The Other Tragedy of January 6

An illustration of the U.S. Capitol
The Atlantic

A charitable reading of those involved in the atrocities of January 6 is that they believed they were acting in the best interests of the country. Given the facts, as they proclaimed them, they were striving to protect the nation from an election that had been illegally stolen.

The trouble is these facts are false.

The country faces a divide between those who inhabit a common world of truth, and those who are willing to proclaim a fantasy universe of conspiratorial illusion. To act from patriotism in the Donald Trump universe is to commit base betrayals in the world of actual facts. The events of January 6 illustrate why no democracy can survive without a commitment to truth.

People fall into delusions for many different reasons. Internet bubbles and hyper-partisan media certainly contribute to the problem. But at root, the capacity to distinguish fact from fiction turns on self-discipline. A commitment to truth saves us from the temptation of confusing our wishes with the world. Because we are frail, we require norms and institutions (such as courts) to encourage and incentivize truth-telling.

Congress certainly ought to be such an institution. It was thus shocking to witness 139 House Republicans rely on Trump’s lies to question the 2020 election’s result. These 139 representatives, who came from districts with large Republican majorities, sought to cancel the votes of 81 million people in order to “stop the steal.” How could this happen?

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A revealing clue is that only eight senators were similarly inclined. We can assume that senators and members of the House of Representatives are equally partisan, equally ambitious, equally unscrupulous. Why was only 8 percent of the Senate, but nearly one-third of the House, publicly willing to embrace Trump’s poisonous rigged-election fantasy?

The answer comes down to institutional structure. No doubt the difference between a six-year term and a two-year term matters. But also important is the fact that senators are accountable to entire states, whereas representatives are accountable only to relatively small districts. Many of these districts are so politically homogeneous—due either to gerrymandering or to more organic self-sorting—that whoever wins a party primary is guaranteed to win the general election. Party primaries, unlike competitive general elections, notoriously select for the most extreme candidates.

This difference between the House and the Senate has profound consequences. Senators, who must speak to a state’s general population, must seek to persuade many who are not already convinced. The skill of persuasion requires them to learn to appreciate and marshal facts. Facts are what we have in common, even when we otherwise disagree. That is why democracy, which is built on disagreement, requires a commitment to truth.

But representatives who come from gerrymandered or hyper-partisan districts do not suffer this constraint. They must convince only the audience of ideological zealots who turn out to vote in primaries. Representatives from such districts are thus rewarded for stoking the fires of fantasy, rather than for negotiating the trials of disagreement. To the extent that their districts’ elections turn on the judgment of those who do not care about truth, members of Congress will lack any incentive to appreciate and marshal facts. We now know that at least 139 House Republicans likely represent such districts.

If the federal government were to require these districts to become competitive, primaries would select for candidates who are able to win general elections. Like senators, they would have to learn to inhabit a common world of facts in order to persuade others in the face of disagreement. Because Congress must reapportion the House after the 2020 census, it could also easily require states to draw districts that are competitive. There are many ways to do this: by counter-gerrymandering, by designing multimember districts, by establishing various forms of ranked voting, and so on.

No doubt, however, such a reform would be painful. Many members of Congress come from safe districts on both sides of the aisle. How many of them will have the political courage to unsettle the security of their own employment?

The violence on January 6 was one tragedy. The vote of 147 Republican representatives and senators on that same day was yet another. We now know that if we fail to require House districts to become competitive, at least one-third of the membership of the House of Representatives will be unable or unwilling to exercise the moral discipline of distinguishing truth from fantasy. They will yield to the incentive of publicly confusing truth with fiction. And this suggests that the House is unlikely to survive as a functioning democratic institution. That would be a tragedy even greater than the ones we suffered on the day of the riot.