COMMENTARY

How democracy dies: When it comes to Jan. 6, the American people can't handle the truth

The House probe wants to create a "narrative thriller" in hopes Americans will care about an attack on democracy

By Chauncey DeVega

Published March 25, 2022 6:30AM (EDT)

The US Capitol is seen from Freedom Plaza where Supporters of President Donald Trump have gathered for a rally on January 5, 2021 in Washington, DC. Today's rally kicks off two days of pro-Trump events fueled by President Trump's continued claims of election fraud and a last ditch effort to overturn the results before Congress finalizes them on January 6. (Samuel Corum/Getty Images)
The US Capitol is seen from Freedom Plaza where Supporters of President Donald Trump have gathered for a rally on January 5, 2021 in Washington, DC. Today's rally kicks off two days of pro-Trump events fueled by President Trump's continued claims of election fraud and a last ditch effort to overturn the results before Congress finalizes them on January 6. (Samuel Corum/Getty Images)

I am a believer in the meditative and healing power of walking. It is central to my spiritual life and overall health. If it's nice outside, I will often just pick a direction and walk until my feet tell me to stop. Then I find a place to sit, eat a snack and read a comic book.

Given the state of the world, sometimes my legs and body feel so full of energy and anxiety that I am compelled to walk. In those moments, whatever the time of day may be, I walk until I am exhausted and my mind resets. When you walk and leave your mind open to the possibilities you can almost literally catch a great idea. Those moments are rare gifts of perfect clarity.

One of my best types of walks are the ones when I am energized, almost manic, and I need to talk with or yell aloud at the Fates. I call those my "Bobby D. Holy Ghost walks," in tribute to my favorite actor, Robert Duvall, and his performance in "The Apostle."

If it's drizzling, cool and cloudy outside. I put on my waxed field coat, woolly pully sweater and a pair of brown leather boots. I have worn a hole through the sole of one of those boots, which I have patched with shoe goop. I walk in puddles to test the seal. For some reason that makes me smile. I don't need to know why. We should always nurture our inner child.

There is a graveyard near where I live. I find great peace from walking there. As a child, I was afraid of zombies and ghosts, but as an adult I know better. The dead can't hurt you. It is the living we must be wary of.  

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During one of my graveyard walks some years ago, I happened upon the tombstone of one of my ancestors. I truly believe that he wanted me to find him. He was buried right next to one of the ruling sons of the Gilded Age. I laughed aloud. He was likely a Black man who "passed" for white, buried right next to a rich white man who believed himself a master of the universe. I wonder, who got the last laugh? 

During my graveyard walks I have been thinking a great deal about America and its democracy crisis, and the poisons of fascism and white supremacy that are literally killing this country. I keep visualizing a tombstone with an inscription warning passers-by that most Americans didn't even fight for democracy while it was dying, but went on with life as usual. Those who tried to warn them about the impending disaster just got tired and gave up.

That is effectively happening right now, in real time. A recent article in the Washington Post issued a warning: "Jan. 6 committee faces a thorny challenge: Persuading the public to care." Apparently the House committee investigating the Capitol attack of January 2021 "has tried to recruit high-profile journalists to write its report ...  hoping to build a narrative thriller that compels audiences and is a departure from government reports of yore." Committee staffers also hope "to put together blockbuster televised hearings that the public actually tunes into," which is a troubling way to frame a historic congressional investigation.

RELATED: "Merrick Garland, are you listening?": Jan. 6 committee says Trump may have violated multiple laws

The apparent challenge is to make the public care "about an event that happened more than a year ago, and that many Americans feel they already understand." The committee wants to turn "hundreds of thousands of pages of depositions, records and other evidence into an accessible narrative" aimed at "hard-to-reach" and "deeply polarized" audiences. One unnamed committee member told the Post, "There's one-third of the nation that will read it, one-third that might read it, and one-third that won't even believe it." More from the report: 

The committee is also competing for attention amid a flurry of current events that now includes the war in Ukraine, raising the stakes for the committee's ability to hold the public's attention as the insurrection moves further and further back from in public memory. Don Ritchie, historian emeritus of the Senate, said that the most important thing for any congressional committee is publicity.

"Investigators need a certain sense of showmanship — they really need to demonstrate and dramatize what's happening because the public is distracted," said Ritchie. "After getting the publicity, then it's figuring out what you're actually going to do about the problem."

In all, this is a damning indictment of the current state of American democracy and political culture. Donald Trump's regime and his coup cabal attempted to nullify the results of the 2020 presidential election, his followers launched a violent lethal assault on the Capitol and the Republican-fascists' Jim Crow attacks on multiracial democracy are escalating. The United States faces the possibility of a low-level civil war or sustained right-wing insurgency. Yet the American people must be "entertained" with a spectacle in order to care.

As sociologist Neil Postman famously warned in the title of his best-known work, the American people have "amused themselves to death" through a culture of anti-intellectualism, and the superficial, immediate gratification of mass media. Collective narcissism is a major public health problem. So many people, because of loneliness, alienation, social atomization and a culture of hyper-individualism and self-centeredness, feel no sense of linked fate with other human beings outside their families and immediate social circles.   

America's educational system has been gutted through decades of active neglect and right-wing malice. Courses that teach critical thinking and civics have been systematically removed from the curriculum of public education. As detailed by Lisa Duggan in her excellent book "The Twilight of Equality", the social sciences and the arts and humanities are being targeted for evisceration by these same right-wing libertarian gangster capitalists at the college and university level as well.

Education is the best way, and perhaps only way, to create responsible, informed citizens who have the capacity and willingness to participate in a healthy democracy. The global right is trying to destroy high quality public (and private) education for that reason with the ultimate goal of creating passive citizens and corporate drones.

RELATED: How this tiny Christian college is driving the right's nationwide war against public schools

Extreme income and wealth inequality and wage stagnation also undermine citizens' ability to be active participants in a democratic society. When people have to work multiple jobs in order to scrape out a living, they are far less willing or able to find the energy to care about democracy, let alone to turn those feelings and concerns into action. 

More than half of all Americans read below a sixth-grade level, which means that they are not able to properly understand complex matters of politics and public policy.

Unions and other institutions of civil society (sometimes called the "laboratories of democracy) have been systematically weakened by the American right. Those are (or were) places where people learn the skills necessary to the practice of democracy. In this climate, it is no surprise that America's governing institutions are experiencing a legitimacy crisis: The public largely views their elected officials and the organs of state as unresponsive to their needs and desires — and for good reason.

Public opinion research has repeatedly shown that elected officials at the federal level (that is, in Congress) are highly unresponsive to the policy demands of the average American and instead are beholden to the richest individuals and most powerful corporations. It is certainly true that Republicans are far worse in this regard, but Democrats are by no means immune, especially the self-styled "moderates" or "centrists." 

By email I asked the cultural critic and education scholar Henry A. Giroux — the author of numerous books and a Salon contributor — for his thoughts on this problem: Why don't Americans seem to care about their democracy? He offered a lengthy response, which I will quote in part. "Democracy is in exile in the United States and the political, social and educational breakdown is intensifying," he began, observing that the "rise of neoliberal predatory capitalism" in the 1980s marked a key turning point:

Not only did the culture shift to a market-based language that undermined any sense of the common good, shared values and trust, but it embraced a language of privatization, deregulation and commodification that commercialized all social relations and retreated from any discourse that evoked matters of ethic, social responsibility and the obligations of citizenship.

In the current moment, the Republican Party and its allies among the financial elite, corrupt politicians, and right-wing movements hold democracy in contempt because it poses a threat to the unchecked accumulation of capital, white nationalism, white supremacy, and an emerging fascist politics. In an age when economic activity is divorced from social costs, and matters of truth, justice, and solidarity become the object of scorn, democracy and the formative educational culture that legitimates it withers along with the ideals and institutions that sustain it. At a time when all vestiges of critical thought are being purged from public schools, women's reproductive rights are under attack, and tyranny translates into increasing levels of violence, the collapse of conscience, social responsibility, and justice proceeds at an alarming pace.

Faced with these "forces of conformity, anti-intellectualism and authoritarianism," Giroux continued, ordinary people tend to "lose their capacity to think critically and act responsibly. ... [C]ritical  modes of agency wither, opening a space for both oppressive forms of education and the tyrants that benefit from them. ... [T]he public imagination succumbs to lies, conspiracy theories and the cult of the strongman. Under such circumstances, the commanding visions of democracy have not only disappeared, they have given way to the tyrannical nightmares of an authoritarian future. It is little wonder that a great many people no longer care or are willing to fight for a democratic society.

Giroux is not suggesting we need some perfect society of philosopher-kings to save American democracy from the fascist movement, but if the American people remain poorly informed and largely disengaged the real-life problems caused or exemplified by a failing democracy will become much worse, creating a toxic feedback loop. "There is no democracy without a knowledgeable public and no justice without a language critical of injustice," Giroux wrote. "Democracy should be a way of thinking about civic culture and the development of a robust public imagination."

RELATED: Right-wing authoritarianism is winning — but higher education is where we can fight back

How can we get there? Giroux writes of the "need to embrace a radical notion of democracy," but America is a long way from any such vision at the moment. Partly this is a work of collective imagination: Giroux sees an "urgent need for more individuals, institutions and social movements to come together in the belief that the current regimes of tyranny can be resisted, that alternative futures are possible and that acting on these beliefs through collective resistance will make radical change happen. ... The defense of democracy can no longer be viewed as longer simply a demand; it has become an urgent necessity."

In 2014, social psychologists conducted a famous experiment designed to examine the relationship between the human mind, boredom, and cognition. College students were asked to sit in a room in silence for 15 minutes, alone with their own thoughts. Some were told to think about whatever they wanted, while others were given several specific prompts in advance. In one iteration of the experiment, participants could choose to give themselves electric shocks as a distraction. Science magazine reported the results:

In both the free-thinking and planned-prompt scenarios, about 50% of people did not like the experience, reporting an enjoyment level at or below the midpoint of the scale. ... To see if a change of scenery would help, the team let participants do the studies in their own homes, but still found similar results. Overall, the subjects said they enjoyed activities like reading and listening to music about twice as much as just thinking.

The researchers then decided to take the experiment a step further. For 15 minutes, the team left participants alone in a lab room in which they could push a button and shock themselves if they wanted to. The results were startling: Even though all participants had previously stated that they would pay money to avoid being shocked with electricity, 67% of men and 25% of women chose to inflict it on themselves rather than just sit there quietly and think ... "We went into this thinking it wouldn't be that hard for people to entertain themselves," Wilson says. "We have this huge brain and it's stuffed full of pleasant memories, and we have the ability to construct fantasies and stories. We really thought this [thinking time] was something people would like."

When I first heard about this research, I asked a friend who teaches at a small regional college if this resonated with her experiences in the classroom. She told me her students often complain that she makes them think "too much" during class about current events, which "hurts their brains."

Unfortunately, these are not isolated examples. Most people in America do not want to think about the crisis of democracy and what they can do to stop it. Even more troubling and dangerous, many Americans are attracted to fascism and other anti-human philosophies and behavior precisely because they are so desperate for a life of meaning in a world that can often feel devoid of it.

America's democracy crisis is a deep cultural phenomenon, which is admittedly difficult to confront directly. But denying it, ignoring it or simply pretending the crisis is not real will not save anyone. That will only lead us back to the words of lamentation that I imagine will be inscribed on American democracy's tombstone.


Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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