Photo credit: Lev Radin/Shutterstock.com
On Friday, May 9, the Senate failed to pass a bill establishing a bipartisan federal commission to investigate the January 6 attack on the Capitol, an insurrection intended to block Joe Biden from being inaugurated as president. The cloture vote was 54-35, six votes shy of the number needed to bring the bill itself to the floor.
While it once again demonstrated that the GOP leadership is determined to leave Donald J. Trump’s Big Lie in place, it was an important moment for several reasons. First, six Republicans voted yes, showing that Mitch McConnell’s grip on his caucus is becoming squishy. Second, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is moving early to defend the Majority That Is Not One. Eleven senators, including two Democrats, declined to vote on cloture: Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), who has withheld her vote from key Democratic legislation before, was one of them, Patty Murray (D-WA) was the other.
Both have been outspoken about the insurrection. Sinema’s staff cited a “personal family matter,” which they decline to reveal, for her absence: perhaps this was because it was genuinely personal, such as an emergency colonoscopy. But I suspect that the tedious, partisan election recount in Arizona has Sinema, a self-declared centrist who voted with Trump 25% of the time, spooked. Wacky populism in that state that could flip her seat—and the state’s electoral college votes—in 2024.
Give Sinema credit. As a former Green, who had the sense to get out when Ralph Nader took them down the rabbit hole in the 2000 presidential election, she knows wacky populism when she sees it.
What was Murray’s excuse? She, too, had a “personal family matter.” I’m guessing it is that she is up for re-election in 2022. She won by a healthy 18 points in 2016, but the polls are not looking as good today.
The most important consequence of a bill everyone knew would fail was the response in the Democratic House. Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Ted Lieu (D-CA-33) declared that the Democratic majority would now move to establish a special committee. This committee would—if necessary, without bipartisan agreement—perform a function which many believe is critical to the future of American democracy: expose the “truth” about the first attempt to halt the inauguration of a legally elected president since 1861.
Alternatively, Representative Gerry Connolly (D-VA), chair of the House Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on Government Operations, has called on President Biden to establish a Presidential Commission on the events of January 6. The commission would “identify the individuals and organizations who plotted or were involved in those violent acts,” Connolly argued, and “make recommendations to prevent such an attack from ever recurring.” Others have suggested that a commission freed from the strict focus on January 6 would be free to investigate, not just the breakdown of the Capitol police and any involvement by sitting Republican Congresspeople, but the broader political causes of the January 6 attack.
Outside government, Brian Michael Jenkins of the RAND Corporation and Bruce Hoffman of the Council of Foreign Relations see a national commission as a crucial step in addressing the conspiracies that not only fueled January 6 but arose around the event itself. As evidence, these authors collectively cite the Warren Commission (1963), established to investigate the Kennedy assassination, the Kerner Commission (1967), which investigated the causes of Black urban rebellions in the 1960s, and the 9/11 Commission (2002)
These are all good ideas. But what makes us think that a national commission, no matter how it is established, would actually create change? Historically, that has never been the case.
Take, for example, the National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement, otherwise known as The Wickersham Commission, established by President Herbert Hoover in 1929. It was established to address the obvious fact that, in the interest of reducing alcohol consumption and the urban political corruption fueled by saloons, national prohibition had increased alcohol consumption, made its distribution even more profitable, created criminal organizations of unprecedented reach, and accelerated the corruption of public officials.
A number of important facts were exposed by the report, which remains to this day an important resource for understanding why police reform efforts were a classic Progressive-era project. The study included a state-by-state evaluation of emerging organized crime networks, data on the widespread corruption of federal Prohibition officers, and statistics on the numerous Americans murdered by federal officers.
But facts are not always truths, and the most important truth of Prohibition—that criminalizing alcohol had created a crime wave fueled by profits and federal police violence and turned poor, white Americans against the police in large numbers—was never addressed. Nor were the social and cultural roots of the sudden thirst for alcohol which had created a booming market for booze among demographics that had previously been modest drinkers: college students, women, and middle-class professionals.
Instead, the Commission recommended better funded, trained, and educated police, making something possible that Americans had always rejected: centralization of law enforcement. The report proposed a European-style national police force that could spread professional policing practices being cultivated in the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Investigation, now known as the FBI.
Similarly, in 1967, the Kerner Commission scrupulously assembled data that caused the commissioners to conclude that poverty, a failed welfare state, police violence, structural racism, and media bias towards whites were the root causes of the urban rebellions that had been shaking the nation for five years. But the Commission had no power to enact solutions for the problems it identified—or even persuade whites that racism was, and is, a cancer on the body politic. As the events of summer 2019 demonstrate, a decisive number of white people, and more importantly, politicians, continue to implicitly and explicitly claim that the chief cause of anti-Black violence lies in the propensity of Black people to be violent towards each other.
Or let’s take the Warren and 9/11 Commissions, both of which were established to address national security breaches so shocking that amateur investigators armed with speculative fantasies and distrust of government continue to fuel influential conspiracy theories about them to this day.
The Kennedy assassination was not unprecedented: assassins had killed three presidents, and other presidents were shot at before 1963. But prior presidents had all been attacked at fairly close range by radicals whose purpose was satisfactorily transparent, and by today’s standards, were barely being protected at all. There was also very little evidence about these crimes in the public domain.
By contrast, film and testimony about the Kennedy assassination proliferated in the public realm and were circulated even more widely by the internet. In addition, in contrast to past assassinations, the notion that Lee Harvey Oswald, acting alone, could have defeated the Secret Service and killed a sitting president genuinely challenged credulity. Perhaps it isn’t strange that both professionals and amateurs immediately sought answers to questions that Oswald himself would never answer, because he too was assassinated by Jack Ruby on November 24, 1963.
Worse, even though the Warren Commission definitively established the fact that Oswald acted alone, the report not only failed to dispel conspiracy theories but also fueled them by making vast amounts of evidence available that could be re-narrated by a range of government skeptics. Similarly, the 9/11 Commission revealed important facts, including the failures of multiple federal agencies. It also revealed the structural flaws of the World Trade Center. These flaws only existed because no architect could have imagined in the 1970s that a relatively small foreign terrorist network would have the means and the imagination to use airliners of a size that had not yet been built to destroy them.
Not only did the Commission fail to prevent two devastating wars, but conspiracy theorists (many of whom overlap with the groups who attacked the Capitol on January 6) also maintain that the government itself destroyed the World Trade Center using controlled demolition. More importantly, the facts assembled by the commission have since been presented by right-wing conspiracists as “evidence” that the government lies about everything. 9/11 is the alt-right’s original “false flag operation”: a tragedy—not misused, but engineered—by the government to take the country to war.
So am I sorry there will be no January 6 Commission? Not really.
The insurrectionists who engineered that shocking attack on our democracy cannot be disempowered by having their lies exposed or the truth of their actions revealed. Instead, right-wing organizations need to be dissolved. The social causes of extreme disaffection with the truth must be fully understood and resolved. The connections of white supremacist organizations to mainstream politicians, Donald Trump, and Trump’s associates must be revealed, detailed, and adjudicated in court. Social media’s capacity to assemble violent mobs fired up by lies must be curtailed. And most importantly, perhaps, we must take guns out of politics by disarming the nation.
Commissions don’t do these things: governments do.
Claire Bond Potter is Professor of Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research and co-Executive Editor of Public Seminar. Her most recent book is Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked Us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy (Basic Books, 2020). This post originally appeared on her Substack.