Our Best Stuff From the First Week of a Brand New Year
The anniversary of January 6, reforming the Electoral Count Act, and more.
Happy Sunday, and Happy New Year. This might seem like a weird thing to say while it’s 17 degrees here in Ohio, but can we talk for a moment about cooling down the temperature?
In remarks on Wednesday, Vice President Kamala Harris compared January 6 to two other notable dates in history: December 7 and September 11. On the one hand … yes, it’s a date that has been seared into the memory of most Americans. Just as hearing “September 11” makes one’s mind fill instantly with images of the burning World Trade Center towers, “January 6” will likely always bring to mind a sea of Trump flags on the grounds of the Capitol and the violent mob pushing its way into the building. On the other hand … Pearl Harbor and the 9/11 attacks each killed thousands of people and led directly to war. Those days united Americans against horrific outside threats. But January 6 was a warning sign of just how divided we are, and the only kind of war that it can lead to is a civil war.
I wish Harris had been a little more judicious in her comments (and left out a plug to pass an unnecessary election reform bill), but even I don’t think that was an analogy she was trying to make. But while we’re on the topic …
The notion that we could be facing a national breakup has moved into the mainstream discourse. In his review of Stephen Marche’s The Next Civil War, the Washington Post’s Carlos Lozado writes, “There is a horrifying yet normalizing quality to such discussions. The more often cable news chyrons, think tank analyses, political rhetoric and nonfiction works elevate the discussion of a new civil war, the more inevitable such an outcome may seem, and the more fatalistic the public may feel.” At the New York Times, Michelle Goldberg discussed Marche’s book and another new entry in the genre, Barbara Walter’s How Civil Wars Start. She writes: “I agree … it’s absurd to treat civil war as a foregone conclusion, but that it now seems distinctly possible is still pretty bad. The fact that speculation about civil war has moved from the crankish fringes into the mainstream is itself a sign of civic crisis, an indication of how broken our country is.”
The Marche and Walther books were released this month for the obvious reason that they were bound to get attention around the anniversary of January 6. They are the newest books on the topic, but hardly the first. As most of you know, David published Divided We Fall in September 2020. It’s safe to say that there are many topics on which I disagree with Michelle Goldberg, a committed progressive, but I think she nails it when she says that the speculation has moved into the mainstream is a civic crisis.
And I don’t have any solutions that are wiser than any of those authors. But I do think it’s imperative on all of us to take what small actions we can as individuals. I was dismayed when I shared Harvest’s article about being at the Capitol on January 6 (summarized below) on The Dispatch Facebook page that some who saw it reacted with the “laughing” emoji reaction. When I shared it on my own page, an acquaintance responded with some nonsense whataboutism about the violence that resulted from the 2020 George Floyd protests. It would be nice if people could resist those temptations.
But when they don’t, we need to consider how we react. I find myself tempted to cut people off when they demonstrate such ill will. But what does that help? That just pushes them further into their bubble.
One disturbing trend I witnessed this fall was the “Trumpification” of school board elections—in our own district, a neighboring district, and in others around the country. It’s less that these candidates were supporters of the former president than that they adopted the tone of his divisive and incendiary rhetoric. It’s imperative that we pay attention too and participate in our local elections and not focus all of our attention on the neverending presidential campaigning.
What else can we do? We can consider our media consumption: Watch less cable news, and read more responsible journalism. Find sources from “the other side” that are thoughtful, even if you disagree. Even better—take a break from the news. Put down the phone, close the laptop, and get outside. Talk to your neighbors on the sidewalk (maybe not when it’s 17 degrees) instead of yelling at them on Twitter. Focus your dinner party conversations on culture or common interests, not politics.
I realize that might seem like odd advice to give right before I invite you to check out our best work from the week. But that’s why we send this as an email. It’s here for you when you want it, and you can always come back to it. Thanks as always for reading.
We didn’t yet have the privilege of knowing Harvest Prude a year ago, as she was working at World magazine at the time. On January 6, she was in the House press gallery covering the certification of the Electoral College votes when the violence broke out, and she shared her story for Dispatch readers this week. She watched as rioters broke the glass windows of doors, and as security rushed to evacuate lawmakers. She heard gunshots and learned later that was the moment that police killed Ashli Babbitt, who’d been trying to break into the speaker’s lobby. Her account is harrowing. “When I walked out of the Capitol that night, it was dark and deserted except for crews of National Guardsmen standing around,” she writes. “I remember wondering why they hadn’t come sooner. But I also wondered what it said about our country that they needed to come at all.”
Until January 6, we were able to take for granted the peaceful transfer of power from an outgoing presidential administration to an incoming one. Even the most contentious election in our lifetimes, the 2000 race between George W. Bush and Al Gore, was resolved peacefully. And Gore, as president of the Senate, proceeded over the certification of the vote that made his rival president of the United States. But when you read David’s French Press (🔐) from this week, you can be forgiven for marveling that we haven’t encountered any problems for almost 150 years. The Electoral Count Act was passed in 1887, a delayed response to the disputed 1876 election between Rutherford B. Hayes and Samuel Tilden. Its language is convoluted and confusing—David excerpts a single paragraph that is more than 800 words long and features a 183-word sentence. The Electoral Count Act was the (flimsy) basis on which Donald Trump and his allies made their case to try to steal the election. David discusses how it was exploited by such figures as Peter Navarro, Steve Bannon, and John Eastman. He argues that reforming the act is an easy way to avoid another January 6. “Even if reform is so modest that it merely clarifies the vice president’s role and significantly raises the threshold for election objections, it will go a long way toward avoiding the spectacle we witnessed on January 6. It should take more than Paul Gosar and Ted Cruz to launch a congressional debate.”
I’ll admit, I was a little nervous when this piece landed in my inbox. Paul D. Miller argues that the most accurate way to describe January 6 is not to call it riot or even insurrection. It was terrorism. That’s bound to anger many, especially those who believe that it was “mostly peaceful” or argue that only a small minority of those who marched to the Capitol actually entered the building. But Miller makes a sober and dispassionate case, one that is hard to argue with: “Terrorism is, under U.S. law, ‘the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.’ There is no question the January 6 attack, in which hundreds of people violently broke into the Capitol building to stop Congress from certifying the presidential election, fits that definition.”
In an interview with Haley, Rep. Liz Cheney shares her experience of being at the Capitol on January 6 and discusses what the last year has been like (spoiler alert: not easy). It’s an enlightening, though somewhat depressing conversation. Cheney spends a good amount of time talking about the devolution of the response to the events by so many GOP lawmakers: “I believed that President Trump was presenting a danger to the nation,” she tells Haley. “And I think that we were unified as a party, if not 100 percent, but the vast majority of Republicans. If you go back and look at what many of my colleagues, almost all of them were saying, in the immediate aftermath of the attack, it was clear that this was the kind of line that can't be crossed if you believe in our constitutional system. And it's dangerous for the country and it's dangerous for our party that people seem now to have lost their courage. They seem to be willing to minimize and whitewash what happened.”
We did cover a few other topics this week. Here you go:
As part of our expanded politics coverage for the new year, Chris Stirewalt will be sending out Stirwaltisms every Thursday. Look forward to a more lighthearted take on politics, and get ready to have some fun. This week he looks at Nancy Pelosi’s political future and the garbage fire that is the Ohio GOP Senate primary, among other topics.
I don’t share editions of the Morning Dispatch (🔐) here enough, but our entry on the school closure debate is especially good. Even with pressure from the Biden administration and Democratic mayors in blue cities to keep schools open, a number of major urban districts shifted to remote learning in response to the Omicron-fueled spike in COVID cases.
The threat of a Russian invasion of Ukraine is real. But it is not a certainty, David J. Kramer writes. He responds to suggestions from some experts that Vladimir Putin has backed himself into a corner, arguing that by placing blame on the West and assuring his followers that Russia is “winning” that Putin has left himself some wiggle room to back out without disgrace.
In his Friday G-File, Jonah expresses amusement that some Democrats are debating whether it’s better to describe the ginormous Build Back Better bill as “transformative” or “transformational.” The problem, he writes, is not with language but with the desire to implement a huge program when most Americans just want lawmakers to stick to the basics.
On the pods: There’s plenty of legal talk on Advisory Opinions, but you’ll get a kick out of hearing David talk about rescuing a goat on Christmas Eve. On The Dispatch Podcast, the gang had a lively debate about January 6 and Nancy Pelosi’s handling of everything that followed. On The Remnant, Jonah and Dispatch contributor Christian Schneider talk about staying sane in an age of disinformation. And on Good Faith, David and Curtis Chang ask a big question: Is America a Christian nation?