As we pass the first anniversary of the January 6 Capitol attack, it’s crucial that we recognize the infamy of that day while also understanding that the invasion itself was only one element of a larger coup that preceded and followed that day of infamy.

We know so much more now than we did a year ago — specifically about efforts by Donald Trump and his allies to discredit and throw out the election results in key swing states. But equally important for anyone who is trying to make sense of American politics and believes in a democratic future, we all need to come to grips with the reality that the insurrection exemplified by January 6 never actually ended. 

The majority of Republican Party officials have either embraced Trump’s Big Lie that Democrats stole the election, or, even more importantly, support various legislative and rhetorical subversions of the American electoral system aimed at ensuring that Republicans will prevail in future elections. And so across the land, GOP legislatures are not only making it harder for Democratic-leaning citizens to vote and to have those votes count, they are making it possible for Republican legislatures to throw out election results and replace them with their own choices, particularly in presidential elections.

At the same time, thousands of rank-and-file Trump loyalists are flocking to join local election boards, with the goal of putting a thumb on the scales, or worse, in the running and counting of future elections. In states like Georgia, this effort to undermine election mechanics is abetted by state laws dis-empowering local election boards in favor of state intervention. Alongside this, right-wing extremists engage in a spectrum of violence and intimidation, from disruptions of school board meetings to the lurking menace of political gangs like the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers.

That much of the current GOP effort is non-violent and conducted through legal machinations makes it no less an attack on American democracy than the January 6 Capitol assault. We are all living through a slow-motion insurrection against the republic, in which a political party representing a minority of Americans seeks permanent power over the majority.

We also need to recognize the larger struggle going on, the substantive reasons why the far right has declared war on American democracy, as opposed to this simply being a power grab for its own sake, a case of hardball politics gone too far. The GOP’s efforts are ultimately aimed at promoting the interests of white, Christian Americans against the diverse, expanding majority — an effort to turn back the clock to a time when white supremacy was the basis for American society. Simultaneously, the GOP effort at seizing unassailable power also seek to raise powerful corporate interests beyond the scope of government regulation and subordination to the public interest.

The goal, then, is not simply to destroy democracy for the sheer thrill of power, but to institute a vision of American society and American capitalism deeply at odds with the interests of most Americans. This reactionary movement also encompasses the right-wing Supreme Court and its subversion of the rule of law, civil rights, and the capacity of the federal government to work in the public interest; striking examples of this include its reversal of abortion rights, undermining the federal government’s ability to regulate the economy, and the recent striking down of the Biden administration’s vaccine mandate for large businesses, aimed at containing the Covid-19 pandemic.

In this sense, then, we face not just a political insurrection, but a reactionary movement that understands that the only way to achieve its goals is to destroy both the American political system’s ability to serve the majority, as well as any semblance of an egalitarian, tolerant society. The question the rest of us now have to answer, from the Democratic leadership through ordinary Americans, is what we’re going to do about it.

At the mass level, it seems to me that the best defense of democracy is more democracy, from citizens getting engaged in local politics, to talking with friends about their concerns, to of course, voting for candidates who defend American government. But this last obvious point brings us back to the nature of the Republican insurrection, which crucially aims to ensure that as few Democratic voters as possible are actually able to vote or have those votes count. And this means that Democratic elected officials need to do their part, now, to defend America. God knows that President Biden and the congressional Democrats have their hands full with razor-thin majorities as the Senate GOP’s defeat (enabled by Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema) of the Build Back Better bill illustrates, so I don’t want to underestimate the very real challenges of this situation.

But at a bare minimum, what Democrats can do is actually talk, and behave, as if this country actually does face an insurrection. A year into Biden’s presidency and the current Congress, it should be crystal clear that appeals to bipartisanship are folly. Since January 6, the GOP has only continued to radicalize, not moderate, and at this point, behaving as if major legislation is possible with the help of Republicans only serves to mislead the American people as to the true nature of this authoritarian party. The country finds itself in a horrifying and dangerous place, and there is nothing to be gained by pretending that this reality does not exist, as if pretending might magically make it not so.

President Biden’s January 6 speech was a good start on the path forward, but as others have noted, whether it marks a real change in his rhetorical and political stance toward the far right remains to be seen. Alerting and mobilizing the American people to the dangers of one-party Republican rule will be the Democratic Party’s primary way to defend democracy leading up to the 2022 election. Democrats must make the case that January 6 was but the most violent expression of an ongoing mass insurrection against American democracy. Even GOP politicians who did not participate in the planning and actions of that day have retroactively made themselves party to it, either by parroting the Big Lie or by pressing for election restrictions the Big Lie is meant to justify.

Stressing the continuity between the intentions of the violence of January 6, and the intentions of legislation meant to subvert democracy, can be a righteous and effective cudgel in defense of democracy. In an essay on the Jan. 6 attack, historian Joanne Freeman argues that drawing a bright line against violence in American politics is essential:

All these months after the attack, the seemingly bare-minimum response has not happened: There has been no full-throated group statement from the congressional bully pulpit stating that the attack was out of bounds, no strong, clear line in the sand naming the events of Jan. 6 an unforgivable assault on the democratic processes and principles of our government that must never happen again. This astounding omission could prove fatal.

[. . .] Although accountability won’t single-handedly end our current crisis, its absence virtually guarantees more of the same. With no clear line in the sand, the attack on democracy will continue, unchecked and empowered, with the worst yet to come.

Even if the Capitol attack had not been part of a larger Republican insurrection, it would still require a forceful, unambiguous response. It is time for the Democrats to realize that (apart from a few people like Reps. Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger) the Republican Party does not want to be part of a true accounting and reckoning with that day, and that Jan. 6 must form a key piece of their broader indictment of right-wing extremism in the years ahead. Televise the Jan. 6 hearings; distribute daily talking points so that all are singing from the same choir book; rinse and repeat through the November midterms, and beyond. Democrats must embrace the necessity of irreconcilable conflict with the GOP, and win this fight both in the court of public opinion and at the polls. 

These last couple of weeks have felt like a particularly bleak period in U.S. politics, not just for their own sake but in the way they cast shadows and danger far into the future. So it might seem perverse that I’m about to ask you to stare even further into the political abyss — but let’s try to think of this as a sort of shock and awe therapy, where confronting our worst nightmares also holds the key to setting us free (or at least moving us towards an actual strategy for defending and retaining American democracy).

There are few chroniclers of the structural impediments and cultural conflicts driving our political crisis as good as Ronald Brownstein; he’s consistently accessible and insightful, and has a pair of articles out that serve as the latest installments of his democracy-in-crisis coverage. He zeroes in on the voting rights fight, and how the failure of federal legislation to protect voting rights is both catalyst and symptom of an anti-democratic collection of Republican power, which consists of “the axis of Republican-controlled state governments, the GOP-appointed majority on the Supreme Court and filibusters mounted by Senate Republicans,” which in combination are “limiting Democrats’ ability to set the national agenda, even as they hold unified control of the White House, House and Senate for the first time since 2010.”

None of these sources of GOP power on their own would be sufficient to block the Democratic trifecta of White House, Senate, and House of Representatives; together, though, they seem to be more than sufficient. Brownstein describes the Republicans as essentially conducting a “revolution from below,” using state initiatives to challenge federal policy. Where the wrenching importance of the voting rights rollback comes into view is not just in our embattled present, but moving forward, with voting suppression and a sympathetic Supreme Court very likely leading to a reversal of basic civil rights like abortion access across red states unencumbered by federal protections.

The particular power of Brownstein’s articles is in their persuasive description of dynamics that have long been in motion but are now reaching their logical conclusion, as if they were following rules of political dynamics akin to laws of physics. A far-right Supreme Court with nearly half its members appointed by presidents who lost the popular vote but still made it to the White House; a Senate disproportionately favoring sparsely populated conservative states; and voter suppression efforts aimed at negating the Democratic majority, and indeed making it impossible for that majority to ever change the rules back to fairness: all have congealed into an anti-democratic roadblock for the American polity.

Next to Brownstein’s excellent analysis of how America’s political structures have been manipulated in the service of the GOP’s quest for minority rule is a piece by historian Thomas Zimmer which provides a parallel perspective on why the Republicans have embarked on a journey that has turned the GOP into an explicitly authoritarian party

As Zimmer writes:

For several decades, the Republican party has been focused almost exclusively on the interests and sensibilities of white conservatives who tend to define “real America” as a predominantly white, Christian, patriarchal nation. America, to them, is supposed to be a place where white Christian men are at the top. [. . .]

Due to political, cultural and most importantly demographic changes, Republicans no longer have majority support for this political project – certainly not on the federal level, and even in many “red” states, their position is becoming increasingly tenuous. [. . .]

No one understands this better than Republicans themselves. In a functioning democratic system, they would have to either widen their focus beyond the interests and sensibilities of white conservatives, which they are not willing to do; or relinquish power, which they reject. They have chosen a different path – determined to do whatever it takes to protect their hold on power and preserve traditional hierarchies.

Zimmer notes that the GOP is actually correct that the United States has indeed been moving, over the last several decades, towards becoming a “multiracial, pluralistic democracy”. Like Brownstein, he sees the attack on voting rights as central to the GOP’s minoritarian project, which involves a repudiation and reversal of whatever progress the United States has so far made towards multiracial democracy. Similarly, Zimmer sees a dark path ahead if the GOP project succeeds, with the advent of an authoritarian state well within the realm of plausibility.

Together, this trio of pieces helps us see our current political situation in stark, necessary terms — the only terms that will allow us to confront and overcome it. I feel more strongly than ever that there is simply no way for supporters of democracy to succeed if they do not begin describing our current situation to their fellow Americans in just such an accurate and pointed fashion. First, that the GOP is gunning, through the “axis” of state power, the Senate filibuster, and a Supreme Court majority, to institute minority rule in this country; and second, that this GOP vision is deeply rooted in a vision of white Christian supremacism. This anti-democratic and bigoted agenda needs to be made central to the political conversation in this country.  

On the first point, thinking about the long-term consequences of potential one-party rule by the GOP is also deeply clarifying, and must be mainstreamed into public discussion. Brownstein points out the rights that are already under threat, including the right to abortion and, of course, voting rights. But I think even this understates the depth of the danger. If the Republican Party can gerrymander and suppress its way to a lock on all three branches of the federal government (in addition to control of many or most states), then the sky is literally the limit — not just on “culture war” issues, like a reversal of lesbian and gay Americans’ right to marry, but with a whole range of economic and political sabotage and extremism becoming possible. Higher taxes for blue states and lower (or no) taxes for red states — why not? Further restrictions on voting rights ensuring that even the greatest of blue waves won’t win back power for Democrats — a no brainer! Legislation requiring that recipients of federal contracts can’t be companies with unions — is the conservative and corrupt Supreme Court really going to stand in the way? Without the right to vote and have your vote counted, unchallengeable and unending one-party minority rule is the logical outcome, with guaranteed exploitation and degradation of the majority of Americans.

Along these lines, Brownstein and Zimmer have also left me more convinced than ever that Democratic rhetoric and efforts that treat the right to vote as an abstract assault on individual civil rights is woefully inadequate to the reality of our moment and of voting itself. Without question, each individual’s right to vote should be treated as sacred and non-negotiable. At the same time, though, our individual vote — our individual power — is only meaningful in combination with hundreds, thousands, millions of votes by similarly-minded or allied citizens. And this power, in turn, comes not from abstractly voting, but by voting for something — specifically, the politicians, policies, and ideas we support.

Both Brownstein and Zimmer make this connection explicit, by reminding us that the GOP is not just subverting and blocking voting rights as a political power play, but as a means to achieving a certain reactionary project that places the morality of conservative, patriarchally-minded whites as the guiding light. (To this, I would add that this conservative project also includes the advancement of corporate, anti-worker interests and the denigration of the state’s ability to address not just issues of social justice, but economic fairness as well.)

President Biden started to approach such a strategy in his voting rights speech last month in his references to “Jim Crow 2.0.” However, this rhetoric needs to be greatly expanded, to explicitly address the reasons the GOP is now so very motivated to roll back voting rights: the collective threat the party perceives from a populace that is growing more liberal, more religiously tolerant, and less white every year. Biden and other Democrats need to do three things: 1) remind the American majority that the threat posed by voter suppression is actually a threat to whether we can live in the kind of society we want, 2) remind Americans that we have already long been working towards such a society, and 3) mobilize Americans in defense of this vision.  

The elements of awareness and mobilization are all the more important in the face of likely unstoppable voting restrictions in the coming years. In the first place, pro-democracy forces in the United States must ensure that a maximal number of voters at least attempt to make their voices heard, in the hopes of overcoming restrictions and gerrymandering aimed at diluting majority rule. Alongside this, given the failure of the current Democratic Party leadership to prevent the GOP from attaining the means to a grand reversal of political and social progress, it will fall to state and local organizers and individuals to create strategies to counter the right’s subversion of voting and democratic governance.

Whether it takes mass protests, statewide strikes, supercharged union organizing, or civil disobedience, the answer to attacks on democracy inevitably involves a massive democratic counter-movement. While one of the people Brownstein interviews suggests that the GOP’s minoritarian tactics in favor of unpopular positions make a backlash inevitable, the big question is whether this backlash can be channeled into actual reform and undoing of this reactionary movement. Simply relying on voters to vote the bums out when those votes won’t count, or can’t even be cast in the first place, is not a strategy at all.

Having said all this, though, let’s not assume that all is lost in the coming election cycle.  Democrats need to run like hell to hold the line in the 2022 midterms, so as to build their Senate majority and finally pass democracy-protecting legislation. As observers like Brian Beutler have suggested, in the absence of large-scale achievements like the Build Back Better Act, there’s nothing wrong with trying to make the midterms about Republican perfidy; from Trump idolatry and the party’s murderous pro-covid policies and accompanying efforts to undermine the economic recovery, from opposition to popular Build Back Better policies like paid family leave and the child tax credit to complicity in the January 6 insurrection and cover-up, there’s plenty of ammunition for making the case that returning the GOP to power would be a stepping stone to the return of Donald Trump to the White House. And as I argued above, the GOP’s quest for unassailable one-party rule and embrace of a white nationalist vision for American must be part of the mix.