This is Civic Way’s commentary on the January 6th Capitol Coup and the nation’s need for accountability and healing. The author, Bob Melville, is the founder of Civic Way, a nonprofit dedicated to good government, and a management consultant with over 45 years of experience improving public agencies throughout the US.
Accountability—the cornerstone of trust—is the most vital of all social compacts. Without it, we do not grow. We are unlikely to find our better selves. We cannot teach our children well. It becomes virtually impossible to engage in everyday commerce. Without it, families, communities and civil societies are doomed to unravel and, ultimately, perish.
We learn early (and for some of us, often) that, as human beings, most of us are not only prone to mistakes, but miraculously capable of learning from those mistakes. Somewhere along our respective journeys, we absorb the life lesson that holding people accountable is more about the future than the past. If fortunate, we learn that, by being accountable, we can be inspired to improve—as parents, friends, workers, leaders and neighbors.
Accountability also is the foundation of good governance. This principle applies to any political system, but it is particularly true for a democratic republic. Sadly, too many of us have forgotten its meaning. Even in the US, the world’s oldest and—until January 6th—most admired democracy, we need constant reminders that good government cannot be sustained without accountability.
The shameful last days of this presidency have offered what some of us feared and none of us wanted—a graphic reminder of our democracy’s fragility. As our shock wears off, we must decide what, if anything, we should do, as citizens and leaders. As we deliberate those actions, we should set aside our anger and thirst for retribution, and focus instead on how genuine accountability can help us heal.
A Time for Healing or Growth?
In 1976, at the risk of losing what loomed as a tight race with his Democratic challenger, President Gerald Ford pardoned the disgraced Richard Nixon. That controversial decision probably cost Ford another term, but it also helped end what Ford called a long national nightmare and initiate a post-Watergate healing process the nation so desperately needed.
What many forget about Ford’s pardon is that it also conveyed an admission of guilt. Nixon understood that accepting the pardon was tantamount to a legal admission of guilt. In fact, Nixon initially was reluctant to accept the pardon because it carried the implication of this admission. It was only after Ford’s lawyer threatened to withdraw the pardon that Nixon accepted its terms. Such an admission was anathema to Nixon, but he also, at some level, grasped the need for national healing.
Some argue that a similar approach is needed today. That we should put this presidency—and the cynicism, lies and acrimony that culminated in the Capitol Hill assault—behind us as quickly as possible. That we should simply turn the page and move on. In the face of a global pandemic and a massive foreign attack on our computer networks, this argument has merit. However, when we consider the long-term benefits of accountability, another view—a more compelling view—emerges.
In addition to the tragedy of lost lives, the Capitol carnage was not merely an assault on a revered federal building, it was a challenge to our public institutions, constitutional norms and democracy itself. It was Charlottesville redux, Selma the Sequel and an aborted replay of the 1898 Wilmington North Carolina coup. It was a deliberately incited lynching of American ideals.
A sacred civic citadel breached. Confederate flags desecrating its halls. Private sanctuaries invaded. Officers overrun. Lives lost. Simply too much has happened. Too many lines crossed, too many laws violated and too many norms overrun. Too many real patriots—like those who died for their country—have been betrayed.
Our institutions may buckle, but they will hold. Our justice system will work. The terrorists will be convicted. The organizers will be jailed. Any negligent or complicit law enforcement officers will be punished. Long before the criminal trials, the Capitol will be repaired and the 117th Congress will resume its work. President-elect Biden’s inauguration will proceed. These events will take place in due course and aid our nation’s healing. But, will this be enough?
The real question is to what extent—if any—the political leaders who fomented this insurrection will be held accountable. Some citizens, driven by righteous anger, will demand vengeance. Others, motivated by practical concerns, will argue that it makes little sense to pursue impeachment unless the votes are there for conviction. Both arguments rest to some degree on a hope for healing, but they overlook the most powerful reason for accountability—growth.
If we pursue accountability with a focus on the future, we will gain growth and healing. We should judge prior conduct and determine suitable sanctions, but we also must produce actionable ideas for fixing the conditions that seeded, triggered or exacerbated the underlying conduct. Accountability can help us learn what needs to be fixed and yield the growth that brings true healing.
The Case for Political Accountability
Earlier this year, we witnessed scores of peaceful protests on our nation’s streets. In many cases, these protests were met with heavy-handed shows of force from federal, state and local law enforcement agencies. In some cases, like the Lafayette Square incident, federal forces—unprovoked—teargassed, assaulted and removed peaceful demonstrators to clear a public space for a politically-motivated, clumsily-scripted presidential photo-op.
The pleas for law and order arose from Seattle to Kenosha. Some politicians, egged on by a self-absorbed President and ratings-obsessed talking heads, raised the alarm about Antifa, claiming (without evidence) that leftists were coming to destroy our suburbs and overturn our country. During the 2020 election campaign, many candidates derided their opponents as dangerous socialists. Since the election, such baseless claims devolved into outrageous attacks on democracy and mendacious rhetorical fodder for the most gullible and unstable among us.
This week’s calamity was anything but peaceful and orderly. It may have been loosely planned and organized assault, but it was an intentional effort to disrupt the Congress and its affirmation of the presidential election. It was no mere demonstration. It was a failed insurrection incited by political leaders who should have known better.
Before we do anything else—and there is much to do—we must hold the instigators accountable. We must do so without anger or vengeance. We must proceed with compassion, reverence and unshakeable resolve. We must seek accountability, not to punish, but to show other nations and future generations that our democracy means something to us. We must secure accountability, not to nurse past grievances, but to prevent future recurrences.
An Actionable Accountability Agenda
What shall we do? For starters, we should do more than just talk about accountability. We should act, first by holding politicians accountable and then by holding ourselves accountable.
Let’s start with the politicians, the people we elected to protect us, represent our interests and preserve the Constitution. Non-electoral accountability measures include impeachment, expulsion, censure and reprimand.
Under Constitution Article 1, Section 5, Congress can impeach the President and expel its members. Impeachment and expulsion (for Congressional members), which involve removal from office, are the most serious sanctions, but removal requires 2/3 legislative approval. The Senate has expelled only 15 members, of which 14 were expelled during the Civil War for supporting the Confederacy.
Censures and reprimands can be humiliating—Senator Joseph McCarthy was famously censured—but are less serious than removal and, as such, only require a simple majority. While the Constitution does not expressly authorize these actions, there is considerable precedent for Congressional censures of presidential and member conduct. Presidential censure resolutions merely express the “sense of” the House or Senate without any legal force. The House has censured 23 members.
To send a clear signal to our future political leaders, to demonstrate the kind of leadership we cannot abide and to model the kind of leadership we need, we should demand the following actions:
- Impeach the President – impeach the President in the House and, if the Senate fails to convict, initiate censure proceedings in the House (likely after the new President takes office)
- Impeach, expel or censure Senators – impeach or expel any Senator who helped instigate the insurrection or made repeated false or baseless claims about the legitimacy of our elections and censure or reprimand those Senators who dishonored the Senate and make sincere public apologies for their conduct
- Impeach, expel or censure Representatives – impeach or expel any Representative who instigated the insurrection or made repeated false or baseless claims about the legitimacy of our elections and censure or reprimand those members who breached House rules or dishonored the House and make sincere public apologies for their conduct
Holding political leaders accountable is necessary for us to heal, learn and grow, but it is not enough, in and of itself. We also must hold ourselves accountable as a nation for the failures and conditions that led to the horrifying events of January 6th. More on this in our next commentary.
The Lessons of History
Before he was murdered, President Lincoln called for healing, for reuniting as a nation. But his magnanimity did not mean healing without growth. It presumed remorse from the rebels, a willingness to rejoin the union and abandon slavery. Lincoln knew that the healing would take time, even generations, but he also knew it would not likely come without some measure of accountability.
President Grant did his best to sustain Reconstruction and defeat the forces of hatred. But, 1876 brought Reconstruction’s end and a hollow healing. In abandoning accountability in the name of harmony, we devolved. Racism. Ku Klux Klan. Lynching. Jim Crow. Segregation. The Confederacy lost the war, but won the aftermath, evading accountability, distorting history, honoring the dishonorable. After neglecting to hold anyone accountable for Charlottesville and the heart-breaking breaching of norms, should we really be surprised by what happened this week?
What has long held our fragile democracy together is our collective belief that political adversaries transfer power with elections, not guns, that even when we lose one election, we can win the next one. As Senator McConnell reminded us, our democracy is doomed when we no longer accept the results of fair elections. That day has come to America. And if we don’t hold the separatists and nihilists accountable, we will lose our democracy and the republic that so many have died to protect.