In late June, as I arrived at my weekly union stewards training, I stumbled upon a group of fellow delegates talking about the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol by supporters of former President Donald Trump. While these labor activists primarily discussed revelations that Trump allegedly approved of rioters’ call to “hang Mike Pence,” their political conversation flew in the face of the idea that working people are indifferent about the congressional hearings on last year’s near-coup. Don’t just take my anecdote as evidence — look at the nearly 20 million people who watched the first hearing and the 13 million who tuned in on June 28 to catch Cassidy Hutchinson’s surprise daytime testimony. CNN reports that almost six out of ten people in the United States are following the hearings, and CBS finds that nearly 70 percent believe it’s important to find out the truth about January 6.
Hutchinson, a 26-year-old former White House aide, testified before the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6 Attack on the United States Capitol that Trump was willing to let the MAGA rioters assassinate then-Vice President Pence. She revealed that Trump and his chief of staff Mark Meadows — her former boss—both knew the threat of armed violence days in advance and did nothing to abate the danger. These revelations confirmed some of the worst fears about how close the United States came to seeing the 2020 presidential election overturned.
The January 6 committee has not brought charges against the individuals involved, as the body does not have that power, though some members have floated recommending criminal referrals to the Justice Department. Federal elected officials such as Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) believe that the tacit purpose of the committee’s current approach is to demonstrate to the U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland that there is sufficient evidence and public support to bring charges against the orchestrators of the riot and unconstitutional putsch, from Trump on down.
The chorus of popular demands for justice and the defense of democracy is where the Left — and especially the organized socialist movement — is desperately needed.
Scanning the social media feeds among my left-wing friends, however, I hardly see a mention of the hearings, and when I do, it’s often dismissive of the congressional committee. I see little reporting of the investigation in prominent socialist and progressive magazines, including this one, while others provide no coverage at all. My own organization, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), issued only a single statement about January 6 since the day after the deadly attack, and nothing on the committee itself. This near silence is at odds not only with the millions of working people paying attention to the hearings, but also democratic socialist elected officials in Congress.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) revealed she feared more than death from the MAGA rioters, while her fellow DSA member Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.) introduced legislation to expel members of the House of Representatives who aided in the January 6 attack. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), meanwhile, posted in June that this hearing was not about “ideas” but “whether we maintain our democratic form of government.” These prominent socialists share the concern among the U.S. public, and especially the Democratic base, that the future state of elections is under threat.
What I appreciated about being on the Left in the mid-2010s was the fact that we were much more on the pulse of the U.S. public than our liberal friends. The Left largely saw Hillary Clinton’s presidential candidacy in 2016 as fallible, and was able to offer viable alternatives. Through Bernie Sanders’ two presidential campaigns, in 2016 and 2020, hundreds of democratic socialists and Berniecrats won races for elected office across the country. Outside of the electoral realm, socialists today are plugging into the fast-growing and restive labor movement that’s successfully organizing shops at Amazon, Starbucks and other major companies.
But these successes could all be for naught if we completely lose our flawed — but still existing — liberal democracy. If our current system is replaced by an illiberal form of government, like exists in Hungary, the working class will suffer more. Hungary is now viewed as a model for the American far-Right, which hosted their Conservative Political Action Conference in the European country, as its leader, Viktor Orbán, has made elections a mere formality while expanding the secret police.
One way to prevent this authoritarian slide is through engaging in public pressure to push Garland and other Justice Department officials to prosecute Trump and his allies. That kind of campaign cannot be “left to the liberals” as some are wont to say. Socialists should be front and center, demanding that there be actual repercussions for the anti-democratic effort to overturn the election.
We cannot have a multi-racial working-class socialist society without first achieving a functioning democracy. Socialists have long stood for improving U.S. democratic institutions, as imperfect as they are. We fought for women’s suffrage and were militant participants in the Civil Rights Movement. At its core, the socialist movement believes in not just defending democracy, but spreading it to other realms outside of politics, from the economy to the workplace.
The current reaction against liberal democracy is part of an effort to roll back reproductive rights and racial justice gains made in this country that required decades of struggle to win. We cannot let the anti-democratic, anti-choice and racist forces win. Socialists must again lead by example.
If we don’t, then reactionaries like Pence and Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) are likely to become the heroes of this effort, simply because they’re Republicans following their constitutional duty. Rather than ceding this ground to liberals and the GOP, socialists and organizers on the Left should step up pressure on Congress to pass Rep. Bush’s bill to punish those guilty of trying to overthrow the will of the voters. A national effort to raise awareness of this legislation, including a collaboration between DSA members and the congresswoman, could help build pressure to actually punish those politicians involved in the failed putsch.
It’s easy to hope that January 6 was a one-off incident. But anti-democratic forces rarely give up so easily. Just look at the history of Chile. In that country there was a small military rebellion months before the right-wing coup on September 11, 1973 which ousted Salvador Allende. For a time, the democratically elected socialist government had officers and generals who obeyed the constitution. But facing enough pressure from coup-plotters and foreign agitators, that loyalty eventually ended.
The same could happen here, especially as anti-Trump Republicans lose primaries, shifting the GOP toward pure fealty to the former president. Trump and his supporters are hard at work stacking the deck, from local election boards all the way up to the Supreme Court, which could have monumental consequences in determining future presidential elections.
Trump has already signaled that he is likely to run again in 2024, and he still refuses to accept the 2020 election results, sowing distrust in the democratic system among his base. He’s made no secret of his desire to take power, no matter the legality or constitutionality of his means. We narrowly escaped his attempt two years ago. In the future, we might not be so lucky.
This is why the Left should engage in, not ignore, a key democratic crisis. I want to be able to go to my union family and say “here’s what socialists are doing to hold the perpetrators of January 6 accountable.” Leftists have long fought to defend and expand liberal democracy in our goals of building a socialist government. Let’s continue that tradition.
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David Duhalde is the chair of the Democratic Socialists of America Fund, DSA’s sister educational nonprofit. He is the former political director of Our Revolution and former deputy director of DSA.