By Ambassador (ret.) Richard Swett and Hon. Christopher Shays
Tom Lantos, the only Holocaust survivor elected to Congress was one of the most proudly patriotic Americans ever to serve our nation. He would often remind us, “The veneer of civilization is paper thin. We are its guardians, and we can never rest.” These words from a man who had escaped from slave labor camps and worked in the Hungarian anti-Nazi underground had powerful resonance with his colleagues and reminded us never to take our democracy for granted.
It was hard not to think of Tom’s admonition on January 6th as we watched a mob break into our nation’s Capitol leaving in their wake death, destruction and heartbreaking concern about the fraying fabric of American society and the strength of our democracy.
This was not the first time our Capitol had been attacked and ransacked. Back in 1814 the British burned the Capitol during the War of 1812. But this was the first time American citizens did such harm to the “People’s House” and the democratic process we hold so dear. It was shocking to witness but not entirely surprising.
It was a longtime in coming. The profound erosion of common ground and good will has been building for decades, and January 6th felt like it had finally reached a breaking point.
There are many causes and explanations for the painful divide that now separates our country, but one key component has been the evisceration of the political and social center. The poet W.B. Yeats famously wrote “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world … the best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
What does this mean in more pragmatic and less poetic terms? There used to be a bridge between the political parties. These were the much-maligned moderates – serious problem solvers who proceeded from the basic assumption that their political opponents were good people. Though they might disagree, it was worth trying to work together.
Gradually, voices of comity and cooperation have been driven out of their respective parties. Ideological extremism and relentless “purity tests” have created a new class of the politically homeless, and it includes not just politicians but tens of millions of ordinary Americans.
There have been plenty of reckless “surgeons” who have been part of the bloody process of carving out the middle, some might say the heart, of our political community. Irresponsible social media platforms that have encouraged the “worst” to vent all their “passionate intensity”, single-minded special interest groups, narrowing political parties, increasingly partisan and mistrusted media – all these forces have played a role. They have done our nation unbelievable harm.
The “sensible center” played a vital role in helping hold our country together. Its near destruction has left in its wake a cadre of far right and far left voices that don’t speak for most Americans but are pretty effective at drowning the rest of us out.
The consequences of this trend are real. Most Americans are hungry for common sense solutions, but as they have watched their urgent concerns sidelined and derailed by ideological fights in Washington, they have understandably grown more alienated and angrier.
This groundswell of resentment and disgust reached tsunami-like proportions in the election of 2016, and the result was the election of someone profoundly unfit and ill-suited to be President. Trump’s unwillingness to accept the lawful results of our recent election and his incitement of the mob to march on the Capitol led directly to the terrible events of January 6th. Those that sought to disrupt and overthrow our democratic institutions, and those that sought to inflame them and motivate their actions, must be held accountable and severely punished.
But, where do we go from here? There are so many urgent needs in our country: first, bringing under control the coronavirus pandemic; addressing long-standing racial injustice which has been a struggle and a stain on our nation from the beginning; rebuilding a resilient and optimistic middle class and addressing the moral shame of gross income inequality made even more evident in the wake of a devastating pandemic; grappling with our grave environmental challenges in a way that is serious and substantive without being apocalyptic; and enacting fair immigration reform. The solutions for every single one of these problems will be found in the middle or they won’t be found at all.
When we saw the mobs rampaging through the halls of “The People’s House” we were all outraged and saddened but also had to ask ourselves, what have we done to protect the “thin veneer of our country’s civilization”? Have we been vigilant guardians of America’s well-being? We can and must do better.
Following the war of 1812 there was, for a time, a period known as the Era of Good Feelings when the Democratic Republicans and Federalists decided it was better to work together than to fight each other. The shock of seeing their seat of government burned by a foreign adversary led Americans to put aside the bitter partisanship and try and regain a sense of national purpose and unity.
May this second terrible attack on our Capitol likewise lead to a new era of national unity and greater respect for our fellow citizens across the political spectrum. Perhaps this era can be called “The Era of Goodwill and Cooperation” one in which we believe in the basic decency and patriotism of each other and are willing to work for it together.
Richard Swett, a Democrat, is a retired U.S. ambassador and former member of Congress from New Hampshire’s 2nd District. He is the author of “Leadership by Design: Creating an Architecture of Trust.” Swett, an architect, lives in Bow.
Christopher Shays, a Republican, held elected office for 34 years, first as a state representative in Connecticut from 1974 to 1987, then as a member of Congress 21 years. He currently lives in St. Michaels, Md.