Don’t Burn Down Democracy to Save It


Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) stands in the House Chamber during a reconvening of a joint session of Congress on January 06, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

The violence at the U.S. Capitol on January 6 shocked the world. Images of rioters clashing with police and destroying public property angered citizens across the aisle and the planet. Tragically, dozens of Capitol police officers were injured, one died, and four right-wing activists who took part in the events lost their lives.

I wasn’t on the Hill that day but I spent years reporting from it. I can only imagine how scared and unsettled the people working inside were over the day’s events.

It is completely understandable that the riot in Congress is bringing about reasonable calls for change. Why is it that Capitol police were so easily overwhelmed by rioters? There should be a full investigation into the planning and resources available to police there, and accountability for any institutional failures. (One of those may be a last-minute plea by D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser not to deploy additional federal resources during the week’s protests.)

But some of these reactions to the Hill riot are less reasonable and just than others. For instance, freshman Representative Cori Bush wants to expel members of Congress who had decided to raise objections during the Electoral College certification process. The logic of Bush’s resolution is that raising these objections was tantamount to inciting violence.

If that logic was applied equally, it would have required the expulsion of quite a few Democrats over the years. The last three Republican presidents all faced objections from congressional Democrats during the certification processes for their votes. If history is any judge, it is likely that if Trump were re-elected, at least some Democrats would once again offer their rejections during the process.

It is completely fair to argue that these objections are without merit, and in some cases, based on conspiracies that simply do not hold up to scrutiny. But Republicans, like Democrats before them, are allowed to use the process to voice them; there is nothing illegal or even unprecedented about doing so.

As much as those of us who reject the conspiracy theories around the election—and I reject all of them—may grit our teeth at these actions, if we actually believe in democracy, then we believe that members of Congress have to be responsive to their constituents. The purpose of democracy is not to decide who is right, but to ensure that the government acts in accordance with the will of its constituents.

A large portion of self-identified Republican voters think the administration of last year’s election was flawed, and lawmakers do have a responsibility to be responsive to their voters in some way. That doesn’t mean overturning the election—that would be fiercely undemocratic—but it may mean voicing objections during this routine process much in the same way Democrats like Barbara Boxer, John Lewis, and Maxine Waters did in the past.

Given the number of Republicans who cast objecting votes, expelling them from Congress would mean disenfranchising over 100 million people whom these Republicans represent.

If one loathes the violence on Capitol Hill, one can hardly endorse actions that would almost certainly push even more people into extremism. When people feel they are not represented in the legal and transparent political process, they often turn to extralegal means. Even in the case of terrorist organizations, history shows us that they tend to put down their arms when they are offered a political path instead.

When the opposite happens—when people are denied a right to speak their minds and vote how they want—we see tragic outcomes.

I’ll always remember the summer of 2014, when a diplomat in Egypt’s Washington, D.C. embassy came to speak to my graduate school class at Syracuse University. I argued with him that Egypt’s disenfranchisement of the Muslim Brotherhood—which by all means is a very right-wing organization often in thrall to conspiracy theories—would lead to more bloodshed. He dismissed my concerns. Years later, Egypt is a hotbed of terrorism, as many people who are not allowed a chance to compete in the political process have instead turned to violence (we saw similar results in Algeria after they violently repressed Islamist political organizing).

Of course, no one is talking about outlawing the Republican Party. But there has been a concerted effort to limit freedom of speech and dissent in the United States. YouTube—which has a near-monopoly over online video sharing—decided to ban users from sharing speech that contests the election. Perhaps the Google-owned behemoth thought this was a way to slow down the spread of conspiracies and dissuade Americans from engaging in them.

As the chaos on Capitol Hill, and polls showing only around 28 percent of Republicans think the election was free and fair, show, this act of blanket censorship did not stop people from disbelieving the results of the election.

Meanwhile, it appears social media giants Twitter and Facebook are just waiting for their chance to silence the president. To be sure, Trump’s nonstop sharing of absurd and conspiratorial information on the internet is grating and unbecoming of a president. But this sharing of information is also lawful, protected speech. It’s very true that the rioters were acting in his name and shared many of his conspiracy theories, but he never made an actual invocation to the act of violence that they committed.

If we were to equate lawful protected speech with the illegal violent acts of people who act in the name of that speech, it wouldn’t just entail silencing Trump. Take, for instance, the bulk of the political violence that was committed last year. Many of those who rioted in Kenosha, Portland, and elsewhere no doubt held misconceptions and exaggerations about the nature of policing; many of these beliefs were likely echoed by leading Democratic politicians.

As one recent example, Representative Ilhan Omar accused police of “state sanctioned murder” for a case where police were fired upon and returned fire, killing a young man. Omar’s conclusion was brash and irresponsible and indeed followed renewed clashes between Minneapolis activists and police.

But her tweet is also legal and protected speech. It’s not illegal to, for instance, say the phrase “abortion is murder” or “police are racists and killers.” It would be illegal for someone who happened to hold those beliefs to use violence against abortion providers or police. It’s not illegal for Trump to share false and ignorant conspiracy theories, even if it’s unwise for all sorts of reasons.

Removing either Trump or the Democratic politicians who echoed false beliefs about policing from the internet would be antithetical to the very liberal democracy that we all believe in. And it would probably cause those who believe in those conspiracies to point and say, “Ha! They’re suppressing us because we’re right! This is a conspiracy. They won’t even let the person we voted for even speak!” (And they’d probably just end up on darker corners of the internet where they’d have even less exposure to people who disagree.)

I say this as someone who has actually believed in election conspiracies in the past. When, for instance, Democrats rose to challenge the 2004 certification—an event the party has basically memory holed in recent days but which I remember vividly—I recall thinking they had a point.

As a teenager who had browsed all manner of Democratic-leaning websites, I was convinced that something had gone amiss in Ohio. Maybe it was changing polling places. Maybe it was rigged voting machines. But Bush had probably stolen the election. Again.

The response from the Republican establishment and government and corporate institutions was not to enact some massive regime of censorship and expel dissenters. They basically made fun of Barbara Boxer, voted down her objections, and moved on.

Eventually, I moved on, too. Nobody stopped me from voicing my concerns on message boards or worked with corporate and governing elites to silence the members of Congress who shared them. Meeting dissent with suppression can breed extremism. Meeting it with argument at least stands a chance of eventually convincing someone that they’re wrong, and eventually I admitted that the reason John Kerry lost the 2004 election was because he was a terrible candidate, not because the Republicans went and pushed the big red “STEAL THE ELECTION” button.

But this time, it looks like things are going in a different direction. Liberals, with their hegemony over basically every governing and cultural institution, are understandably upset over the proliferation of right-wing conspiracy theories and refusal to admit that Biden won. They believe they should use their hegemony to silence dissenting voices and the president they support, either by expelling pro-Trump Republicans on the Hill or censoring them through big tech.

Meanwhile some Republicans in leadership may use the opportunity to marginalize populists on the Hill, re-asserting their control over lawmaking. Mitch McConnell may be speaking in grandiose terms about democracy now, but his career has been virtually dedicated to preventing it—using his power to block popular legislation the people want, with the stymying of the $2,000 stimulus checks the latest example. Were he to punish objecting Missouri Republican Senator Josh Hawley, who has tried to move the GOP towards being more sensitive to the average person’s economic concerns, it would push the party away from democracy rather than towards it.

Living in a big, diverse country, means living with those who disagree with us, and at least some of those people are going to hold beliefs that are just patently false. But the greatness and promise of this country is that we have the right to argue out those differences. Nobody can silence us or disenfranchise us, as long as we peacefully argue for our points of view (which it doesn’t need to be said is not what those rioters on the Hill were doing). Trump ultimately failed to overthrow our system’s norms and institutions. Let’s not let him trick us into doing it for him by burning down our democracy to save it.

Zaid Jilani is a freelance journalist who in the past has worked for UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, The Intercept, and the Center for American Progress. 

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