The Journal Gazette
Sunday, January 10, 2021 1:00 am

In the wake of Wednesday ...

Roots of insurrection are deeply planted in our history; we must tend to them together

Michael Wolf

The siege of the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday leaves Americans with thorny questions of how one branch of government could have weaponized supporters to attack another branch of government.

Our country's party polarization has hampered our policy-making process for years, and now it's stressing our electoral institutions, constitutional processes and political norms.

Political scientists have wrestled with the causes and consequences of party polarization for years but still have an incomplete story on the relative responsibility the public and political leaders bear for the divisions that encouraged last week's ugliness.

Some well-respected political scientists peg responsibility for our divided polity on political leaders.

Morris Fiorina and colleagues argue that ideologically extreme political leaders and activists have shifted parties to the extreme at the expense of a moderate citizenry.

Other political scientists such as Alan Abramowitz argue that partisans have divided ideologically and are uninterested in moderation.

So how do we avoid events like last week's riot? Political leaders created an Electoral College certification mess, but criticizing current leaders alone is hollow because it suggests that past politicians must have been more virtuous, or that leaders could solve our problems over barbecues and cocktails.

It also submits that Americans search for another Roosevelt, Kennedy or Reagan who would have the magnetism or deal-making skills to get us out of this rut.

This lacks political context and fails to acknowledge that current leaders face a different electorate.

How the public divided

Through most of the 1960s, conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans brokered policy deals by consensus.

Both parties avoided internal divisions by ignoring racial, gender and environmental issues.

Postwar generations drove these issues onto the agenda in the 1960s, which eventually shifted the South toward Republicans and the coasts toward Democrats.

Further, the issues that have driven the political debate in recent decades, like violent crime, abortion, the threat of terrorism, the war in Iraq, gay marriage, immigration, gun rights, etc., compounded unresolved racial, gender and environmental issues, just as cable news and social media accommodated citizens' preference for one-sided information.

Now, citizens' lifestyle preferences on vehicles, music, community type and even kids' names overlap with their party beliefs.

A critical mass of Republicans now view social change as a threat to the American way of life, while most Democrats view change as vital for a more equal society.

According to Marc Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler, these contending worldviews mean that the other party's positions threaten your way of life.

President Donald Trump masterfully mobilized voters on these issues, but he did not create these divides and they will not depart with him.

So what can the public do?

Sen. Ben Sasse's speech Wednesday night detailed how we need to rebuild community for the sake of our democracy.

The Nebraska Republican is right.

Research shows that community engagement builds interpersonal trust that can soften contending values. In particular, when we discuss politics with acquaintances with whom we disagree, it increases political empathy and knowledge and cushions against spiraling incivility.

This is hard to do when we can unfriend people, dodge events with extended family who think differently, and avoid eye contact with neighbors with the wrong signs in their yards, but this saps the trust that drives healthy society and polity.

The responsibility of leaders

As distressing as the Capitol siege was, it is not our first insurrection. Shays' Rebellion helped trigger the Constitutional Convention and provided the context for Thomas Jefferson's frequently quoted “tree of liberty” letter. Jefferson appreciated the benefits to liberty that occasional rebellious passions may provide, but he notes that they are often based on misperception that could have been addressed by leaders.

“The remedy,” he argued, “is to set them right as to facts, pardon and pacify them.”

Unfortunately, too many political leaders play on a divided public's passions for short-term political gain rather than setting the facts right. The tree of liberty was not refreshed last week. Instead, defenders of the Electoral College exploited its process for their own purpose, which injured its constitutional role and encouraged its future misuse.

In the same vein, those contemplating removing Trump with the 25th Amendment, which was designed to deal with the succession of an incapacitated president, should consider whether employing it would provide a precedent for future ambitious politicians to remove healthy presidents rather than employing the more constitutionally relevant impeachment process.

Michael Wolf is a professor of political science at Purdue University Fort Wayne.

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