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In his inaugural address on January 20, Joe Biden, the 46th President of the United States, declared that “Democracy has prevailed” because “the will of the people has been heard and the will of the people has been heeded.”
But Biden also conceded, with good reason, that “democracy is fragile.”
After all, four years before, America also duly heeded “the will of the people.” According to the rules laid out in the Constitution for calculating who “the people” are at these quadrennial elections, using the Electoral College to give the votes of rural voters more weight than urban voters, Donald J. Trump legally embodied the will of the American people for four, fraught years.
And so empowered, Trump, once inaugurated, started breaking laws, telling lies, violating norms, and daring anyone to stop him.
At the time, I remember wondering if a Democratic President might be tempted to wield their executive powers with similar abandon, but for different reasons, for example, if they were unable to advance a radically egalitarian and anti-racist agenda simply through legislation. After all, the American President’s already awesome powers have expanded relentlessly in the past century, thanks to the expansion of the administrative state and the President’s control of the nation’s nuclear arsenal.
In the past week, I’ve found myself mulling a similar counter-factual in a radically different context: the storming of the Capitol on January 6 2021. This event shows that a new level of political violence, done at the urgent prompting of a President, is now thinkable in America.
Critics on the right already accuse both Antifa and Democrats who support Black Lives Matter of tolerating political violence, even though street-fighting and looting were relatively rare events in the largely peaceful and widespread national protests after the death of George Floyd on May 25, 2020. Yet now we have seen a President, with active support from many Republican Congressmen, deliberately lay the foundation for civil unrest by inventing and repeating lies about a stolen election. These lies incited an attack on Congress by fired-up rally goers and heavily armed militants.
There is still much we don’t yet know about exactly what happened after Donald Trump sent the mob to Capitol Hill to “stop the steal.” But as William Webster, former director of the FBI, and a staunch Republican, recently summarized it, we do know a few things. We know that “a sitting president of the United States, abetted by numerous members of Congress, using tools of deception and innuendo,” chose to “incite the violence.” We know that the President’s speech led to multiple deaths in an attempt to thwart “the will of the American people in choosing their leadership.”
In other words, we know that Trump and his most militant supporters, both inside and outside of Congress, carefully prepared for, and then attempted a revolutionary overthrow of America’s constitutional government.
Like a certain number of fellow leftists who I know inside the academy, some Democrats and movement activists have thrown around the word “revolution” pretty freely in recent years.
But what do we mean by using this term?
Of course, I assume that when he ran for President in 2016 and 2020, Bernie Sanders was using the word metaphorically, to describe how his social democratic vision for a more just America would be historically unprecedented. I trust that Sanders would have used only constitutionally sanctioned means to attain that political goal.
But don’t the events of January 6 also suggest that an armed revolution – such as many of us active in the New Left of the Sixties once foolishly yearned for – is now in fact thinkable within the framework of America’s current political tendencies and parties?
We know that our outgoing president liked to send mixed messages that were ambiguous enough to preserve deniability. But on January 6, Trump and his supporters in practice took the idea of an insurrection – an armed revolution – both literally and seriously.
Not only that: It appears that Trump and his followers came pretty close to succeeding – and all in the name of “democracy.”
For make no mistake: most of the activists I saw talking on TV during the uprising of January 6 seemed sincerely to believe that they were only marshaling their collective forces to rescue American democracy. They truly believed that Congress was on the verge of ratifying a rigged election. Indeed, this belief grew out of a profound trust, even a faith, in the utterances of the country’s supreme secular authority, the only government official who can claim that his election represents the will of all the American people – the President of the United States.
In their own minds they were, and are, patriots – not traitors.
At the moment, I think there are three issues to consider in the wake of this stunning episode.
First, and most important: where do we on the left stand vis-à-vis our own revolutionary traditions? The January 6 storming of the Capitol powerfully proves that a revolution in the name of radical democratic ideals remains a surprisingly plausible political possibility. It is not just idle rhetoric – particularly when you have a President as your leader who is willing to claim virtually unlimited sovereign powers in the name of a people.
The events of January also remind us that modern democracy, in fact, was born not in America but rather in Enlightenment France out of a deeply radical claim, driven home by armed force, that all legitimate political power belonged by rights to a sovereign people.
At the time of our Constitutional Convention, few Americans shared such views, fearful in part of armed popular uprisings that challenged elite rule. The founding fathers established a federal republic through a mixed constitution that contained a House of Representatives meant to express and filter popular opinions, but also aristocratic elements, giving special powers to citizens who owned property in a Senate, and additional extraordinary powers to its federal executive, a Supreme Court, and an Electoral College.
By design, the United States constitution was anti-majoritarian: it was a republic, not a democracy, and it was designed to constrain the political passions of commoners.
But not all Americans were happy about this constitutional division of power. Almost immediately, in part under the influence of the French Revolution, some Americans felt compelled to start political clubs (which at the time were illegal), in order to fight for giving more power to ordinary citizens. This grass roots agitation gave rise to a national party embracing democratic values that sought to mobilize white male voters of all classes to participate more directly in politics.
Ever since Thomas Jefferson was elected as our third President after running as a Democratic-Republican, core principles of America’s constitutional regime have been fundamentally transformed – notably in the 1830s, by the aggressive white supremacist and anti-elitist populism of President Andrew Jackson and his followers, and then again in the 1860s, when Americans fought a civil war over whether or not to abolish slavery and to extend citizenship to Black as well as white Americans.
Ours is a country born in an anti-colonial insurrection; made more democratic by successive, sometimes racist grass-roots movements, like that propagated by Andrew Jackson’s Democrats, and resurrected most recently in the storming of the Capitol; born again in our Civil War; and born yet again in the often brutal struggle over Black civil rights in the Sixties.
Like it or not, the potential for revolutionary violence is in this nation’s political DNA.
Second: The meaning of modern American democracy is precisely what was at stake in the events of January 6, 2021.
This was an attack on our current constitutional order, but it was not an attack on democracy per se, as is often piously claimed. On the contrary, it was avowedly an attempt to protect a certain vision of democracy in America, to “make America great again.” And this all happened under the leadership of a self-styled American Caesar, a commander in chief who was acting as a self-conscious tribune for his plebs, most of them angry white men hoping to abort our ongoing experiment in creating a multiracial democracy.
Progressives, liberals and socialists need to remember that we have no monopoly on the rhetoric of modern democratic idealism. On January 6, a significant group of our fellow Americans laid siege to what they perceived as a distant fortress, the federal government. Some, it appears, were prepared to take hostage, or even to kill, those who they regarded as political enemies—which included Vice President Mike Pence and members of the Republican leadership who were unwilling to nullify Joe Biden’s substantial victory in the electoral college. Although ardent white supremacists and neo-Nazis were among them, a large number of the insurgents understood themselves to be acting on behalf of their President. They attacked officials and institutions that they believed had usurped the powers of ordinary people whose legitimate sovereignty their President was rightly seeking to restore.
But if Trump and his supporters had successfully overturned Joe Biden’s election, would a united American left have responded similarly – and for similar reasons? Of course, nobody can foresee when the extraordinary circumstances of a civil war may warrant extraordinary measures. Scholars still debate whether Abraham Lincoln violated the constitution by suspending habeas corpus and taking certain actions in the Civil War without Congressional approval
Still, we need to understand what limits, if any, avowed democrats on both the right and left are in principle willing to observe going forward.
Even if Trump is swiftly convicted by the Senate for fomenting an insurrection against the government, the events of January 6, coming on the heels of Trump’s lawless and lie-filled Presidency, have set a precedent. Indeed, Biden declaring that “democracy has prevailed” doesn’t really settle once and for all the question of what democracy in America means.
In a constitutional regime of the sort Biden represents, everything in the end hinges on public opinion, and how our leaders understand, and try to heed, “the will of the people.” We have all just seen how easily a President can manipulate a sizeable portion of the public through constant lying and propaganda. As a result, the precedents Trump set represent a standing temptation, and a moral challenge, for his successors, whatever vision of American democracy they promote.
So here is another, perhaps even more far-fetched thought experiment (though I am loosely basing it on one strategy for radical change that was seriously debated by the left in the Sixties):
If the American left were able to install a real champion of sweeping social change in the Oval Office; if it were simultaneously able to keep zealous supporters protesting in the streets (some perhaps armed, as the Black Panthers and Kwame Ture, a.k.a Stokely Carmichael advocated in the late Sixties, and as the Supreme Court has allowed); and if the left were able to win the loyal support of a critical mass of federal lawmakers for seriously tackling the inequalities and structural racism that currently render a multiracial democracy in America more of a fantasy than a reality – then might a majority of Americans be mobilized to undertake a new beginning, by seriously embarking on a new American Revolution?
In that case, should America’s left do the painstaking work to create, as America’s right has done in the past twenty years, an opening for such dramatic social change, punctuated by potentially violent demonstrations and uprisings – even if those in high office would be testing the limits of the Constitution in ways that are now familiar from Trump’s four years in office, capped by his attempted coup?
Or, on the contrary, should progressives, liberals, and radical democrats on the egalitarian left, in principle explicitly reassert – as I believe they should at this critical juncture – an overriding commitment to the rule of law, evidence-based policy making, and nonviolent dissent, just as Joe Biden promised on January 20?
But in that case, shouldn’t we stop using the word revolution to describe our political aspirations?
In the wake of precedents set by the Presidency of Donald J. Trump, a new world of disquieting political possibilities appeared on Capitol Hill on January 6, 2021.
As a result, we need to think soberly going forward about how we will answer the question that America’s most ardent friends of modern democracy on both the libertarian right, the liberal center, and the socialist left have faced ever since the French Revolution:
What is to be done?
James Miller, co-Executive Editor of Public Seminar, teaches at The New School for Social Research. His most recent book is Can Democracy Work? A Short History of a Radical Idea from Ancient Athens to Our World (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018).