Image Credits: AP Photo/John Minchillo.
The advantage of having an independent investigative commission for the January 6 coup attempt is that it would take some of the politics out of the equation. It’s easy to see how this might be by imagining a different panel, for example one charged with discovering the causes of the Champlain Towers South condo collapse in Surfside, Florida. A commission like that would be made up of architects and engineers, not local politicians, some of whom might have an interest in covering their ass and others in inflicting political blame.
There were a variety of causes for the Capitol riot, including the behavior of some members of Congress. Under the circumstances, Congress is not an ideal investigator, and the Democrats understood this. They wanted an independent commission and only settled on a congressional select committee after the Senate Republicans rebuffed them.
Greg Sargent is eager to see the select committee investigate the role white rage played in the siege. He argues that it’s a debate the country needs to have. That might be true, but the true purpose of a fact-finding commission is to remove as much debate as possible.
Consider the case of Al Gore’s decision to focus on climate change in the immediate aftermath of the 2000 election. He later admitted that he set the cause back by politicizing it. It’s not that he made mistakes with his rhetoric, but simply that half the country had just voted against him and was disinclined to believe anything he had to say. He was the wrong messenger. A commission created and staffed by Nancy Pelosi isn’t going to be persuasive to most of the 70-plus million Americans who voted for Donald Trump. That’s doubly true if they attempt to make the investigation about speculative interpretations of the causes and motives.
On some level, approaching the January 6 question as a matter of motive is much like attempting to explain the appeal of Donald Trump. An investigation of that type is sociological in nature. It’s not about the tick-tock of establishing who did what when and whether or not crimes were committed. It’s not about figuring out how to better secure the Capitol complex and the transition of government.
A bunch of self-interested politicians are not going to give us a good sociological study.
That being said, the crowd that attacked the Capitol was fed a lot of disinformation. It’s important to know how they received this disinformation because that gets to the root cause of the riot. This is probably more important for understanding causality and assigning blame than for making reforms. After all, there is no way to legislate away people’s willingness to lie and no reforms can make people less gullible.
On another level, it’s much easier to get consensus around the fact that the election was not stolen (and that people who attacked the Capitol in the mistaken belief that it was were deluded) than it is to delegitimize a racially-motivated movement that is almost synonymous with the Republican Party at this point.
Dig a centimeter below the surface of any insurrectionist and you’ll find some race panic, but how people feel about the changing demographics and mores of the country isn’t something that can be canceled by an investigation. It’s criminal that the Republicans stoke these feelings of insecurity and rage, but it’s also unfortunately the playing field of our nation’s politics. We don’t need a partisan committee to take sides in that debate. Doing so would probably backfire in the sense that it would increase insecurity and rage rather than settle the matter in favor of non-racists.
The select committee should focus on the main actors who encouraged and enabled the insurrection. It should follow the money and the flows of bad information. It should look at the organizers and any congressional members who conspired with the insurrectionists. And of course it should look at the how the chain on command functioned, how the various police and security forces prepared and coordinated.
What it shouldn’t do is become a debating society dedicated to understanding racial insecurities. The investigation should yield a solid, corroborated narrative of events, and it should produce concrete proposals that the legislature can act upon. It should not try to disentangle all the undercurrents that made the riot possible. The Republican Party has traded in racial anxiety for decades now and that isn’t going to change anytime soon, but it’s only recently that they’ve become aggressively anti-Democratic. A partisan investigation can still produce something of value, but it should be humble about what can reasonably be accomplished, and remember that it is the wrong messenger for anything that’s politically contentious.
If the Democrats want a national discussion on white rage, they should have it during a debate over strengthening voting rights and improving our electoral system. In other words, it should be in the context of the law and what is (or ought to be) constitutionally protected. You can’t legislate away racial insecurity but you can make it illegal to deny black people the vote. That’s a debate and a battle the Democrats need to and can win.