January 4, 2023

On Jan. 5, 2021, I published a Poynter opinion piece about a “coup without consequence,” warning media outlets about the 126 Republican Representatives who endorsed a lawsuit challenging the results of the 2020 election.

In the aftermath of insurrection the next day, that case was forgotten.

It was filed by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton. He asserted that elections in Pennsylvania, Georgia, Michigan and Wisconsin, which then President-elect Joe Biden won, were unconstitutional, alleging voting procedures were determined by non-legislative means.

The U.S. Supreme Court rejected the challenge.

Nevertheless, I wrote, there will be a final, futile attempt on Jan. 6, 2021, to assail the results in swing states, essentially resurrecting Paxton’s unsubstantiated claims.

I never envisioned the deadly assault on the Capitol. Few observers did apart from those who concocted it. 

Since then there have been dozens of articles and opinions addressing how we should remember Jan. 6, with most referencing the risk to democracy. Perhaps the most poignant reminder about such a threat occurred on that day more than 80 years ago when Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered a prescient State of the Union address to Congress.

Fading infamy

On the first anniversary of Jan. 6, the Associated Press ran an article titled, “Recalling Jan. 6: A national day of infamy, half remembered.” Jake Cole cited a poll that found “about 4 in 10 Republicans recall the attack — in which five people died — as violent, while 9 in 10 Democrats do.”

Earlier this year the Washington Post published an editorial titled, “Jan. 6 was worse than you remember.” The Editorial Board lamented the events of that day “should have been a turning point in our politics.” It hasn’t.

In a National Public Radio interview, Rachel Maddow recounted how Nazi spy George Viereck colluded with elected officials, some of whom were members of the powerful “America First Committee.” In return for payment, representatives and senators inserted Nazi propaganda into their speeches and the historical record.

Maddow produced the 2022 podcast “Ultra” about the plot, which had long been forgotten.

In “How Will History Remember Jan. 6?,” New York Times columnist Lydia Polgreen wrote about the podcast. She asked a fundamental question about Jan. 6 and the media’s role in its framing: “Will that day and its aftermath be a hinge point in our country’s history? Or a forgotten episode to be plumbed by some podcaster decades from now?”

Journalism, historically, has a short memory. 

On Jan. 6, 2023, media outlets likely will cite the final report of the House Select Committee addressing the attack on the Capitol. Some will mention the date again if and when the Department of Justice indicts former President Donald J. Trump on obstruction, conspiracy and insurrection

If Republicans win in the 2024 election, in which Trump again seeks the presidency, the record will be revised and then wiped clean.

Recycled history

On Jan. 6, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt reminded Congress about its obligation to uphold democracy.

The United States at the time was isolationist, even during Nazi attacks in the Battle of Britain. As the FDR Library notes, Roosevelt wanted to alert citizens that fascism not only threatened Europe but also our moral values. In helping Britain defend itself, America was advocating for universal freedoms everywhere.

Excerpts from Roosevelt’s speech are eerily reminiscent of the dangers we face today, from emergent sectarianism in the U.S.; to the billionaire class of the privileged few; to dictatorial regimes of Russia, China and North Korea; and, finally, to the criminal desolation of the Ukrainian war.

Democracy was being assailed, Roosevelt said, “either by arms, or by secret spreading of poisonous propaganda by those who seek to destroy unity and promote discord. …

“We must especially beware of the small group of selfish men who would clip the wings of the American eagle in order to feather their own nests. …

“The best way of dealing with the few slackers or troublemakers in our midst is, first, to shame them by patriotic example, and, if that fails, to use the sovereignty of Government to save Government.”

Those observations are still valid.

As NPR reported, the Jan. 6 insurrectionists were armed with a variety of weapons: “stun guns, pepper spray, baseball bats and flagpoles wielded as clubs.”

Some $250 million dollars was raised to “Stop the Steal” and combat election fraud. But the bulk of that reportedly was diverted to other uses, including $40 million to “Make America Great Again Inc.,” a super-PAC allied with Trump’s election bid.

While the U.S. judicial system set aside frivolous litigation about the 2020 election, opportunists preyed on weaknesses in the law, submitting fake electors and claiming the vice president could decide elections. Although the Elector Count Act, passed in December 2022, addressed these and other capers, ambiguities remain.

As Rachel Kleinfeld writes in the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, “Many of the laws that form institutional guardrails were written poorly in the aftermath of the Civil War, with loopholes that are easily challenged given a lack of precedent.”

One loophole involves the 3rd section of the 14th Amendment banning insurrectionists from holding government office. As Zoe Tillman writes in Bloomberg News, “Ratified in 1868, the language was drafted to address former Confederate officeholders. But the text doesn’t spell out exactly how to disqualify someone from running or holding office again.”

These uncertainties demoralize the public. An NPR/Ipsos poll conducted a year after the insurrection found that 7 in 10 respondents believed the country was in crisis. People no longer knew what America stands for. 

Refresher course

Roosevelt reminded Congress that America’s foundation was based on equal opportunity, economic and personal security, scientific progress, civil liberties for all, and “ending special privilege for the few.”

Then came the passage by which his address became known, the four freedoms:

  • “The first is freedom of speech and expression – everywhere in the world. 
  • “The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way–everywhere in the world.
  • “The third is freedom from want – which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants — everywhere in the world.
  • “The fourth is freedom from fear – which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor – anywhere in the world.”

In a recent op-ed for the Des Moines Register, I recalled Roosevelt’s Jan. 6 speech, adding another right — freedom from homelessness — arguing that everyone deserves shelter. 

Futures file

This is how Jan. 6 should be commemorated, a day when journalists remind the public about the greatness of democratic ideals and the necessary commitment required from the electorate to sustain them.

The nature of that commitment again can be found in Roosevelt’s speech. He called for a new world order — not based on power or politics — but on morality. “Freedom means the supremacy of human rights everywhere. Our support goes to those who struggle to gain those rights and keep them.”

On Jan. 6, 2021, America lost its moral order and nearly its democracy. Unless journalists remind the world about our “unity of purpose” — in commentary, articles, documentaries, podcasts and more — fears about “the forgotten episode” will come true.

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Michael Bugeja, a regular contributor at Poynter, is author of "Interpersonal Divide in the Age of the Machine" (Oxford Univ. Press) and "Living Media Ethics"…
Michael Bugeja

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