to galvanize their concern, but the committee must make the effort. When asked in 1787 what the founders had created, Benjamin Franklin is said to have replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.” Once more, every American faces the question: Can we keep it?


An earlier version of this column incorrectly stated the Watergate hearings were 50 years ago. They were 49 years ago. This version has been updated.