How Not to Save Democracy
Last spring, the Democratic congressman Jamie Raskin, a member of the January 6 Committee, was spotted with a copy of Sallust’s Bellum Catilinae. It was the new Princeton edition, translated by Josiah Osgood, which comes with a new title, How to Stop a Conspiracy: An Ancient Guide to Saving a Republic. ‘I’m getting ideas from wherever I can,’ Raskin said.
According to Sallust’s account, Lucius Sergius Catilina was a morally corrupt yet charismatic figure who refused to concede defeat at the ballot box. A member of the Roman oligarchy burdened with debt, he surrounded himself with a crew of louche characters; he fomented riots and assembled an armed mob to march on the Capitol and burn the Senate. The coup was thwarted in extremis but the republic was in danger.
Will the January 6 Committee’s report help save the American republic? In 63 BC the Roman senators took exceptional measures to ensure their enemies were politically (and militarily) defeated. Today, their counterparts seem less interested in political victory than in taking the (ostensibly) neutral stance of a historian. Their model isn’t even Cicero – who as consul led the efforts to suppress the Catiline conspiracy – so much as Sallust.
Sallust claimed to write with ‘a mind free of political partisanship’. The chairman of the select committee, the Democratic congressman Bennie Thompson, has repeatedly said that the investigation ‘is not about politics. It’s not about party. It’s about the facts, plain and simple.’ The committee’s Republican vice-chair, Liz Cheney, warned her audience not to be ‘distracted by politics’.
The expectations regarding the committee’s final report seem to be that history will succeed where politics has failed. Many people hope that the report – ‘an indispensable record of an attempted coup that failed but … threatens to recur’ – will help to neutralise Trump: if people can be made to see that the attack on the Capitol on 6 January 2021 was the culmination of a plan long in the making, they will rally in defence of the institutions in which they have lost trust. But is saving democracy a matter of setting the historical record straight – let alone of leaving politics behind in the name of ‘facts’?
The assumptions guiding the committee’s work are symptomatic of current thinking about the crisis of democracy. It is often assumed that what threatens democracy are wrong ideas. In this view, 6 January was not a consequence of decades of neoliberal policies, deindustrialisation, rising wealth inequality and white supremacy, but of fake news: to wrest victory from the jaws of electoral defeat, Trump ‘was willing to entertain and use conspiracy theories’, as Cheney put it. ‘We cannot let America become a nation of conspiracy theories and thug violence.’ Saving democracy then becomes a matter of establishing historical facts. If truth prevails, it will bridge political divides and unite people.
Yet the notion that conspiracy theories pose a unique threat to democracy rests on shaky foundations. Hannah Arendt once suggested they were the logic behind totalitarian movements: people who imagine they are the targets of a conspiracy tend to organise themselves as a real counter-conspiracy in response. But if authoritarian movements rely heavily on conspiracist rhetoric, it does not necessarily follow that such movements are brought into being by conspiracist beliefs. No serious historian has explained the rise of Nazism or Fascism as the result of conspiracy theories.
The January 6 Committee’s work is further complicated by the fact that, while it seeks to invalidate conspiracy theories, it is simultaneously trying to shore up the idea that Donald Trump sat at the centre of ‘a sprawling, multi-step conspiracy’.
Providing evidence of a conspiracy is notoriously difficult, especially of one that has failed: the task is not only to collect facts but to establish the intent that threads them together. A conspiracy, François Guizot once wrote, is by definition an ‘intellectual reality’. Unless it is consummated, it is never exhausted in facts.
This is not to deny the difference between real plots and paranoid fantasies, or to suggest that Trump and his cronies weren’t pursuing a real plot. But you cannot expect a painstaking exercise in separating wheat from chaff to have the persuasive power of an undisputable truth.
After conducting more than a thousand interviews and churning out millions of pages of documents, the committee is failing to convince. Historians with no sympathy for Trump have challenged the notion that 6 January was an attempted ‘coup’. Commentators are sceptical and some are suggesting it’s too little too late. The public at large seems largely indifferent. This doesn’t mean people don’t care about democracy – only that democracy has left them by the wayside.
If the January 6 Committee members are to take any idea from Roman history, it should be that what threatens democracy is not erroneous beliefs or fake news but a social and economic crisis that political elites are incapable or unwilling to address. In Sallust’s lifetime, imperial overreach had created a vast military proletariat, disenfranchised and burdened by debt, while the senatorial oligarchy was unwilling to question its own privileges: it is from this decaying soil that Catiline emerged.
This is also the reason Sallust may not be such a good model: his professed detachment as a historian concealed a conservative agenda. He had no sympathy for the corrupt oligarchy that ruled Rome but was unsettled by the populist reaction. A member of the propertied classes and a former politician suspected of embezzlement, he sided with the old elite and chose the defence of the status quo. His portrait of Catiline was meant to stigmatise the most radical social demands. He played loose with the facts and tinkered with chronology: we will never know for sure whether Catiline, before opting for insurrection, wasn’t merely a populist politician rather than a criminal bent on staging a coup. Writing a ‘non-partisan’ history of conspiratorial ‘facts’ was the ideological dressing for a programme to perpetuate the social and economic status quo.
The contemporary obsession with fake news and conspiracy theories serves a similar purpose, deflecting attention from the social ills that allow such theories to gain traction and politicians like Trump to use them.
As important as it may be to reconstruct the chain of events that led to the 6 January insurrection, the future of democracy ultimately depends on the availability of a transformative political vision that people can support. It may well be that Trump ends up being defeated. Yet, just as Catiline’s defeat didn’t prevent Caesar’s declaring himself dictator for life twenty years later, nothing guarantees that Trump’s end would be enough to save American democracy.