A recent Washington Post poll has some 34 percent of U.S. adults saying that “violent action” against the government is “sometimes justified.” If more than a third of “adults” are willing to hold such a view, it is not difficult to imagine how an even greater percentage think it is okay to ignore laws and norms that don’t require putting up one’s fists or worse.
In preparation to moderating an event in late December featuring Diana Schaub’s new book, His Greatest Speeches: How Lincoln Moved the Nation, I re-read the three speeches featured in the volume: the Lyceum Address, the Gettysburg Address, and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. The Lyceum Address, in which Lincoln discusses the challenges of perpetuating America’s governing institutions, is particularly apt for thinking about the meaning of January 6.
Lincoln’s argument, prefiguring the famous line from Pogo that “We have met the enemy and he is us,” was that the danger of sustaining the experiment in American self-government would not be some conquering foreign power, but instead “would spring up amongst us.” “If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher.” Lincoln then goes on to describe several instances of mob violence that he said had been plaguing the whole of the nation.
Lincoln’s answer to this problem is a “reverence for the laws” so deeply held that it becomes “the political religion of the nation.” How deeply? Deeply enough to moderate American individualism and its propensity to resist any restraint. Let it, Lincoln said,be breathed by every American mother, to the lisping babe, that prattles on her lap—let it be taught in schools, in seminaries, and in colleges; let it be written in Primers, spelling books, and in Almanacs; let it be preached from the pulpit, proclaimed in legislative halls, and enforced in courts of justice.Needless to say, that is a far cry from the state of U.S. civic education today, in which STEM dominates school curriculums and where the Left emphasizes activism as the key to producing model citizens, while the Right focuses on testing that often only requires a bare minimum of knowledge of U.S. government processes.
The very fact that, according to a new Wall Street Journal poll, two-thirds of Republicans—“the law and order party”—don’t see what happened at the Capitol on January 6 as an attack on the government is remarkable. No less remarkable is the continuing silence from virtually all the Republican leadership in describing the events of that day for what they were. Failing to call the insurrection out for what it was—an assault on the constitutional order itself—and hoping that it will just fade away as a memory implicitly legitimates what occurred then and does next to nothing to head off future mobs from pursuing the same course.