The foundational principle of the American democratic republic is the rule of law. The framers of the Constitution were certain that their new government was based on this principle; they divided power so that neither the executive, the two branches of the legislature, nor an independent judiciary could ever be predominant over the others.
They staggered elections so presidents served four years, senators six, and representatives two. To ensure that judges would be independent, they decided they should serve “during good behavior,” as Article III states, that is, until they retired, resigned, died, or were impeached. Term limits did not exist for any of the other offices until 1951, when the states ratified the 22nd Amendment, stating presidents may serve only two terms.
This is all pure civics stuff, something every schoolchild should learn as part of their civics education. And it’s what all Americans must know to fulfill their obligations to be good, upstanding citizens. The reason is clear: the peaceful transfer of power from one presidential administration to the next. The same is true for members of the U.S. Congress when elections or re-elections are won or lost.
For nearly a year now, the House of Representatives’ Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol has been carrying out its charge: “to investigate and report upon the facts, circumstances, and causes relating to the January 6, 2021, domestic terrorist attack upon the United States Capitol Complex and relating to the interference with the peaceful transfer of power … as well as the influencing factors that fomented such an attack on American representative democracy while engaged in a constitutional process.”
To date, the select committee, which includes two Republicans, Liz Cheney (Wyo.) and Adam Kinzinger (Ill.), has shown how former President Donald J. Trump tried to overturn the 2020 presidential election through what it calls “the big lie:” that Joe Biden was not elected in 2020, because the election was stolen by fraud and rigging, despite the lack of evidence emerging to prove his assertion.
The ultimate outcome of the select committee’s work may, however, hit the “so what” level.
Its members seem to have little interest in persuading Americans that the American system of government is based on the rule of law, not men. They must do more to prevent another Capitol attack from ever happening again by devising a plan to avoid the rise of authoritarian leaders whose gullible followers accept their mendacity, leading to warring in the streets and even in the U.S. Capitol itself.
As New York Times conservative columnist David Brooks put it a few weeks ago, “the core problem is that there are millions of Americans who have three convictions: that the election was stolen, that violence is justified in order to rectify it, and that the rules and norms that hold our society together don’t matter.”
The select committee should understand this reality, and come up with solutions, perhaps along the lines that journalist George Packer recently identified in the Atlantic magazine: basically a massive effort in renewed civic education. “The point is not to abandon politics, but to pursue it wisely. Avoid language and postures that needlessly antagonize people with whom you disagree; distinguish between their legitimate and illegitimate views; take stock of their experiences. This, too, requires imagination. Finding shared ground wherever possible in pursuit of the common good is not most people’s favorite brand of politics. But it’s the politics we need for the emergency that’s staring us in the face, if only we will see it.”
Democrats and liberals who long opposed the Trump administration and its actions will be gratified by the select committee’s revelations. Some will claim that Trump himself should be charged with criminal conspiracy or the intent to defraud the American people.
Republicans and conservatives who are persuaded that Trump won the 2020 presidential election, despite the absolute lack of evidence that there was fraud and rigging, will ignore its findings. In February, the Republican National Committee passed a resolution condemning the two Republicans on the select committee, saying that its focus on those who attacked the Capitol was persecuting “ordinary citizens engaged in legitimate political protest.”
We need to renew our understanding of how the framers wanted the American government to be workable: not through violence and destruction, or the murder of officials with whom we disagree. We have to show ourselves and the world that the U.S. was built on the principle of the rule of law, and those who violate that principle face severe consequences.
Jack Fruchtman lives in Aquinnah. The second edition of his “American Constitutional History” was published in March.