Just a couple of short weeks after a mob assaulted the U.S. Capitol while the Senate convened to certify the presidential election, Alex Keyssar turned the events into a lesson plan. The course “Understanding What Happened on January 6” is an attempt by a historian, who has specialized in understanding social movements and democracy, to get beyond the deluge of daily headlines toward a fuller grasp of that historic moment. We caught up with Keyssar, the Matthew W. Stirling, Jr. Professor of History and Social Policy at Harvard Kennedy School, midway through the semester, as he and his class of two dozen students pick their way through the debris of that day and attempt to give it perspective and context.
Q: What gave you the idea to stand up a class so quickly after the event?
What grabbed me first was that this was an important and compelling event, which revealed key dimensions of the state of American politics. It was evident that the event had captured the attention of a lot of people, including a lot of students. And I was aware that once you started looking at it, the event appeared to be larger than what happened on just that one day. So, I wanted to see if we could get past the initial journalistic responses and thought it would be interesting to have a class of students really trying to zero in on what led up to it and how to explain it, to see whether we could get some broader, more accurate, and fuller understanding of these events.
I have some experience as a historian working with the history of social movements and the history of popular events. And one of the things which any historian knows about these episodes or developments is that interpretations of them are revised over time. People find new data or different records, so that our understanding of even the most fundamental questions, like who was there and what was their purpose, shifts over time. I was interested in seeing whether something similar would happen even over the course of three or four months as we looked at these materials.
And then of course, there's the fact that I'm a historian and I think about change over time; I think about chronology and how one thing leads to another. So, what was also in my mind was whether I could help students and help myself by looking at events in the past while we're doing this contemporary exploration.
Q: The events were searing for many in this country and across the world. How are your students approaching it?
I'm impressed by how open-minded they are, by the diversity of perspectives, and the willingness to stretch in different directions. When we discussed who was there at the actual event, there was a first instinct to say, well, the Proud Boys, the Boogaloo Boys, etc. But you need to go further and start asking questions like, well, how old were they? What was their gender? Where were they from? What are the significant characteristics of the groups they belong to? I sense an openness to new approaches and new facts. And I have to be open too. You know, if I'm teaching a course on the New Deal, at this point I've been teaching about the New Deal for decades and I don't want to say I'm close-minded on the subject, but I have fairly strong opinions. In this case, I don't have answers to a lot of the questions that I'm asking. We're doing it together.
Q: You’re looking at something in real time. But as a historian how will you infuse history into this class?
One way to do that is to look at significant historical precedents, both in the United States and abroad. For example, they're going to be reading about the events that unfolded in Wilmington, North Carolina, in the late 19th century, events that are often referred to as the one successful coup d’etat in this country’s history. There’s also interesting work done about the white power movement among returning Vietnam War veterans. There are numerous parallels to be found. But then the question becomes, what do we do with parallels and antecedents? You know, that's nice, but how do we understand their meaning?
Q: You’ve written books on both the Electoral College and the United States’ fraught history of voting rights, and it seems as if both those issues are bound up in the events of January 6.
Yes, they are. Over the last number of months, we witnessed, or experienced, many of the problematic features of the Electoral College, including the fact that the person who gets the most votes might not win the election. I think the broad public also saw – almost for the first time – the procedural complexity of this system and the fact that there are so many junctures at which the laws are murky or only preserved by norms. What was it, for example, that Congress was supposed to do on January 6? Were they simply supposed to open the envelopes and count them? Were they supposed to judge the legitimacy of the state returns? We’ve seen that numerous procedural ambiguities in the system can open the door to manipulation and conflict.
Then too, as you know, many of the legal fights were about who was really entitled to vote. So many of my longstanding interests converged in this historical moment. It's a remarkable thing that the right to vote in the United States is still very, very contested terrain. Even now, since the inauguration, there have been more than 160 pieces of legislation filed in state legislatures to try to make it harder for people to vote by 2022.
Q: What is your hope for this class?
I hope that students will have had a really engaging intellectual experience. I hope that we all will have learned things by May that we did not know in January, that our understandings will be different. I also hope that we will have learned something about how to analyze contemporary events, how to probe beneath the surface, how to contextualize the present, how to deepen our thinking. As an additional concrete product, we are putting together, as we go, a kind of bibliography or archive of all the sources that we've found; that archive may be of value to future students and researchers.
Banner image: Supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump breeched security and entered the U.S. Capitol's rotunda on January 6, 2021, in Washington, D.C. Photo by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
Inline image: Trump supporters hold "Stop The Steal" rally In Washington, D.C. amid ratification of the U.S. presidential election. Photo by Brent Stirton/Getty Images
Faculty portrait by Martha Stewart