The dark tie between Juneteenth, Watergate and Jan. 6

OPINION: Nothing good happens in darkness, and these three important events in our nation’s history provide key examples of how democracy withers from a lack of light.  

(L-R) U.S. Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Ca.), Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), Chairman of the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol, and Vice Chairwoman Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wy.), listen during a hearing on the January 6th investigation in the Cannon House Office Building on June 13, 2022 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

It’s been said that democracy dies in the dark. This line of thinking is, at least, as much about darkness as it is about democracy. Darkness prevents us from apprehending danger. It also provides cover for misconduct. From a young age, darkness was equated with trouble, particularly within the Black community, where our parents told us that “nothing good happens after dark.” In other words, you’d better get back in this house by the time those streetlights come on.

When it comes to our struggling democracy, such darkness, or lack of transparency, is frequently the incubator of “nothing good.” Three important events in our nation’s history—Juneteenth, Watergate and the Jan. 6 insurrection—provide key examples of how democracy withers from a lack of light.  

This week, we celebrate Juneteenth, a now officially recognized holiday forged from darkness. Specifically, enslaved Africans in Texas were left in the dark regarding their newly realized democratic freedoms for more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863. This year, we also mark the 50th anniversary of the Watergate break-in, the 1970s scandal ultimately considered the straw that broke the camel’s back regarding 20th-century trust in the government. President Richard Nixon and his operatives broke the law, literally spying and stealing in the dark as part of a wider, more sinister effort to thwart electoral democracy and prevent the democratic transfer of power. 

Then there’s the more recent Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol—the subject of current public hearings in the U.S. House of Representatives—a brazen event that occurred in broad daylight. However, there are those like The Atlantic’s Grant Tudor who, in a recent article, depicted the darker, antidemocratic events that both preceded and facilitated the riot. In paralleling the historic lack of attention to the additional crimes that accompanied the Watergate break-ins with what he believes could be an equally singular focus on the high-profile events of Jan. 6, Tudor reminds us that the daylight assault was largely a desperate and violent eleventh-hour attempt to “prevent the transfer of power after a months-long campaign to do so had failed. As with Watergate, the campaign was bracing in its scope: using government resources to promote the president’s reelection; soliciting state and local officials to commit election fraud; pressuring the vice president to delay or block the counting of electoral votes; enlisting the Justice Department to sanction the overturning of election results; refusing to officially green-light the operational transition of administrations; devising plans to employ the military to seize ballots and voting machines; strategizing with members of Congress to assemble fake slates of electors…”

It is a point well taken. What should not be lost with the current slate of hearings or any politicized push to attribute blame to a single individual or entity is a more transparent assessment of the larger, anti-democratic process that got us here in the first place. Such political parochialism actually perpetuates the darkness—though occurring right in front of our eyes, in the full light of day—by further eroding our democratic system of checks and balances, the rule of law and the constitutional framework upon which our nation was built.  

Sadly, the darkness surrounding these three important events continues to impact our modern democracy. With Juneteenth, we now have a national holiday to recognize this democratic transgression, a historical event many people are just learning about today, well over a century and a half after its occurrence. Since Watergate, mainstream America has never looked at its government and elected leaders in quite the same light. 

And given the sensational, press-dominating events of Jan. 6, it is easy to buy into Tudor’s well-substantiated fears that its ongoing legacy will, like Watergate, be reduced to a single illegal incident as opposed to “a significantly broader and darker series of events” that will repeat if not fully acknowledged.  

We deserve better. Our Constitution actually guarantees us something better, something more democratic. We should push our elected officials and the media who cover them for greater transparency. We should demand more accountability from them given the important roles they play in the daily functioning of our democracy. We should look beyond easy answers and politically convenient scapegoats for a more truthful and holistic accounting of the events that impact our lives, our laws and our liberties. We should demand more of ourselves. 

For, as Americans, the story we choose to tell ourselves about ourselves—about our collective history, our transgressions, our ongoing challenges—can go a long way in terms of ensuring our democracy doesn’t die in the dark. 

And though our parents undoubtedly overplayed the safety card by telling us that “nothing good happens after dark,” when it comes to American democracy, this darkness really is the incubator of nothing good.

Stephanie Robinson, Esq. is a lecturer on law at Harvard Law School where she teaches on issues of democracy, media, and race, and their intersections with the law. She is the president of Sly Bear Media Group. She is the former chief counsel to Senator Edward M. Kennedy and was a political and social commentator for “The Tom Joyner Morning Show,” offering her perspective weekly to over 10 million people on the day’s most pressing issues.

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