Possibility of a Jan. 6 redux shows bleakness of American politics

Thursday marks a day of reckoning in America. One year ago, rioters protesting the 2020 presidential election stormed the U.S. Capitol.

Donald Trump was impeached 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 bear for the attacks on Congress.

A recent poll showed over 90% of registered Democrats and 70% of Independents believed Trump was (partly) responsible for this insurgency. Fewer than 30% of registered Republicans agreed. This disparity is one more symptom of the intractable political divides separating the nation. Fortunately, no polls so far record the level of bitterness, resentment and hostility one party has for the other.

Can a Jan. 6 happen again — and in how much political danger is the nation and its democracy? A spate of columns and reports have sounded the alarm about how the political system is being manipulated to negate the ballot box, reversing elections that do not go in one party’s favor. Other polls report that 1 in 3 Americans approve of using force against the federal government under certain circumstances.

Unfortunately, as I argue in The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became the Looming Existential Danger, manipulating the outcome of elections can be constitutional and legal. And those believing force may be used against the government have a very powerful legitimizing case.

The 12th Amendment determines how presidents and vice presidents are elected, modified by the Electoral Count Act of 1887 and the Presidential Succession Act of 1947. Clearly, it is the Electoral College and not the popular vote that elects the president. How could a candidate who lost the popular and the Electoral College vote win? The answer is to change state election laws in order to select electors who can reverse the state’s popular vote. In this case, the intent is to deadlock the Electoral College.

Then the 12th Amendment directs that the House will determine the president. But the House vote is not by each member but by each state having one vote. Twenty-six elect the president. In the last two Congresses, Democrats held the overall majority of representatives; Republicans controlled a majority of states — more than 26. Thus, by bypassing the Electoral College in this scenario, a Republican could be elected president even though by popular vote he or she should have lost in the Electoral College.

About using force against the government, the Declaration of Independence is relevant. Perhaps the most trenchant line in that great document reads: “When government becomes destructive, it is the right of the people to alter and abolish it and establish a new one.” Suppose the Jan. 6 rioters used the Declaration of Independence as prima facie evidence to justify their actions? How would that argument have been received?

Societies collapse when civility is replaced by anger, hatred and disrespect and where those who are not on my side are against me. That is the nature of American politics today. The Internet and social media are littered with examples and serve as echo chambers for this mutual anger. Rational and honest exchanges of views are growing exceedingly rare.

“Truth and fact” are disappearing, replaced by what one believes, not by what one knows. Can a republic thrive and even survive under these circumstances? With Omicron raging and uncertainty as to how or when it might be contained, the physical health of the republic is also at grave risk.

The broader issue is the viability of the U.S. Constitution and the system of checks and balances. Barring the very unlikely prospect of one party controlling both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue with filibuster and veto-proof majorities and at least five Supreme Court votes, the only way this system functions is if one of three criteria exists: consensus, compromise or crisis. And instead of uniting the nation, the COVID-19 pandemic has further divided it.

What can be done? The depressing answer may be very little. Unless or until both political parties come to the realization that when unchecked pursuit of power dominates governing, the nation is in harm’s way. 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 afraid, unwilling or incapable of crossing the aisle to break this deadlock that imperils America and its government. Bleak does not adequately describe American politics today.

Harlan Ullman is senior adviser at Washington’s Atlantic Council, the prime 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 World at Large.”

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

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