One of the best weekends of the year lies just ahead: The weather looks good, unlike some of those wintertime holidays. Lakes and mountains beckon. There’s food to be grilled, fireworks to be shot off. And baseball! Lots of baseball! The Salem Red Sox will visit the Lynchburg Hillcats in a matchup of our two minor league teams. For those in other places, there are high-quality collegiate summer leagues: At some point this weekend, the Bluefield Ridge Runners, the Bristol State Liners, the Danville Otterbots and the Pulaski River Turtles of the Appalachian League will all be at home. The Martinsville Mustangs of the Coastal Plain League will be home on July 4. I plan to be at a Covington Lumberjacks game; they play in the Valley Baseball League. Is there nothing finer than Fourth of July weekend, as long as the weather holds and the potato salad doesn’t go bad?
Now, here’s a more worrisome question than the prospect of botulism: How much longer can this country that we celebrate this weekend hold together?
We often hear politicians refer to “the American experiment.” That’s not just a rhetorical device. We often forget that our form of democracy isn’t guaranteed. Laws and constitutions are merely pieces of paper; what matters is that we as a society willingly adhere to them, even when we might disagree with whoever is in office at the moment. We see no better evidence of this than the events of Jan. 6, 2021, which are now being revisited – in sometimes horrifying detail – by a congressional committee.
I hate to sound like a Cassandra but I’m hardly the only one. “Is America heading for civil war?” the Financial Times asked a month ago. “With the end of Roe, the U.S. edges closer to civil war,” the Guardian headlined. Our neighbors are worried about us: “America’s flirting with another civil war,” said The Toronto Star. We ourselves seem worried: “Majority of Republicans believe U.S. headed toward civil war: Poll,” wrote The Washington Times.
On the one hand, all these prophecies of doom seem far-fetched when I’m at the store buying hot dogs. Are the people next to me in line really prepared to take up arms to shoot me? (Umm, maybe if I take the last pack …) On the other hand, Jan. 6.
Cardinal’s Markus Schmidt reported earlier this week on some of the political reaction to the hearings. The congressmen who represent the three districts that cover all or parts of Southwest and Southside – Bob Good in the 5th, Ben Cline in the 6th, Morgan Griffith in the 9th – didn’t want to talk. As someone who has covered politics for a long time, I understand the short-term political wisdom of staying silent. Why say something and risk offending somebody, especially all the Donald Trump adherents in the Republican Party?
On the other hand, I have to wonder why they don’t see the same danger signs that I do and aren’t willing to speak against them. It sure looks like what was happening on Jan. 6 was that a sitting president of the United States was prepared to lead an armed mob to the U.S. Capitol to disrupt a vote certification that was going to go against him. That sure seems like a coup attempt to me. Americans not yet born are indebted to Vice President Mike Pence for having the spine to resist efforts to go along with this dangerous foolishness. I used to think that Dick Cheney was our most consequential vice president (with the exceptions of the ones who suddenly ascended to the presidency upon the death or resignation of the chief executive). Now it seems that status belongs to Pence. It would sure be nice if our members of Congress weren’t so silent on what seems to have been a close call with an attempted coup. Good grief, we even have Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser, taking the Fifth when asked whether he believes the violence on Jan. 6 was justified, and whether he believes in a peaceful transition of power. This seems like something from a bad spy novel – or some banana republic. Is this really the United States? Unfortunately, yes it is.
I know Griffith and Cline (the former better than the latter). I’ve found them to be good, decent people. I might disagree with them from time to time on policy, but I like to think that we still live in a society where we can disagree in an agreeable manner. I have a hard time believing that either of them has anything but disgust about many of the things they’ve heard out of the hearings – the plots about fake electors, the flirtation with violence. (I omit Good because I’ve never met him.) On the other hand, their silence is worrying. Since I can’t believe they condone what was going on, I have to believe that they simply hope all this will blow over. But will it?
When the Francisco Franco dictatorship in Spain gave way to a nascent democracy, there was a general agreement in Spanish society not to revisit the past – to let bygones be bygones, however painful some things were. So this seems like that. And it’s generally worked for Spain, which today has a robust democracy (even if there are some who sure wish there had been prosecutions of some former Franco officials). Spain moved on, with only one real attempt to reimpose a dictatorship (the failed 1981 coup attempt known in Spain as F23, because it happened on Feb. 23). It’s very unclear whether those who took part in the violence – or looked on approvingly – on Jan. 6 have learned their lesson. By not denouncing Trump’s machinations to hold onto power, are our members of Congress unwittingly making it possible for even worse things to happen in the future? I would like to see our members of Congress channel the spirit of Caldwell Butler, the 6th District’s Republican congressman in the 1970s. As a freshman member of Congress in 1974, he did one of the bravest things a politician can do: He stood up to a president of his own party. “For years, we Republicans have campaigned against corruption and misconduct … by the other party,” he famously declared. “But Watergate is our shame.”
I want to parse my words carefully. Cline and Griffith were among those who signed onto the lawsuit in 2020 that contested the election – a lawsuit that the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear. The court cited the plaintiffs’ lack of standing, although I suspect that if the justices had really wanted to get involved, they would have found a way to hear it. In any case, at the time Cline issued a statement objecting to certifying the results on the grounds that the Constitution gives state legislatures the power to set the rules on choosing electors but, because of the pandemic, “rules and procedures established by the state legislatures were deliberately changed by a number of individuals, including governors, secretaries of state, elections officials, judges, and private parties.” This is an interesting procedural question, but it seems hard to divorce this high-minded procedural question from everything else that was going on – especially now that we have a better sense of what was happening behind the scenes in the White House.
Do our members of Congress have any regrets? By questioning the process, did our members of Congress help, in some indirect way, to embolden the mob that eventually chanted “hang Mike Pence” and stormed the U.S. Capitol? Republicans are big on individual responsibility, much more so than Democrats. Do our members of Congress feel any responsibility, however indirectly, for what happened? Or do they believe their actions had no effect on the people who stormed the Capitol? Do our members of Congress feel they were, in any way, taken advantage of – that they were asking what they felt were proper, legitimate, technical questions, while Trump was busy whipping up the mob? What do they think would have happened to the country if they had succeeded, and some election results were set aside to enable the losing candidate to win? The answer “we’d be in a better shape policywise” is not an acceptable answer, because of course Republican politicians would prefer a Republican president, but that evades the bigger question about the fragility of democracy. On Jan. 6, it was a right-wing mob that stormed the Capitol. There’s nothing, absolutely nothing, preventing some left-wing mob from doing the same in response. We have no way of knowing what would have happened if Trump had succeeded, but do we think Democrats would have just said, “Oh, OK, carry on”? Or would something much worse have happened? Then where would we be? Our democracy rests entirely on the willingness of each party to let the other party take power. We seem to have some close, dangerously close, to a very dark place where that doesn’t automatically happen – and I see nothing to prevent this from happening again. It would be nice – maybe even wise – if our members of Congress said something to cool down what seems a volatile situation. Or do they see no danger at all?
Here’s the danger I see: I see a country that is already pulling apart in unhealthy ways. We’ve always had our political divisions – those aren’t simply natural, they’re essential to a democracy. But increasingly we see Americans self-segregating politically. Author Bill Bishop calls this “The Big Sort” (the title of a book he wrote about it). In 1973, when Virginia had a very close gubernatorial election, there were only four localities where one candidate or the other (Mills Godwin or Henry Howell) polled 70% or more of the vote. There were no localities where anyone polled 80%. In 1989, when we had another close gubernatorial election, there were only three localities where one candidate or the other (Doug Wilder or Marshall Coleman) topped 70% and none in the 80% range. Last fall, when we had another close election, there were 35 localities in the 70% range and another 16 localities where one candidate or another topped 80% – and not always in the low 80s, either. We’ve gone from three hyper-polarized localities in 1989 to 51 in 2021. This isn’t gerrymandering; this is just the reality of how divided we are.
Those percentages might be very comforting for, say, a Democrat in Petersburg (84.8%) or a Republican in Lee County (87.6%), but I’m not sure that’s healthy for society. In fact, I’m pretty sure it’s not. We are increasingly living in two different countries, which makes it harder for each side to understand the other – the members of the other party, whichever side you think is the other party, seem more and more foreign to our way of life. And in a way they are: All those one-sided districts enable the election of candidates either further left or further right. Call me old-fashioned, but I’d rather see a bunch of 50/50 districts where neither side can venture too far from the center if they hope to win.
I’ve spent a lot of time here writing about the right-wing violence on Jan. 6, but I’m just as concerned about the potential for left-wing violence. The poll that the conservative Washington Times cited was conducted by a group often seen as part of the left — the Southern Poverty Law Center. It found that 44% of young Democratic men were open the idea of assassinations; young Republican women were next at 40%. This seems alarming. In a democracy, the proper answer to that question should be 0%. We have two sides, each trying to impose its moral code on the nation at large – where one side sees liberty, the other sees oppression. Neither side is willing to admit that the other might have a point. I’ve seen people on Facebook who object to the recent Supreme Court decision on abortion posting the home addresses of the justices who voted in the majority. For what purpose? So people can protest outside their houses? The people making those posts would disagree, but that doesn’t seem very far from Jan. 6 to me – it’s the implied threat of force. Do those people think it would be OK if conservative protesters showed up at the home of some liberal judges to harangue them over some decision they might object to? (Thought experiment: What if climate change deniers harrassed the 4th Circuit federal appeals court judges who have held up the Mountain Valley Pipeline? I don’t think the left would like that very much, nor should they). We’ve seen people vandalize a faith-based pregnancy center in Lynchburg. Why? How does vandalizing that center help the cause of those who believe in abortion rights? Leave the justices alone. Leave the pregnancy centers alone. If you don’t like the court’s decision, try to elect more politicians who feel the way you do. Yes, you may feel the system is rigged – our political system gives the same weight to California as it does to Wyoming – but you either play by the rules, however unfair they are, or you step outside the law. Once you do that, you’re in Jan. 6 territory yourself. It’s only a matter of degree.
That recent Supreme Court decision returns decisions on abortion to the states, some of which have already banned the procedure, others of which will, while some (such as California) are prepared to write abortion rights into their state constitutions. Some see that court decision as a conservative one but it may actually be the middle ground of what’s possible. Pence says he’d like to see a national ban on abortion, and it’s not hard to picture a future Republican Congress and a future Republican president doing just that. I’m not here to litigate the wisdom or morality of that but I will lay out one possible political scenario: What do we think happens in states such as California if and when that happens? I don’t think it takes much imagination to see them resisting. We’ve long thought of states’ rights as a conservative vehicle but there’s nothing to stop liberals from driving that vehicle. Texas Republicans made the news a few weeks ago when they adopted a platform talking favorably about secession. I can see California Democrats someday doing the same thing. What’s the West Coast equivalent of Fort Sumter? I’m not wise enough to know the best way to broker these deeply held differences which can not really be brokered; all I know is I’m worried that one side or another is inadvertently going to push this country past the breaking point. We won’t like the fireworks we see then.
I sure hope I’m wrong. I hope someday someone reads these words and holds them up as one of those absurd predictions that never came anywhere close to being true. But I worry that everything in our current political system – one-sided districts, a social media echo chamber, politically segregated news media – all enable and amplify the loudest and most extreme voices in our society. That’s why I’d like to see some good, quiet people – and I’d put Cline and Griffith in that category – speak up in ways that help pull us back from the brink we seem to be hurtling toward. Perhaps this Fourth of July weekend, when forecasters are expecting meteorological temperatures in the 90s, we should all do some thinking about how we can turn down the nation’s political temperature.