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‘A historic moment in time for this democracy’: Watson inauguration talk shifts focus to Capitol riots

Virtual panel featuring political science professors spans analysis of Capitol insurrection to Biden transition, COVID-19

Senior Staff Writer
Thursday, January 14, 2021

University faculty discussed the significance of the Jan. 6 Capital insurrection and the potential implications for the incoming Biden administration, as well as matters that will be at the forefront of the administration’s efforts.

“The Biden Administration: What to Expect,” a virtual panel held by the Taubman Center for American Politics and Policy on Jan. 12., initially aimed to present a “wide-ranging analysis and discussion of the potential policy and politics of the incoming administration.” Tuesday night, it shifted to primarily discuss the Jan. 6 Capitol riots. 

“We expected to focus mostly on the early days of the Biden presidency and the prospects for his agenda,” said Visiting Professor of the Practice of Political Science Richard Arenberg, who led the discussion. “Since that time, we have watched the defeated president challenge the results of November’s elections with false accusations and an attempt to block the transition to a new administration.” Arenberg also referenced the “shocking armed invasion” of the Capitol building.

Wendy Schiller, chair and professor of political science, called the “unprecedented domestic attack” a “historic moment in time for this democracy.” The last such attack on the Capitol building, Schiller noted, was by British forces during the War of 1812.  

Schiller explained that while the United States has experienced other acts of “domestic terrorism” and violence, the Capitol riots were “an attack on the system itself,” which has “shaken all of our core institutions,” she said.

The Capitol “is the great symbol of American democracy,” Arenberg said. “This armed incursion into the Capitol … shocked me because it would have never occurred to me that it was even possible.”

Assistant Professor of Education Jonathan Collins also spoke about the significance of the Capitol building, “a sacred space for open deliberative discourse around making policies that are supposed to be based on what the people want.” As a result, the Jan. 6 insurrection that has left five dead has not only caused physical damage, but “metaphoric damage to democratic society,” Collins said. 

Carrie Nordlund, associate director of the Annenberg Institute, said the Capitol riots showed the “visceral anger” that has possessed many Americans “in direct response to a Black man being elected president,” referring to Barack Obama’s ascension in 2008. 

Collins also commented on the racial motivations and makeup of the Capitol attack, noting the large number of Confederate flags and imagery present at the riots. At the “root of it all,” Collins said, the United States is a nation that “continues to struggle with race.” 

“We conflate conservatism and white supremacy and see them as happening simultaneously,” Collins said. “What we’ve seen is where they diverge. Violence is the big mechanism for divergence here. There aren’t any limits to the violent behavior that white supremacists are willing to act. No institution is safe. No sacred space is safe.” 

As a result, Collins said, the insurrection and its motivation must “mobilize” Americans to build solidarity.

The panel’s observation of the fractured social and political climate in the United States prompted questions of what the Biden administration will do to combat extremism and promote unity. 

The riots reflect the “ever growing and expanding powers of the presidency,” over balancing powers like Congress, Nordlund said. 

Rose McDermott, professor of international relations, emphasized the importance of “institutionalizing norms of democracy … that constrain future leaders from behaving in certain ways” after Trump leaves the White House. 

Schiller agreed with her colleagues that though the current president is responsible to a degree for the attacks, there is “division that runs deep” in the United States and Trump alone cannot bear the brunt of the blame. 

“What are the kinds of things that we can do on a much broader scale?” Schiller asked. “At the same time, requiring each and every one of us to be active, to do something to thwart this.” While the upcoming week preceding the inauguration is important, she added, Americans must look to “the next 10, 20 years.”

Audience members, who tuned into the webinar on Zoom, raised questions and concerns about a possible increase of misinformation, violence and extremism. One participant questioned the safety of the inauguration, which has been reported to be “an attractive target” for domestic terrorists.

The pro-Trump insurrection, Collins argued, is part of a “spectacle” that is “symbolically aggressive and resistant.” As such, it is “important to have a counter-narrative, (showing that) we will engage in a peaceful transition of power whether you like it or not,” he said.

Despite the risks posed for Inauguration Day, Nordlund said that she believes continuing with the ceremony will serve to dissolve misinformation. 

“Everything now is a conspiracy theory of some kind,” Nordlund said. The continuation with the historic inauguration of President-elect Biden will add to the “legitimacy” of the new president, amid growing conspiracy theories surrounding the 2020 election. 

The panelists agreed that tackling COVID-19 should be the Biden administration’s priority, post-inauguration.

“I don’t think anyone can do anything without getting a handle on” the pandemic, Schiller said. “I am not thinking beyond it because I do not think there is space in the practicality of things to get anything done until we do that.” She added that she believes Biden will take “extreme measures” to distribute the vaccine. 

And despite the obstacles facing the Biden administration and Congress following the events at the Capitol, Arenberg, who married his wife in the Capitol building and whose career working on the Hill has spanned 34 years, expressed optimism that at the end of the day, Congress was able to take control and confirm the outcome of a democratic election.

“I felt really heartened later in the day,” he said, “after they finally cleared the rioters out of the Capitol that Congress came back and took control of it and went about its business late into the night.”

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