Thursday marks judgment day in America. A year ago, rioters protesting the 2020 presidential election stormed the United States Capitol.
Donald Trump was dismissed for fomenting the insurgency and then acquitted by the Senate. In its deliberations, the Jan. 6 congressional select committee will likely determine whether the former president broke any laws and what responsibility he may take in the attacks on Congress.
A recent poll showed that over 90% of registered Democrats and 70% of Independents believed Trump was (partly) responsible for this insurgency. Less than 30% of registered Republicans agreed. This disparity is yet another symptom of the intractable political divisions that separate the nation. Fortunately, no poll to date records the level of bitterness, resentment and hostility one side has for the other.
Can January 6 happen again – and what is the political danger to the nation and its democracy? A series of columns and reports have sounded the alarm bells about how the political system is being manipulated to overturn the ballot boxes, overturning elections that do not go in favor of a party. Other polls report that one in three Americans approve of the use of force against the federal government in certain circumstances.
Unfortunately, as I state in The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: How Massive Disruption Attacks Became the Looming Existential Danger, manipulating the outcome of elections can be constitutional and legal. And those who believe that force can be used against the government have a very powerful legitimizing argument.
The 12th Amendment determines the method of electing presidents and vice-presidents, amended by the Electoral Count Act of 1887 and the Presidential Succession Act of 1947. Obviously, it is the Electoral College and not the popular vote that elects the president. How could a candidate who lost the popular vote and the Electoral College vote win? The answer is to change the state’s electoral laws to select voters who can reverse the state’s popular vote. In this case, the intention is to block the Electoral College.
Then the 12th Amendment directs the House to determine the Speaker. But the vote in the House is not by each member but by each state having a vote. Twenty-six elect the president. During the last two congresses, the Democrats held the overall majority of representatives; Republicans controlled a majority of states – over 26. So by bypassing the Electoral College in this scenario, a Republican could be elected president even though by popular vote he should have lost in the Electoral College.
Regarding the use of force against the government, the Declaration of Independence is relevant. Perhaps the sharpest line of this great document reads: “When the government becomes destructive, the people have the right to modify and abolish it and to establish a new one.” Suppose the January 6 rioters used the Declaration of Independence as prima facie case to justify their actions? How would this argument have been received?
Societies collapse when civility is replaced by anger, hatred and disrespect and when those who are not on my side are against me. This is the nature of American politics today. The Internet and social networks are full of examples and serve as echo chambers for this mutual anger. Rational and honest exchanges of views are increasingly rare.
“The truth and the facts” disappear, replaced by what we believe, not by what we know. Can a republic prosper and even survive under these circumstances? With Omicron’s rage and uncertainty as to how and when to contain him, the physical health of the republic is also in serious jeopardy.
The larger issue is the viability of the US Constitution and the system of checks and balances. Except for the highly unlikely prospect that one party will control both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue with obstruction and veto majorities and at least five Supreme Court votes, the only way this system will work is if the one of the three criteria exists: consensus, compromise or crisis. And instead of uniting the nation, the COVID-19 pandemic has divided it even more.
What can be done? The depressing response may be very little. Unless or until both political parties realize that when the uncontrolled pursuit of power dominates governance, the nation is in danger. And who or what will change this condition?
In 1974, Republicans, realizing that Richard Nixon had to resign for breaking the law, confronted the president. But today, Republicans and Democrats seem scared, reluctant, or unable to cross the aisle to break this deadlock that endangers America and its government. Bleak does not adequately describe American politics today.
Harlan Ullman is Senior Advisor to the Atlantic Council in Washington, principal author of “shock and awe” and author of the upcoming book “The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became the Looming Existential Danger to a Divided Nation and the The world in general. “
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.