A version of this story appeared in CNN’s Race Deconstructed newsletter. To get it in your inbox every week, sign up for free here.
The noose and gallows.
The Confederate Army revivalists.
The White power hand gestures.
Incited by then-President Donald Trump, the January 6 insurrectionists took aim not merely at democracy but also at multiracial democracy. The siege of the US Capitol fits into a history of White backlash, as yet another effort to maintain a strict racial order.
One year on, as the House select committee probes the attack and as many Republican-led state legislatures enact laws that limit Black Americans’ access to the ballot box, it’s worthwhile to examine how January 6 lives on in national politics, and explore what that day might reveal about race in the US.
The new Lost Cause
One way to view January 6 is through the lens of US mythology.
In the late 1800s, the myth of the Lost Cause grew in popularity. It was an attempt to revise history at least in part by recasting as honorable and valiant the men who went to war in support of the Confederacy – an antidemocratic nation-state whose very existence depended on the bondage of people of African descent.
An analogous discourse has been underway in the months since January 6, as people on the political right – from lawmakers to shock jocks – seek to portray as the “true” Americans those who, at Trump’s exhortation, stormed the seat of US government in an effort to overturn Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 presidential election.
Unsurprisingly, the insurrectionists – more than 700 of whom have been charged by the Department of Justice in connection with the assault – have embraced the fantasy that they’re patriots who’ve been wrongly targeted by the government.
“It has many of the same trappings (as the Lost Cause),” Seyward Darby, the author of the 2020 book “Sisters in Hate: American Women on the Front Lines of White Nationalism,” told CNN, referring to January 6. “There are these notions of: ‘We were trying to do the right thing. We were trying to do the noble thing. We were trying to do the American thing. And we were stymied by these forces that want to radically change the shape of the country.’”
Hakeem Jefferson, an assistant professor of political science at Stanford University whose research focuses on the role identity plays in shaping political behavior, echoed some of Darby’s sentiments. He stressed that January 6 was a racial reckoning – against the multiracial coalition that installed Biden in the White House, and against the presumed strength of Black voters.
“When we think about January 6, we can’t disconnect it from the claims by Trump and other Republican elites that there was voter fraud in predominantly Black cities,” Jefferson said. “January 6 was an attempt by a dwindling White majority to maintain political power – irrespective of the means.”
Part of a broader attack on democracy
Indeed, it’d be a mistake to view January 6 as a singular event, or as separate from the rest of the scheming defining the current political season.
After all, Republican lawmakers haven’t stopped at lauding the insurrectionists. They’ve been directing their powers at weakening multiracial democracy, using tools such as aggressive gerrymanders and, maybe most visibly, voting restrictions.
Between January 1 and December 7, lawmakers in at least 19 states passed 34 laws that make it harder for people to vote, according to a recent tally from New York University Law School’s Brennan Center for Justice. Much of this political gamesmanship disproportionately disadvantages voters of color, specifically Black voters.
Meanwhile, Democratic lawmakers have failed to pass legislation that might protect access to the franchise.
What the country saw on January 6 was “a battle over the place of White people, and what appears to be a shifting racial hierarchy,” Jefferson said. “It’s the fear of that change in status that formed the basis of January 6. But it’s also formed the basis of the other, less vivid attacks on democracy that come by way of Republican legislatures’ attempts to subvert the will of the people.”
Darby put it in equally blunt terms.
“January 6 is something that people can hold up as a Lost Cause and talk about from a symbolic standpoint,” she said. “But it’s also part of a wider war. Thinking about it that way, to me, is really the only way you can get the full picture of where we are and where we’re headed.”
Where does the US go from here?
Is it possible to rein in these darker forces – the White rage and resentment that fueled January 6 and that, certainly at present, sustain the Republican Party? It’s hard to say.
For one, in many state elections, the GOP doesn’t require the buy-in of multiracial coalitions, so it can hew to the preferences of the most conservative White voters.
“It’s one of the unfortunate pieces of US politics,” Jefferson explained. “Because the Republican Party doesn’t believe itself to be a party in need of Black support or the support of other racial and ethnic minorities on any serious level, it can organize a political and rhetorical program that’s really in line with the interests of ultraconservative, racist voters.”
Jefferson went on, “My fear not as a partisan but as somebody who cares deeply about this country is that the Republican Party is going to continue, for the foreseeable future, to bank on this kind of politics of resentment and White grievance.”
Eliminating the Senate filibuster, curbing partisan gerrymanders, prohibiting state officials from corrupting the vote-counting process: These are some of the ways to push back against the current crisis. Another: breaking with the two-party system.
The US’s outmoded political structure, dominated by the two major parties, keeps diverse representation and pluralism just beyond reach, and in fact helps clear the way for the GOP to rule by representing only a narrow minority of voters – mostly White conservatives.
“As long as we maintain our two-party system, and continue the winner-take-all electoral institutions that pose steep barriers to new parties, there is no way out of this doom loop,” Lee Drutman, a senior fellow in the Political Reform Program at New America, wrote for CNN’s Race Deconstructed newsletter last month.
What the US needs, Drutman added, “is transformative electoral reform: proportional representation that will open the door to new parties, and guarantee that an illiberal minority can’t gain majority power.”
Achieving reform of that scope might seem unlikely, given the US’s fierce political divisions, but it may well be one of the country’s few hopes for charting a path forward.