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How to get real accountability for Jan. 6

by E.J. Dionne Jr., Washington Post Opinion

The Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol was an attempt, through force and violence, to overturn the will of the majority expressed in a free and fair election. In a well-functioning democratic republic, its anniversary would engender a commitment across party lines to protecting and enhancing our system of self-rule.

At the moment, we do not live in such a republic. One of our two major political parties refuses to face up to what happened. Worse, the Republican Party has been using Donald Trump’s liesabout the 2020 election as a pretext to restrict access to the ballot box in many GOP-controlled states and to undermine honest ballot counts by allowing partisan bodies to seize control of the electoral process.

It is important to understand Jan. 6 as a political event and not be misled by a desire to sweep our divisions under a rug woven of well-meaning wishful thinking. While condemnations of the bloody aggression initially crossed party lines, most Republican politicians either retreated into silence bred by fear of Trump or set out to minimize the assault on police officers and the vandalizing of public space as a “protest.”

The violence of Jan. 6 was not in the service of some great cause. The deaths of Capitol Police officers, the beating of others, the degradation of the Capitol, and the terrorizing of officials and staff were all rooted in one man’s selfish indifference to the obligations of democratic leadership. Trump provoked the attack on the counting of electoral votes because he hoped to rig an election. How fitting that he recently gave his “complete support” to Hungary’s strongman, Viktor Orban.

In their shared version of politics, authoritarian bosses don’t let mere citizens get in their way.

The tell as to how much Trump has corrupted his party is its embrace of a wholly new position on federal guarantees of voting rights.

One of the most deeply honorable aspects of the history of the Republican Party was its commitment to universal suffrage after the Civil War — which at the time meant the full enfranchisement of formerly enslaved Black Americans.

Against the wishes of a Democratic Party then suffused by racism, the GOP pushed through the 14th and 15th Amendments, authorizing use of the federal government’s power to protect civil and voting rights. A century later, the Republican Party was also pivotal in passing the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

These days, mimicking the reactionary Southern Democrats of old, Republicans sound the tocsin of “states’ rights” in opposing a repaired Voting Rights Act and the Freedom to Vote Act, which is designed to fight the voter suppression and election subversion that lie at the heart of Trumpism.

It’s this inversion of history that makes all the more ominous a new argument being advanced to block the democracy bills. The idea is that because Republicans now oppose what they used to support, Democrats, in the name of “bipartisanship,” should abandon their commitment to protecting voting rights and ballot access and settle for reforms that affect only what happens after ballots are cast.

This would include reforming the Electoral Count Act of 1887, whose weaknesses in defining how Congress and the vice president should act in counting electoral votes were exposed by Trump’s machinations.

Of course we should reform the Electoral Count Act, and the House commission investigating Jan. 6 could well propose doing so. But there is little point in having a nice, orderly count of the electoral college votes if the elections that produce its members (and those in the House and Senate) are marred by efforts to make it more difficult for citizens to vote and by the systematic exclusion of some groups from casting ballots.

The fact that Republicans oppose federal voting guarantees is no reason to give them veto power over bills aimed at repairing abuses their fellow partisans are enacting at the state level. Imagine if Republicans in the Reconstruction Era had said: “Oh, gee whiz, Democrats won’t support the 14th and 15th Amendments, so let’s give up on equal rights in the name of bipartisanship.”

Civil War- and Reconstruction-era metaphors are, alas, entirely on point when it comes to Jan. 6. It’s no accident that some of the criminals who invaded the Capitol waved Confederate flags. Now, as then, we are witnessing violent efforts to undercut advances in democracy and reactionary schemes in many states to impede access to the ballot. The struggle again divides our political parties, though their roles have reversed.

Accountability for the events of Jan. 6 must be legal but also political. At issue is whether we are the democratic republic we claim to be. A Congress that refuses to enforce the equal rights the insurrectionists rose up to reject would be capitulating to some of the worst impulses in our nation’s history.