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Jan. 6 Hearings: Why they matter and what we can do together to protect democracy

After yesterday’s second in a series of hearings by the bipartisan House select committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection, I am more optimistic that the compelling evidence documented by the committee over the past 11 months will break through and capture the public’s attention.

These hearings are an essential step toward transparency, accountability and real consequences for the planners and perpetrators of the Capitol assault – and those who inspired and funded their activities. But we must complement the committee’s crucial work with our own.

Here’s what we know.

First, the violent insurrection at the Capitol was not the beginning. Former President Trump and his allies declared their intent to deny the results well before Election Day and carried out that intention with full knowledge that they had lost. The lies of a stolen election, the extremist ideologies and the conspiracy theories that fueled the attack were the culmination of a months-long, coordinated strategy by Trump and his allies to overturn the 2020 election and steal the presidency.

Second, the attack on the Capitol was not the end. The events of Jan. 6 and the concerted efforts to overturn the 2020 election were a prelude to efforts to undermine the 2024 elections. Trump and his allies continue to wage a disinformation campaign designed to sabotage future elections.

Trump’s allies in state legislatures have enacted dozens of racially discriminatory voter suppression laws. And across the country, right-wing lawyers have been working to gerrymander state redistricting maps to reduce representation for Black and Brown communities and allow partisan politicians – not voters – to control election outcomes.

Dozens of election deniers are running for state offices that have direct authority to supervise elections and certify final election results. Subverting free and fair elections by sowing distrust and expanding partisan poll watchers’ ability to harass and intimidate voters is undemocratic.

Third, we know that far-right extremist groups played a significant role in the violence.

The SPLC has met with committee staff and submitted written testimony documenting the involvement of extremists in the planning and preparation for the insurrection. The committee spent its first night focusing on the violence at the Capitol, conspiracy theories about electoral fraud and alleged coordination between Trump, his allies and two extremist groups the SPLC has tracked for years.

The committee presented testimony regarding the participation and cooperation of the Proud Boys – one of the most violent extremist groups in the U.S. at the time of the insurrection – and the antigovernment extremist Oath Keepers. According to the committee, their goal was to stop the peaceful transfer of power through violence and intimidation, allowing Trump to remain in power despite losing the election.

SPLC Intelligence Project Senior Research Analyst Cassie Miller provided the committee with testimony regarding the Proud Boys’ violent history. The Department of Justice has charged Oath Keeper founder Stewart Rhodes and 10 other Oath Keepers with seditious conspiracy. The DOJ also charged Proud Boys leader Henry “Enrique” Tarrio and four of his lieutenants with sedition.

Fourth, we know the threat of political violence has increased. According to a poll jointly conducted by the SPLC and Tulchin Research, the mainstreaming of hate and antigovernment thought and the willingness to engage in political violence is now widely accepted on the right.

The survey found that:

  • Over three-quarters of those who believe the 2020 presidential election was “fraudulent, rigged and illegitimate” also at least somewhat agree with the racist and antisemitic “great replacement” conspiracy theory that liberals are intentionally replacing conservative white voters with people of color – the same conspiracy theory cited by the man who killed 10 Black people in Buffalo, New York, last month.
  • Forty-one percent of Republicans agreed with the statement that “some violence might be necessary to protect the country from radical extremists.” Over half of Republicans also said they believed the country is headed toward a civil war.
  • The poll also found 70% of Republicans believe the government has become “tyrannical.” Partisanship is also high. Republicans ranked the Democratic Party as the “most pressing” threat to U.S. democracy, while Democrats ranked Trump and the Republicans as second and third after Russian President Vladimir Putin.

What we must do together

The ongoing threat to our democracy and democratic institutions is clear. The Capitol attack underscores the urgent need to pass legislation to protect our democratic election procedures and to combat hate, extremism and misinformation.

Here’s what has to happen:

  • We must support and help elevate the vital work of the select committee.
  • Congress must protect the right to vote. With essential voting rights legislation now blocked due to Senate Republican obstruction, the Department of Justice must use its authority to challenge discriminatory anti-voting laws. And activists and grassroots organizations must engage in the fight to protect and advance voting rights through every tool we have in our communities.
  • We must protect frontline election workers, the key to the administration of free and fair elections. Congress must address this rise in the fear of political violence against voters and poll workers by sharply increasing state funding for election administration to advance a safe and secure electoral process.
  • Congress must enact legislation to raise the threshold for challenging Electoral College votes and clarify the vice president’s role in the process as exclusively ministerial, with no authority to overturn election results. Congress must also pass legislation to address the erosion of the Voting Rights Act and other reforms to strengthen our democracy.
  • We must step up our advocacy urging the Biden administration to fulfill the promise of its June 2021 National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism – especially Pillar 4 of the blueprint, which describes the need to address long-term contributors to extremism by “rooting out racism and bigotry and advancing equity for all Americans.”
  • We must fund prevention initiatives to steer individuals away from hate and ideologically motivated violence. Stopping extremism in our country must be a holistic effort involving not just law enforcement, but also parents, caregivers and educators. In partnership with American University’s Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab (PERIL), we are developing new approaches to countering radicalization that start from a public health perspective, instead of a national security lens.
  • We must ensure that everyone – and especially young people – are taught critical thinking skills and digital literacy so they can fend off misinformation, disinformation and online radicalization.
  • We must promote online safety and hold tech and social media companies accountable. Tech companies must develop – and enforce – terms of service and policies to ensure that social media platforms, payment service providers and other internet-based services do not enable the funding or amplifying of white supremacist ideas or provide a safe haven for extremists promoting disinformation or planning political violence.

No one is above the law in a democracy. The committee’s hearings provide an essential opportunity to prove that the Jan. 6 attack on American democracy and the ongoing effort to sabotage future elections will not succeed – and that the right of the people to choose their own leaders will prevail.

Photo at top: U.S. Capitol Police Officer Caroline Edwards, who was injured in the Jan. 6 insurrection, and filmmaker Nick Quested testify during a hearing of the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol on Thursday, June 9, 2022, in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Oliver Contreras/SIPA USA/AP Images)