When I was a young Democrat in the 1970s, a comment made the rounds that Gerald Ford couldn’t “walk and chew gum at the same time,” a way of saying that he couldn’t concentrate on two things at once. We thought it was an amusing bit of political humor.
Now that I am older, I see that comment as nasty and unfair, even though I might be saying that in self-defense as my own ability to concentrate weakens with age.
Nevertheless, it may be time for me and some of my fellow Democrats to look again at a current situation that is calling us to do two things at once.
The public hearings conducted by the House January 6th committee are now underway, and all major networks but Fox are televising them. They paint a grim and shocking picture of a deliberate attempt by an armed right-wing mob to overthrow our government by unconstitutionally nullifying the victory of Joe Biden and stealing the 2020 election for Donald Trump.
Republicans call the hearings “a spectacle” to dismiss them. But they are indeed spectacular in how they reveal the carefully planned effort by family, friends, and employees of the Trump administration to keep Trump in the presidency illegally.
This would have ended our democratic republic by changing the presidency from an elective office to one that could be seized by anyone powerful enough to do so. Even Republican leaders like Kevin McCarthy and Mitch McConnell were disturbed by this at first, but they soon were saying the attack on the Capitol and calls to “hang Mike Pence” were not treason but “legitimate political discourse.”
Democrats — and most Americans — have remained upset by this attempted coup. Books with scary titles like Democracy in Chains and How Democracies Die and How Democracy Ends (all published in 2018) warned about the dangers posed by Donald Trump’s behavior well before the January 6 insurrection. This year, scholar Barbara F. Walter published How Civil Wars Start, looking at the roots of the political violence that still surrounds us.
My favorite Republican, David Brooks, referred to the Walter book in his June 8 New York Times column. He did so, however, in a piece entitled “The Jan. 6 Committee Has Already Blown It.”
His argument is that if the House Committee’s goals in having the hearings was to influence the mid-term elections this fall by proving that Trump was trying to overthrow the government, they are sadly misguided.
We don’t need to discuss “the minutiae of who texted what to chief of staff Mark Meadows on Jan. 6.” This will mean nothing to Trump supporters. “This is a movement, not a conspiracy,” Brooks pointed out. We don’t need to harp about a Republican conspiracy, but rather we need to understand the reasons why “the Republican Party, like the Polish Law and Justice Party or the Turkish Justice and Development Party, has become a predatory semi-democratic faction.”
He added that “we need a committee to look at how conditions in America compare to conditions in countries around the world that have already seen their democracies slide into autocracy and violence.”
I agree with Brooks that deeper social and political issues underlie the Jan 6 coup attempt, but I disagree with him that the House Committee’s description of the history of this event is mistaken. We have to understand as clearly as possible what actually happened before we can find and address the roots of the problem. That will take time. Brooks thinks the members of this committee “are not gripped by the reality” of the deeper root causes of our political violence and our political instability.
That is not necessarily true. House Committee members are detailing for Americans the factual causes of the coup attempt. This does not mean that they don’t see the reality of the background issues.
“We need a committee that will focus not on the specific actions of this or that individual but on the broad social conditions that threaten to bring American democracy to its knees,” Brooks concluded.
No, David, we need both.
We need to walk and chew gum at the same time.
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