Melissa Harris-Perry: You're listening to The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. The January 6th attack on the US Capitol one year ago was shocking, but not unprecedented. Indeed progress and backlash punctuated by political violence has characterized critical moments in American history. Preserving Democracy: Pursuing a More Perfect Union is a new documentary from PBS and it chronicles this long history, starting with the revolutionary war and bringing viewers right up to the 2021 Capitol riot.
For more on the documentary, I spoke with Dana Roberson, Executive Producer of Preserving Democracy, and with Pulitzer Prize-winning author Dr. Marcia Chatelain, who's Professor of History and African American Studies at Georgetown University. Just as a side note, Dana Roberson is pretty much a legend here at The Takeaway. She's an alum of the show and there is no one who can say enough good things about her work. I started by asking her why the anniversary of the Capitol riot was a good time to explore the history of democracy in this country.
Dana Roberson: Any time is a valuable time to unpack the history of democracy. I tend to think if we had been doing it more regularly throughout the decades, perhaps we wouldn't be where we are a year from of events of last year. Through this documentary, we do reflect on the history both globally and nationally. You can tell by watching that this is a recurring theme [chuckles] that's happened over the centuries.
There's been progress and there's always been backlash to that progress. I think each time there's been improvement along the way, but it might just take a little bit longer to continue to improve before you have that next backlash.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Dr. Chatelain, I want to come to you on that sort of description of American history that we get there from Dana, this idea of sort of the moving forward, the doubling back, help us to think about how we think about both progress, change over time, but also those echoes from our history.
Dr. Marcia Chatelain: Well, I think this is one of the hardest things as an educator and as a historian to explain to the public. People like Blair Kelly and Nell Painter, and others are always reminding us that, yes, this may have the resonance, but the level of efficiency, the level of strategy in this moment of backlash may be stronger, it may be louder, it may be more violent, it may be less violent than the last time that happened. I think that this is why this documentary is so important so that we can see the strands.
One of the things I often say is that people talk about fake news and misinformation as being the product of the social media age, but if you look in the 1960s, there was lots of fake news about the civil rights movement. There was a lot of fake news about the student non-violent coordinating committee, but what we have now in the algorithms is the opportunity for people to form communities faster because of the big lies that they're believing in. I think that the thing that we are trying to always remind people is, watch out for the strands. If it starts to feel familiar, this is a moment where you really need to pay attention.
Melissa Harris-Perry: You did talk to one of the only two Republicans on the house committee that's investigating the January 6th attack on the Capitol. What did you learn in that particular conversation, and were you surprised by any of it?
Dana Roberson: I was surprised at Adam Kinsinger and Margaret Hoover, who's also in this documentary, did the interview with him. He walked her through that day. He was in his chamber and he walked her through how-- He was fearful and he was ready to defend himself. He had happened to bring his firearm into work with him that day and mentioned that he was prepared to use it. I was surprised by that.
I think a lot of people really have this false equivalency that it's one side versus the other so it's Republicans versus the Democrats, but everyone was fearful of their lives that day. That's where there was common ground in the uncertainty of knowing what was going to happen. I was pleasantly surprised to maybe understand that for at least a period of time there was some commonality and sentiment that was mutual across the aisle. People were afraid and they wanted to survive and they were not happy with what was happening.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Professor Chatelain, as we're thinking about that moment January 6th, and typically our conversations about it go only as far back as the four years of the Trump presidency, can you walk us through a longer landscape and maybe go back just by one presidency to the Obama presidency and the ways that the responses to the two terms of an Obama presidency also helped to lay the groundwork for this?
Dr. Marcia Chatelain: Because the years 2016 to 2020 felt like a million years, it's hard to remember sometimes that the rhetoric that immediately greeted President Obama was one about him not belonging to the state as a foreigner, that he had been engaged in all sorts of deceit. There was an obsession with his wife. There was all sorts of vile caricatures of the president and the first lady. It wasn't just regular political infighting, but it created the lexicon for the explicit and the veiled racist attacks on the president. It diminished in the eyes of a certain segment of the population the presidency at all.
You can go from this cherished institution that had been preserved by whiteness, a Black person gets it and now all hell breaks loose. In many ways, I think it's akin to the story that Isabel Wilkerson tells in The Warmth of Other Suns, where she says Black people would go up north for greater social freedoms. They drink in a bar and someone breaks the glass in front of them.
I think that what Trump did and what his supporters did and what happened on January 6th is they broke the glass in front of all of us and say, "We will preserve this until we think that it has been solid." Then the nihilism and the deep desire to destroy kicks in.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I am an unreconstructed optimist in the American project. I try not to be, but I grew up in Charlottesville, Virginia, and I could see Monticello from my window. Like I just I can't help it. I have to finish this interview by asking both of you, and Professor Chatelain, I'll start with you, if there is a strand of hope, if there is an aspect of optimism that we can hold onto?
Dr. Marcia Chatelain: For me, as someone who lives in Washington DC, has taught so many students who want to go into public service, I think that this moment is eye-opening and transformative, but I don't think it broke them because we know the importance of people standing up to this type of thing. I think we still have a lot of fight in us and so I think there's a lot of reasons to be hopeful.
Dana Roberson: I agree with everything that Marcia just said, and I also I'm an optimist. I try to be despite adversity and it's worked for me so far. I tend to believe that we can still be optimistic. It's going to be difficult. This is one of those ebbs and flows that happens. It has over time, time and time again and this country has survived. I believe in this country, I think everyone that lives here believes in this country, at least I hope so. I think we're survivors and we'll get through it, it's just going to take a lot of hard work.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Dana Roberson is the Executive Producer of Preserving Democracy: Pursuing a More Perfect Union and Dr. Marcia Chatelain is the Professor of History and African American Studies at Georgetown University. Dr. Chatelain, Dana, thanks for joining us.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.