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Reviving Civility in America through Comic Books: An Interview with Alan Jenkins

Image via Harvard Law School

Alan Jenkins is a Professor of Practice at Harvard Law School, teaching courses on race and the law, communication, and Supreme Court jurisprudence. He has previously served as the President and Co-Founder of The Opportunity Agenda, Assistant to the Solicitor General at the Department of Justice, Director of Human Rights at the Ford Foundation, Assistant Counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and clerked for Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun. His latest project is 1/6: The Graphic Novel, a series of comic books based in an alternate history where the rioters at the Capitol on January 6, 2021, succeeded in taking control of the government. Issue 1 is already out, and Issue 2 is set to release in the coming weeks. Both are available for purchase at or on Amazon. 

Michael Citarella: What made the first issue of 1/6: The Graphic Novel so unique personally is that I have read a lot of speculative fiction before, but none about events I lived through. Why did you decide that right now is the time to write this type of story about the attack on the Capitol? 

Alan Jenkins: As you would imagine, we started writing it probably a year and a half after, or even a year after, the events of January 6, 2021. The idea came to me almost immediately because I was waking up at 4:00 AM worrying about our democracy, worrying that so many of the dynamics that led to the insurrection were still with us. The authoritarianism, the disinformation, the antisemitism, the white supremacy that fueled a lot of the rioters, and the attacks on everyday officials were part of the strong-arming of election workers by the Trump campaign. I wanted to do something to ring an alarm bell for everyday people. I’m a law professor. I could have written a law review article, and it would’ve been read by a small number of academics, but I’m also a comic book head from childhood. A comic book seemed like a better way to reach a broad audience, including some people who perhaps love our democracy but have not had the time to focus on the threats to our democracy.

MC: Was the choice of a graphic novel also partly to try and reach more youth voters? 

AJ: Absolutely. One of the powerful things about comic books is that if you are 80 years old in the United States, you grew up around comic books, and if you’re eight years old, you’re growing up around comic books. Superhero comic books and manga are having a moment. Our book is neither of those things, but we knew that we could reach not only young voters but also older folks who remember our tradition of democratic institutions and equal justice as something important to what our nation should stand for.

MC: On the series’s Kickstarter page, the description of the project says that “importantly, our story also offers both heroes and hope for a better world and a vision of how we can get there.” What is your vision for how America moves forward after the attack on the Capitol? 

AJ: Part of that vision is activism, and this is something that readers will see in future issues, that everyday people have to come together and support our democracy and push back against bigotry. There are a bunch of ways that we can do that. But first, people who can vote need to vote, and they need to vote for democracy. It’s not a partisan message. It’s simply saying that voters need to ask their elected officials, whether at the local level, the state level, or the national level, where they stand on the pillars of democracy and truth, and they need to vote with those values in mind. They need to show up and make their voices heard about why this matters. I think there are important roles for people to play as election monitors and election workers and those who can run for office or volunteer in positions that are key to protecting our democracy.

In addition, one of the most powerful factors that fueled the insurrection was hate. We need to assert our values of equal dignity and the idea that we’re all created with equal rights, that no matter what we look like, where we come from, what our accent may be, or who we love, we’re all part of the American family. When we forget that, very bad things happen. Everyday folks need to make sure, in schools, in libraries, and in their faith traditions, that we are reminding people young and old about this principle.

MC: On that idea of hate, a recent Pew Research Center poll found that 72 percent of Republicans and 63 percent of Democrats view the other party as immoral. How do we bridge this divide to fully come together and support democracy? 

AJ: Popular culture is one of the ways that we can bridge the ideological divide, which is one of the reasons why we chose to write a comic book. People engage with popular culture for entertainment and are often willing to put down their shields against people they disagree with. Comic books are vehicles for empathy, and if they’re done well—which is entertaining and not preaching—they can cause people to listen and learn. When you look at the characters in our comic book series, they’re quite diverse. Not just demographically, but ideologically. We have a MAGA voter who we treat with empathy in the storytelling, we have a congressional staffer, we have a first responder, an ER nurse, and a reporter—all people who have been kind of vilified. We seek to understand them. Our book has a point of view. We believe that the insurrection was a profound attack on our democratic values and the values of equality, but we also think it’s very important for us to work to understand each other.

In my day job as a law professor, one of the things I try to tell my students is that empathy is our superpower as advocates. You cannot persuade someone you don’t seek to understand. Both for practical reasons and for moral reasons, we need to remember that we’re all human beings striving to survive in difficult times.

MC: It seems to be that the one thing that Americans agree on is that we have very little faith in our government, especially in the current functioning of Congress. They’re seeing their lowest approval ratings in decades. How has the deterioration of government institutions impacted partisanship, and how has C-SPAN live streaming our government impacted our representative democracy? 

AJ: To start with your second question, transparency is very important in a democracy. We’re gifted to live in an era where we can have that kind of democracy. That was not true 50 years ago. I think watching your city council meeting—if you can’t go in person—online or on public-access television is important because it reminds us that participating in our democratic processes and decision-making matters. These are just everyday people in these positions, and they can be us. All of us can participate not only as voters but as candidates and government officials.

To the first part of your question about the breakdown of government, yeah, the extreme partisanship that we see and the inability to get things done certainly up the frustration of everyday people that the government’s core function—coming together to solve tough problems that no one individual or company or nonprofit organization can solve—is often not being achieved by our current government. That contributes to cynicism, it contributes to anger. That doesn’t mean that frustration has to lead to storming the Capitol, however, and that’s something that was driven by former President Trump and our many elected leaders.

Let’s channel that frustration and anger toward positivity, toward people demanding practical solutions for their government, toward people running on common sense principles and democratic values on voting in that way. The good news is that that frustration can also drive us to demand better.

MC: At the end of your first issue, there’s a little teaser page for future editions, including many illustrations of tweets that President Trump sent out on that day. Those tweets shortly led to his banning on what was known as Twitter at the time. Was X (formerly known as Twitter) right to ban Trump? Should we allow social media companies to ban whoever they wish when it has essentially become the new public forum? 

AJ: I think that social media companies ought to be preventing the obviously identifiable spread of misinformation, meaning lies, especially when those lies are likely to incite violence and physical attacks on our government and further falsehoods. So I think that’s appropriate. It requires an infrastructure, meaning it should be done on an issue-neutral, ideas-neutral basis. Whether you are a Democrat, Republican, or Independent, whatever the topic is, we shouldn’t be asking if President Trump should be banned but if statements that are both false and harmful should be banned. The First Amendment does not protect false and harmful statements, especially in that context. The First Amendment covers government, not private companies. I do think that social media companies have a role to play in ensuring that their platforms don’t become a toxic soup of harmful falsehoods. Unfortunately, in the case of X, they have disassembled that infrastructure. And we heard from the Facebook whistleblower, Francis Haugen, that Facebook also has fallen asleep on the job with tragic consequences, not only in the United States but around the world.

MC: Is there any legal recourse for our nation to reform social media and help with keeping track of who’s saying hateful things and banning them when they do? 

AJ: I do think that there is an opportunity to regulate social media. We need to be very careful about that because there is a tendency of the government to suppress ideas with which they disagree. The First Amendment does protect that, and it should. I do think that there is room, and there always has been since the founding of our nation, to regulate speech that can incite violence. There is, as I noted, less protection and sometimes no protection for false and harmful—especially intentionally false and harmful—statements. Also, we have the problem of social media algorithms, which often have biases and often tend to lead viewers and readers to the most extreme and often false and harmful positions. There is room to regulate that. But again, I think it has to be done very carefully with lots of attention to the rights of everyone to speak truthfully, to convey their opinions, and especially to criticize the government.

MC: Shifting to more traditional forms of media, lawyers for Fox News have admitted that Tucker Carlson should not be taken seriously by a reasonable person. CNN allowed Chris Cuomo to cover his own brother’s sexual harassment scandal. Private media seems to have a monopoly over the news. As a contributor to public radio yourself, how can we reform news media in a way that promotes more civil discourse? 

AJ: As news consumers, we can choose what we’re going to listen to, what we contribute to, and the feedback that we give. Major news organizations have ombudspersons to whom we can complain; we can call into shows. I think as consumers, we can vote with our ears and our eyes, if you will, by what we choose. I think it’s also incumbent upon news media outlets to make responsible choices. One of the things that distinguishes professional media from everyday citizen communication is that they have a set of ethics that they’re supposed to follow. When they diverge from that, they need to right the ship. If they don’t, we as consumers need to make other choices and do the extra work that it requires to ask tough questions.

MC: Earlier, you mentioned that voting is one of the essential ways to help prevent another January 6, but America historically has pretty low turnout rates compared to the rest of the democratic world. Are there ways in which we could help boost voter turnout besides just “get out to vote” drives?

AJ: Yeah, I think the first thing that we can do is to make voting easier for everyone qualified to vote, and that means removing rather than inserting barriers for qualified people to vote. In the years since January 6, many states have erected dozens and dozens of policies to make it more difficult for people to vote rather than easier. In the years since Section Four of the Voting Rights Act was struck down by the Supreme Court, many of the states where we have historically seen the most voting rights violations against people of color have inserted lots and lots more obstacles to voting because they can.

The first step needs to be to reverse that trend. Congress should adopt a new version of the Voting Rights Act. They should adopt the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. States should be making it easier to vote, as some are. In addition to that, we should be using technology to make it easier for people to vote. I’m not necessarily suggesting people should vote through their computer but rather that we can use social media and other vehicles to encourage people to vote, to make sure they can get the information that they need to cast their vote in an educated way, as easily as possible. There are lots of things we can do, but we need to start by reversing the trend of making it more difficult to vote.

MC: If it were possible in America today, would you consider supporting a similar program as Australia has with mandatory voting? 

AJ: I would say, let’s make it as easy as possible for people who want to vote to vote. Let’s work as a society to convince everyone that it’s in their best interest to vote. I think that mandatory voting schemes in the United States would get a lot of pushback and might have some adverse effects. I don’t think it’s something we should rule out, but I think there are lots of things short of mandatory voting that we can and should be doing first.

MC: A lot of that, I feel, comes down to civic education among the youth and how early on people are taught about the value of their vote. In my town, I’ve seen Moms for Liberty try to ban books, gain spots on boards of education, and restrict people’s access to certain types of learning. How do we fight back against this trend of anti-intellectualism and people attacking education in America as a whole? 

AJ: We need to make sure that we are participating to uphold our values of truth, equality, and democratic principles. To your point, the attacks on librarians and the attempts to ban books are profoundly undemocratic and very harmful to young and old alike. There are a lot of things we can do. One is to support our librarians, to show up, and to let them know that we would like to see the full range of ideas represented in school and public libraries, even with those we disagree with. Running for local offices like a school board is very important. We can’t cede that to people who would engage in censorship. We need to stay on top of what’s happening in our communities, show up at town hall meetings, Board of Education meetings, and other public forums, and make our voices heard. We need to go back to the principles of free speech and the First Amendment that more information, when it’s accurate, is always going to be better than suppressing information and ideas with which one might disagree.

MC: Finally, I have a question that I find myself and others getting asked a lot since the January 6 attack. Are you optimistic about America’s ability to come back from our current hyperpolarized and divisive state? 

AJ: I am optimistic, cautiously optimistic. I think that we’re at an inflection point as a nation, and I think we have the opportunity to right the ship, and many of us are working to right the ship. We’ve seen it happen before when the United States turned away from McCarthyism, which also included book banning and demonizing people with whom we disagreed. We’ve seen it with the Reconstruction era after the Civil War and then again during the Civil Rights movement. We know we’re capable of it as a people. We know some of the things we need, which include activism, better communication, and people of goodwill running for office. But I’m only cautiously optimistic because we also can have a short memory as a nation and often have to relearn from the same mistakes over and over again. So I’m hopeful.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.