Our nation has a long history of fighting against its own democracy that dates well before January 6. And that’s because we’ve enabled it.
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From the moment insurgents stormed the United States Capitol on January 6, 2021, it felt like we were living new history as a country. The riotous masses hunted members of Congress, threatened the prescribed procedures of government with violence, and trampled anything — and anyone — who got in their way. It was a conflagration that seemed uniquely sparked by a combination of rhetoric, paranoia, and power-seeking from this president and these cronies at this time. Yet the attack on the Capitol didn’t initiate the dissolution of the government, or an interminable conflict, or even a new era of history; it was merely one inflection point among the hundreds we have collectively faced — and failed. For the will of the people has long been overthrown.
As a people, we have experienced this same impulse against democracy over and over again. There were Confederates seceding as self-styled revolutionaries, invoking themselves as the true inheritors of the legacy of a constitution drafted by slavers. There was the unpunished terrorism and bloodshed begat by “Redeemers” in Reconstruction, the coup against the integrated Wilmington government, and the unrelenting brutality of Jim Crow. There were the legal maneuvers and economic bottlenecks of poll taxes and grandfather clauses, redlining and White Citizens Councils. There were cries of “massive resistance” and “states’ rights.”
This impulse has repeated and reconstituted itself, manifesting with the same goals and purpose even as embodied by different men — whether the unreconstructed or the Dixiecrat or the Tea Partier. There is almost always an invocation of a glorious and unblemished past: the purity of the Revolution; the majesty of the antebellum years; the nostalgia of postwar consensus. There is widespread and infectious rhetoric that codes all opponents as an existential threat and rationalizes the oppression and violence that must naturally result. There is an insatiable demand to impose the will and take up the tools of state power — not a government of democracy but dominion.
At every stage of the conflict, white supremacists have reaffirmed the primacy of their American iteration. They have written the history books, erected the statues, named the schools and the parks and the holidays; they have opposed the lynching bills, suppressed the hope and will and votes of the marginalized, left uninterrogated the assassinations and firebombs and burned churches. They sketch the national character and define its boundaries to include slavers and traitors and segregationists as men of conscience. No consequence has been levied upon them for these betrayals of democratic values, no punishment extracted. In our collective understanding, these acts of violent white supremacy are hardly more than mistakes because the depth of their sin has been erased with the acceptance of racial innocence.
It is not the desire for supremacy that drives this perpetual national strife, we are told, but mere disagreement over ideology. It is not brutal inhumanity displayed in the results, but either madness or misunderstanding. These violent spasms are “isolated incidents,” the work of “a few bad apples,” a marginal faction that does not represent “who we are.” Our mythology promises that American greatness is defining us right now, while white failures of equality, justice, and democracy always happen in the past tense and the passive voice. This denial converts agency into accident, intent into confusion, agony into memory. It is a denial that absolves the passions and unmakes punishment. If we are torn between dominion and democracy, then it is a war consecrated by white permission.
Rather than acknowledge the conflict and its constancy, white Americans have tried to reconcile their cherished white supremacy and the virtues of democracy into a single history, covered in the glory of a tentative progress they long opposed. With each breach comes an excuse, and each excuse is exculpatory. Reconstruction ended at a negotiating table; traitors retook their seats in the same government they tried to violently overthrow. Segregationists paid few political costs, while Republicans buried reports and cut funding to address the increasing militarization of white supremacists. Our nation always forgives these exercises of white primacy, humanizes the perpetrators, obscures the moral failure of both those who act and those who accept. This has been the lie of our government for its entire existence: that our failure was in the specific actions of men and not the belief itself — in a country of equals — that some people were worthy of being enslaved and others worthy of owning them.
Having never confronted our history, it has chosen to confront us. In the same moment that insurgents assaulted the federal government for their role in confirming the victory of the diverse, majoritarian coalition in the presidential election, there was news that the next two senators from Georgia, a state of the late Confederacy, would be a Black preacher and a Jewish journalist. It was America in perfect contrast: the violence and the dream; white dominion or multiracial democracy. We are not merely tasked with choosing between them, but of making one safe from the other. This is the decision we have refused to make, the truth we have been unwilling to accept. The two versions of the nation are fundamentally incompatible with each other, and there can be no reconciliation of equality with supremacy. We can push the decision to the future, as our predecessors have, and yield the same calamitous results, or we can answer the paradox offered to us in the ongoing coup: what does it mean to betray a country that has constantly betrayed itself?
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