Jimmy Carter fears for our democracy. In a New York Times op-ed, Carter comes loaded with facts, not the platitudes and frankly stupid comparisons that our current president and vice president made in their official remarks. It’s a remarkable piece, and I think you should take the five minutes to read the whole thing.
When you’re done, join me back here, and let’s see if we can test Carter’s assertions.
Carter offers facts, and a stark point: after the events of last January 6th, there “followed a brief hope that the insurrection would shock the nation into addressing the toxic polarization that threatens our democracy.” Did you get that? It’s not the “insurrection” that threatens us, it’s the polarization.
I used quotes around “insurrection” to note the facts that not one single person of the 700-plus who have been arrested in relation to the riot has been charged with insurrection, sedition, treason, conspiracy to overthrow the government, and like charges. Not one person was killed by the mob (the police officer who died did not perish as a result of the mob action). As insurrections go, the Capitol mob was much less a violent affair than, the Dorr Rebellion or the takeover of the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry.
Glenn Greenwald paints these facts quite well against the “orgy of psychodrama” we are experiencing. President Joe Biden, in his speech, compared the events of last January to the Civil War (something we’ve heard too many times). “Those who stormed this Capitol and those who instigated and incited and those who called on them to do so held a dagger at the throat of America and American democracy,” Biden said. He spent most of his speech defending his 2020 election win. Biden is fighting the wrong battle here. Whoever really believes the 2020 election was stolen isn’t listening to him, and everyone else already agrees.
Vice President Kamala Harris was even more melodramatic. “Dates that occupy not only a place on our calendars but a place in our collective memory: Dec. 7, 1941, Sept. 11, 2001 and Jan. 6, 2021.” As if November 23, 1963, January 28, 1986, and February 1, 2003 weren’t tragic or important in the least. The point of Biden’s and Harris’s speech was to weaponize the truth, tying all Republicans to January 6th, comparing them to terrorists, and enemy nations fixed on attacking America militarily. It was pure campaign fodder.
On the other hand, former President Carter cited actual polls on what people believe. He accused the Republican Party of “relentless disinformation, which continues to turn Americans against Americans.” He cited the Washington Post poll that showed around 40 percent of Republicans think violent action against the government is sometimes justified.
The problem is, political violence is incompatible with a constitutional republic like ours. It cannot be tolerated. The Washington Post came out with a poll recently showing 34 percent of Americans now believe that violence against the government can be justified under certain circumstances, a sharp increase from earlier polls that asked the same question.
It should be 100 percent. Americans schooled in the Declaration of Independence should know about the right of revolution: that a free people have the right — a duty, even — to revolt against a tyrannical regime and establish a new political order, waging a war of revolution if need be. Under conditions of tyranny, of course violence against the government is justified. But that’s probably not what those 34 percent meant.
Short of revolution, political violence in a free society should be absolutely forbidden. When it arises, it should be crushed by overwhelming force. That’s what should have happened on Jan. 6, and also what should have happened in cities across the country in the months leading up to it.
Of course, we all still have questions from January 6th about why the Capitol was left to thinly defended when a wave of ten thousand rally goers was expected to crash upon its steps. Whatever January 6th was, it was definitely a battle of the logistically incompetent against the logistically incompetent. Only the brave actions of Capitol police officers and other federal agents saved what could have been a bloodbath. Under no circumstances would the mob had been allowed to enter the House or Senate chambers. They would have been mowed down. Maybe Trump was waiting for that to happen, so he could declare an emergency. I don’t know what was in his decrepit mind at that point.
The main issue here is that polarization, and the literal perception of the same event yielding diametrically different narratives depending on the political orientation of the hearer, is what’s endangering democracy.
I mean, look at this poll.
Republicans have chosen to oppose Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and former Vice President Mike Pence than to drop their support for Donald Trump. This is the one fact that’s keeping Republicans in office scared. They don’t want to tap into that root of Trumpism and lose their own elections.
President Carter noted his own brush with ballot stuffing in 1962. He got his election results overturned by a judge and won. The Carter Center supports election integrity around the world, he noted. “I led dozens of election observation missions in Africa, Latin America and Asia, starting with Panama in 1989, where I put a simple question to administrators: ‘Are you honest officials or thieves?’”
I think we know the answer, and that’s why I believe Carter’s fear is more than justified. We have fallen under the thrall of thieves.
Carter offers four points to counter this, though it takes the electorate to do them. Freeing ourselves from spell of polarizing narratives and thieves is going to be a tough exercise. As long as our politicians are scared of voters who only see the world through the carefully crafted propaganda lenses they choose to wear, and thieves infect the airwaves, social media, and politics, we are moving in the wrong direction.
The threat to democracy is that one side will increasingly use the power of the state to suppress the other side’s thieves, while empowering their own. As we swing from authoritarian plans to “nuclear” legislative power plays, each pass of the pendulum cuts more of our democracy and therefore our freedoms. Then one side decides to use political violence to push back, beginning the cycle all over.
The grim news: Jimmy Carter’s fears pass the test. We are going the wrong direction.
Follow Steve on Twitter @stevengberman.
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