Compare and Contrast: Two January Sixths

Two years after an insurrectionary attempt to block an elected President from taking office, America is watching a fully legal attempt to block a duly chosen majority leader from becoming Speaker of the House of Representatives.  

First, which can’t be emphasized enough, the 2021 attempt was treasonous, except that the Constitution defines “treason” to exist only in war, so we say “insurrection.”  This year’s blockage, however it may end, is fully legal.  Its actors are duly elected – they don’t include the legislator who fabricated his resume – and apparently enjoy the support of their constituents.   

Second, it is incorrect to cite the right-wing political impulse behind the two.  The left has shown its versions, in “police free zones” in numerous cities, and, not irrelevant, in the bombings and violence of the Weathermen in the sixties.  What’s common across all of these is not “whose side” is moving from frustration to violence, but the nature of the frustration.

Short of violence, we see – again on both sides of our politico-cultural trench lines, intransigent, strident, overbearing blockages of actions or expressions of government or opinion.  In the House, 20 Republicans are humiliating a would-be Speaker.  The votes for him seem to decrease as he makes concessions.  On campuses, identity interests suppress expressions that do not toe the lines of ‘woke’ dicta.  Rigorous scholars are denied a chance even to be heard. 

The activists are part of the problem.   They certainly include sociopathic and narcissistic individuals in key roles (pick your favorite cases on the other side then acknowledge the ones on yours, if you have partisan allegiances).  But the activists have their backers and those backers have their reasons for backing them.  And universities have the authority to set rules of discourse in their domains and House representatives have the right to vote against a speaker.  The activists are symptom, not cause.

These things are happening in a polity where freedom of speech is sacrosanct and elections are formally open and administratively fair.  The activists, and their backers, add up only to a minority, exercising rights and authorities our liberal society ensures for each of us and for the sake of all of us.  So the question becomes – how do these people gain enough backing to do this?

One answer is that the “mainstream” operatives, the “moderate” politicians and the institutional managers, are proving pusillanimous.  Kevin McCarthy is (as of noon on the Sixth) still making concessions.  Prosecutors stop prosecuting and college deans stop disciplining.  Moderates quit politics and leave party caucuses and committees to the activists.  Managers and administrators ‘stick it out’ until they can retire.  

Another answer is that a divided polity is, eventually, run by the extremists.  As McCarthy makes concessions to his radicals, he increases their power, and their appetite for more.  As progressives denounce racist police officers, they fail to resist the defunding of police.  “Moderate” or “center” are defined not as representing anything pro-active, but not being fully committed to what are treated as the defining identities of our society.  

One more answer is that a lot of people are “mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.”  Reasons will vary and reflect wrongs from the profound to the trivial.  But life becomes more and more filled with forms to fill out, enervating rules and fees and costs (try to park a car in a city), institutions treating us by pre-ordained categories, and demands posing as services.  And our politicians “fight” for us for their own ends, subject to their polarized party lines.  If you don’t particularly need anything, it’s tolerable but as more and more face real frustrations, the  “mainstream middle” shrinks and everyone’s room for complacency shrinks.

So, nothing works well, no one cares or tries, and self-righteous or narcissistic activists dominate public discourse.  The strongest convictions in our public environment are bent on destroying it.  Without a Speaker the House might fail to address the debt ceiling – and that failure is just an extension of now-routine failures to get spending and revenues in line.  Public order is breaking down in our cities and anyone who wants to be a cop is suspect.  For lack of common conviction in anything, we may prove that a society of individual rights cannot sustain itself.

Of course politics and public affairs in a society of rights will be messy, and this nation’s politics have more often been raucous and unruly than not.  Maybe things are finally getting beyond what we will tolerate.  At least one DA who would not prosecute crimes has been ousted.  A lot of election-deniers lost their electoral bids in 2022.  And the openly flaunted dysfunction of the House – not just of 20 intransigents but of Republicans denouncing them for helping the Democrats and Democrats using the episode to deride Republicans – may move some gelling up of a consensus for the whole.

Would some “moderates” propose, say, an alternate Speaker, even as a provisional measure?  Would voters upend the polarized political status quo in 2024?  Will the House get through this circus and then get serious about governing, in some fashion?  The best thing about today’s standoff is that raucousness breeds new enterprises, political, commercial, cultural and intellectual.  As dysfunction becomes all too obvious, there will be opportunities for those who can help things work.  It will be messy and disorderly, but if disorder breeds invention, that is the idea behind a society of rights, and government of, by and for the people.  Maybe next January Sixth will be better.

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