By Alex Zamalin
Aaron Sorkin, screenwriter of the long-running television serial, The West Wing, prefers flair to substance. His characters talk fast and sound like civics teachers. But it’s not clear, beyond aspirational quotes, what they offer. The same is true in this acceptance speech. During his Golden Globes acceptance speech for writing the Netflix film, The Trial of the Chicago 7, Sorkin quoted one of the film’s character’s, Abbie Hoffman, saying, “‘Democracy is not something you believe in or a place to hang your hat. But it’s something you do. You participate. If you stop doing it, democracy crumbles.’ I don’t need any more evidence than what happened on Jan. 6 to agree with this.” He gets closer to an important truth than ever before, which, ironically, he fails to recognize.
His statement about democratic vigilance is as right as his analysis of the January 6 riot is wrong. Yes, democracy requires struggle, constant stewardship from citizens. But January 6 is not a lapse in democracy. It’s a product of a long history of white supremacy that coexists alongside democracy. What needs to happen to achieve democracy is an end to white supremacy. Relatedly, as I argue in Against Civility: The Hidden Racism in Our Obsession with Civility, once you have true democracy, white supremacy is less likely to flourish.
Based on Sorkin’s writing career, his vision of democratic participation is one where people debate both sides of an issue, listen and learn from one another, go out to vote every couple of years, and read newspapers to stay informed. But is a lack of these things what led to the January 6 riot? Definitely not. More people voted than ever before in 2020. During the Trump presidency, media outlets were bending over backwards to hear both sides. No, what happened on January 6 was a continuation of a long history in which many white people feel like democracy belongs to them.
So the way you prevent January 6 from ever happening again isn’t through more civics classes, but a reimagination of democracy in which racism is excised and full socioeconomic equality achieved for people of color. What’s especially remarkable is that this idea is literally buried in Sorkin’s movie. Sorkin pays little attention to the antiracist democratic vision of one of attendees at the trial, the Black revolutionary Bobby Seale, who, in 1966, cofounded the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense in Oakland, California. Seale was gagged in the courtroom and beaten by police during the trail, and he is silenced in Sorkin’s film. He’s never given full texture and is reduced to a peripheral character. But Seale wasn’t peripheral in Oakland. He, along with Huey Newton in the 1960s, not only denounced the deep link between racism and American democracy; he also organized a democratic experiment, which Sorkin might benefit from studying. The Panthers put into place free breakfast programs, provided affordable health, gave out loans, set up childcare centers, and free shoes to the poor. This is what democracy looks like in action. Not listening to both sides or voting but working to end racism and being part of grassroots community action that addresses socioeconomic inequality.
If Sorkin had studied Bobby Seale, he would perhaps recognize that January 6 was not an embarrassing moment in which Americans took their eye of the ball. He would understand that, regretfully, it was a central part of how racism has coopted democracy. At the same time, if Sorkin were serious about democracy, he would know you can’t have full participation without ending socioeconomic inequality. As with much of his writing, Sorkin gets the feeling mostly right, but the interpretation wrong. Democracy requires vigilance. But what we need is not the democracy Sorkin has in mind.
About the Author
Alex Zamalin is the director of the African American Studies Program and an assistant professor of political science at the University of Detroit Mercy. He is the author of numerous books, including, most recently, Antiracism: An Introduction. His areas of expertise include African American political thought, American politics, and political theory. Zamalin’s essays and reviews have appeared in various edited book collections and in peer-reviewed journals such as New Political Science, Contemporary Political Theory, Political Theory, and Women’s Studies Quarterly.