The greatest threat to American democracy has always been self-destruction. This remains true, as the events of January 6, 2021, showed. We saw what happens when a democracy becomes chronically deficient in public judgment: a high-quality state of public opinion that demonstrates thoughtfulness, awareness of tradeoffs, and the acceptance of responsibility for the consequences of its viewpoint.
We would like to believe that our friends, family, and neighbors are reasonable. It is only the “fringe” that is deficient in public judgment, right?
At first, the characters who assaulted the Capitol looked as if they came from central casting. There was Jake Angeli, the so-called QAnon Shaman, a conspiracy theorist who wore a fur headdress with horns, face paint, and no shirt. There was the man resting a Confederate Flag on his shoulder, photographed beneath a portrait of the abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner, who was nearly caned to death in the Senate for criticizing slaveholders.
Perhaps their participation in mob violence should not surprise us. Far more concerning is that well-educated, accomplished people were also among the mob. If even the most educated among us cannot distinguish fact from fiction and professional journalism from conspiracy theory, public judgment is in critical condition.
Brad Rukstales, CEO of the marketing analytics firm Cogensia until his arrest last week, called storming the capitol his “single worst personal decision.” He resembles people you may know — a neighbor, a business partner, or maybe a speaker you saw during a tech conference. Maybe two years ago, you read Rukstales’ interview in a prominent marketing technology blog.
Rukstales, who holds an MBA from the University of Michigan, began his career as a statistician. In other words, he has a specialized skillset for distinguishing truth from falsehood. Rukstales had served, among others, brands such Applebee’s, CenturyLink, Red Lobster, and ADT.
Does a statistician with a master’s degree sound like the type to raid the U.S. Capitol on a whim? Years of business experience and an advanced degree did not save Rukstales from succumbing to misinformation.
How about Dr. Tammy Towers Parry, a family medicine practitioner from Seattle, ostensibly trained in the scientific method and evidence-based thinking. Whereas Rukstales regretted his actions, Dr. Parry gloated about storming the Capitol in a video where she holds a QAnon flag. “It’s the least we can do,” she said. “So God Bless America. Joe Biden did not win. He’s hopefully going to prison.”
How about the lawmaker Derrick Evans. A real estate investor and property manager and former Democratic political candidate, Evans was recently elected as a Republican state delegate in West Virginia. He stormed the Capitol and was arrested afterwards.
And there’s Ashli Babbit, who courageously served in the U.S. Air Force for 14 years, with tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan. She was shot dead by Capitol police with a Trump flag around her neck. She had embraced QAnon and conspiracy theories about the election being stolen. Her military training did not protect her from misinformation.
Well-educated people joined in the mob violence without any plan. Had they taken control of the Capitol or held lawmaker’s hostage, what would they have done next?
An education didn’t innoculate these individuals against lies propagated by their peers, pundits, platforms, and political leaders. That is a tragedy decades in the making. It reflects a severe deficit of public judgment.
While it would be comforting to blame this event on fringe extremists wearing fur headdresses, we cannot. Members of the mob do resemble our friends, family, and neighbors.
Again, the greatest threat to American democracy is self-destruction, and nothing is more self-destructive than an absence of public judgment. Without it, our society cannot withstand its homebrew of polarization, bitterness, and conspiracy theories. It will misinform itself to death.
Is it too late for education, science, and journalism to do anything about the vitriol spreading from Parler and 8kun to Newsmax and One America News Network to YouTube and Facebook to Signal and Telegram? Free speech should not be free of responsibility. Facebook and Twitter have a right to ban an account that violates their terms of service, even if that account belongs to a sitting President. Parler and Gab, on the other hand, have no checks in place to prevent themselves from becoming an organizational tool for the next violent mob.
In most countries, those who attempt coups, revolutions, insurrections, and acts of terrorism are highly organized. They train and plan, as we learned in the wake of 9/11. If the Capitol mob had been better organized, would we be watching a hostage crisis days later? Who else would have perished? Although individual members of the mob brought firearms, explosives, and molotov cocktails, they seemed to act on an individual agenda rather than in concert with others. That could change with the aid of Parler, Gab, and likeminded networks.
If, however, our politicians exercise leadership, perhaps this democracy won’t self-destruct. Perhaps we can revive public judgment. So, here is my message to our political leaders who fomented or abided the mob.
This democracy doesn’t serve you and your political career. Does the word public servant mean anything to you? Your fear of President Trump and greed for the power of political office have become liabilities for this democracy. Although President Trump bears the most responsibility, the mob would not have descended on the Capitol unless its members believed they could change the outcome of an allegedly “fraudulent” election. Rather than challenge the mob, too many of you validated its misbeliefs. You know who you are.
Enough is enough.
Stop appearing on hyper-partisan, conspiratorial news media that makes information like French fries: cheap and tasty but deadly in the long term. Rather, defend the independence, ethics, and credibility of professional journalists.
Stop demonizing experts, educators, and members of the academy. Rather, champion their efforts to teach critical thinking, to build a nation of healthy skeptics, and to instill respect for the sciences, arts, and humanities.
Stop enabling President Trump’s worst tendencies for fear of him supporting a primary challenger when you stand for election next. Rather, learn from your colleague Senator Romney. Grow a spine, grow a conscience, and learn how to use both. Democrats who’ve excused and shielded Antifa ought to learn from Senator Romney as well. You’re not off the hook.
It is not too late for the U.S. to change course, but time is short, and public judgement cannot be enacted by policy or regulation.
Today, the Capitol stands, as do the legitimate results of the 2020 presidential election. Let’s not take either for granted. Self-destruction is the path of least resistance for a democracy. Self-government is rare and precious if, as Benjamin Franklin warned, you can keep it.