The Best Way to Commemorate January 6 Is to Pass a Voting Rights Law

The Best Way to Commemorate January 6 Is to Pass a Voting Rights Law

The Best Way to Commemorate January 6 Is to Pass a Voting Rights Law

On January 5, 2021, Georgia’s Democratic majority took the Senate. The very next day, America’s violent white minority struck back. A voting rights push this week will make clear how those days are connected.


Some people believe everything happens for a reason; there are no coincidences. I’m agnostic, but I do think coincidences can serve to point you in the direction of meaning. There was no known connection between Donald Trump’s declaring his presidential candidacy in June 2015, for instance, and white supremacist Dylann Roof’s murdering nine Black churchgoers in Charleston the very next night. But, with hindsight, it seemed to me at least an eerie harbinger of how the white backlash that powered Trump’s political movement could, and would, shade into violence.

And right now we’re at the anniversary of another coincidence-that’s-not-just-a-coincidence: January 5 marks one year since Democrats’ thrilling victories in both of Georgia’s Senate races, and it’s also a day before the awful one-year mark for the January 6 insurrection. That was the day a lot of people woke up to the violent, racist, and antidemocratic impulses behind Trump’s rise to power, and his sociopathic drive to hold onto it.

A lot of people woke up, but not nearly enough.

The anniversary of the landmark January 5 Georgia victories, which elected a Black minister and a Jewish activist to the United States Senate, reminds us that Democrats have the majority of voters on their side, across the whole country—at least when they’re able to vote. The anniversary of January 6 reminds us that the minority has most of the racists, the violent people, and those who want to topple not just Democrats but democracy. Also, and maybe most important: It reminds us, or should remind us, of those who insist that they’re not about any of those things but who defend Trump and his insurrectionists nonetheless. Those people, who include almost all Republican leaders, might be the most culpable of all.

Democratic congressional leaders are planning an array of events to commemorate the January 6 tragedy. But Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer is orchestrating the most fitting memorial: He plans to introduce voting rights legislation this week.

“Let me be clear: January 6th was a symptom of a broader illness—an effort to delegitimize our election process, and the Senate must advance systemic democracy reforms to repair our republic or else the events of that day will not be an aberration—they will be the new norm,” Schumer wrote in a letter to senators on Monday, in which he laid out his plans to move on democracy reforms and voting rights.

Will Schumer’s maneuver work—meaning, can it get two Democratic holdouts, Senators Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin, to agree to alter Senate rules to allow democracy-enhancing bills to pass with a simple majority, not 60 votes? Who knows? But it’s nice to see a Democratic leader act like our democracy is in the peril that it’s in—and try to shove the unwilling in the direction in which their party’s principles mean they ought to go.

What have we accomplished in the year since last January 5 and 6? Quite a lot, to be fair to President Joe Biden and congressional Democrats. They passed a landmark pandemic relief package in March, with zero Republican support, and then a large, bipartisan infrastructure bill in September. Together they pumped more than $3 trillion into an economy that’s well on the way to post-pandemic stability (though not everyone is sharing in the recovery). Biden has also gotten more federal judges confirmed—40—than any president since Ronald Reagan. I take this moment to digress from the topic of voting rights, democracy, and January 6 because I fear Democrats are mired in defeatism, given all that hasn’t been accomplished so far, especially the social infrastructure investment known as Build Back Better, and, even more important, voting rights legislation. That’s all true, but let’s remember and talk about the victories—and also remember that every one of them was made possible by the election of Georgia Senators Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff last January 5.

But many Democrats are rightly frustrated (me too!), not only with the failure to pass Build Back Better and voting reform legislation but also with insufficient action on investigating and prosecuting the criminal hordes behind the insurrection. Democrats have not yet convinced voters on the other side that, whether they like Trump or not, Trump’s Big Lie is exactly that, a lie. Polls released just this past weekend show us that nearly three in four Republicans falsely believe the twice-impeached disgrace won the 2020 election (Ipsos/ABC). One in five Trump voters believe the former president should be restored to the White House immediately (what the hell does that even mean?), and roughly 50 percent of Republicans polled say the January 6 rioters were either “defending freedom” or showing “patriotism” (CBS/YouGov).

Nevertheless, also over the weekend, we also saw rare bipartisan cooperation in fighting those lies. The chair and vice chair of the House January 6 Select Committee, Democrat Bennie Thompson and Republican Liz Cheney, are modeling an uncommon (for our times) relationship. Thompson is mostly tight-lipped about his committee’s investigation, though he did say this past weekend that the committee stands ready to make criminal referrals to the Justice Department, and he did not rule out such a move against Trump “if there’s anything that we come upon as a committee that we think would warrant a referral.”

But it’s Cheney who has been most ferocious when it comes not just to blistering Trump and her fellow GOP congress members but also revealing what the committee is discovering—more than any Democrat has (at least on the record) to date.

Even before she was appointed to the January 6 committee, Cheney suggested that whatever body was assembled ought to call House minority leader Kevin McCarthy to testify. “He clearly has facts about that day that an investigation into what happened, into the president’s actions, ought to get to the bottom of,” she said, referring to multiple reports that McCarthy had at least one tense call with Trump.

Now that she’s vice chair of the committee whose creation McCarthy opposed, Cheney has also taken the lead in strategically revealing what the committee has learned, even from folks defying its subpoenas. It was Cheney who three weeks ago read aloud frantic tweets sent on January 6 to then–Chief of Staff (and possible co-conspirator) Mark Meadows from Congress members, journalists, Fox cowards Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham, and even failson Donnie Jr. begging Meadows to get Trump to call off his violent white supremacist mob. But Cheney wasn’t reading the texts to humiliate the senders, although she certainly did that. She raised a pointed question: “Did Donald Trump, through action or inaction, corruptly seek to obstruct or impede Congress’s official proceeding to count electoral votes?” She then cited the criminal statute Trump’s “action or inaction” would have violated.

This past Sunday, Cheney revealed to ABC’s George Stephanopoulos that the committee has “firsthand testimony” that Trump “was sitting in the dining room, next to the Oval Office, watching the attack on television.… we know members of his staff were pleading with him to go on television to stop it, we know leader McCarthy was pleading with him to do that.… we have firsthand testimony that his daughter Ivanka went in, at least twice, to ask him to please stop this violence.” Of course, it took him several hours to make a bland video where he endorsed the rioters’ grievances and told them “we love you” while asking them to go home. Again: “action or inaction”?

Not to be pedantic, but “firsthand testimony” means it came from someone who witnessed it (journalists have previously described similar events, but without making clear that it came from someone in the room). I have no idea about the official agreements between vice chair Cheney and chair Thompson; I just know Cheney is letting the bad guys (and gals) know that the committee has dirt on them, whether they agree to talk to it or not (and she’s also telling us that some of the bad guys and gals have already talked to the committee). Thompson is the quiet enforcer.

This is one way the two parties used to work together. But I am dating myself here.

Let’s not pretend Liz Cheney is our long-term ally. For one thing, she has voted against all the voting rights legislation that’s come before the House, and she will almost certainly continue to do so. That’s not good. But she’s an ally nonetheless. As she heightens awareness, and anxiety, about Trump’s antidemocratic abuses on and before and after January 6, she implicitly makes the case that Congress should make sure he can’t succeed in 2024—whether by suppressing votes or by changing the way votes are counted or both, as red-state legislatures are planning.

Democrats need to make that case, explicitly, this week. Again, I’m not a fan of the “Democrats have failed us” narrative. So far, only two Democrats, Manchin and Sinema, have failed us (and, to be fair, not on every vote). But it’s time to step up the pressure for a voting rights vote nonetheless. Schumer sounds ready to bring something to the floor—it’s not entirely clear yet what it will be. And when it inevitably fails to win GOP votes (except maybe Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski), reportedly he will commence a floor debate about changing Senate rules in order to pass it.

The New York Times made the connection between January 6 and the need for voting legislation in a stirring New Year’s Day editorial (the Times lets us down a lot, but when it comes through, it still shines): “Over the past year, Republican lawmakers in 41 states have been trying to advance the goals of the Jan. 6 rioters—not by breaking laws but by making them. Hundreds of bills have been proposed and nearly three dozen laws have been passed that empower state legislatures to sabotage their own elections and overturn the will of their voters, according to a running tally by a nonpartisan consortium of pro-democracy organizations.”

Let’s be clear: The January 6 insurrectionists didn’t immediately head to red-state capitals to begin changing voting rules to disadvantage Democrats. The connection is not that direct. But it exists nonetheless. Democrats like Manchin and Sinema who insist that any voting rights bills should have bipartisan support are willfully ignoring that the voting rights restrictions passed in red states are supported by only one party: Republicans. Congressional Democrats are talking about that much more than they were last year—OK, four days ago—so maybe it will make a difference.

Either way: I think a masterful presentation of the January 6 violence that links it to Trump’s antidemocratic fever dreams could lead to a change in the politics of a voting-rights filibuster carve-out. Of course, I don’t know for sure.

But I’ve said this many times over the last few years: If I weren’t an optimist, I wouldn’t still be here. So: Pay attention; raise your voice; make sure everyone sees the link between those two days last January, one so restorative, the other horrifyingly destructive. Remember that there’s another Georgia election in November, which will feature incumbent Senator Warnock as well as the astonishing Stacey Abrams, who will be going for the governor’s office again. We can’t afford to be derailed by GOP bad behavior or our own self-doubt. Get down to Georgia. I will see you there.

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