As Joe Biden is sworn in as the 46th President of the United States, the inauguration occurs in the shadow of a violent siege on the Capitol Jan. 6 by pro-Trump supporters protesting ratification of the electoral vote.
Northwestern experts in law, politics and history reflect on the significance of these historic days, as well as the challenges the incoming administration will need to address during a period of historical social unrest, political division and a public health and economic crisis.
When Americans choose violence over acceptance
Kate Masur, Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, is an expert on monuments and cultural history.
“The attack on Congress brings to mind other times that Americans — predominantly white Americans — have resorted to violence rather than accept political outcomes they didn’t like. In 1860-61, southern slaveholders led a movement to secede from the Union rather than accept the results of Lincoln’s election to the presidency. After the Civil War, Congress demanded that former Confederate states permit Black men to vote, and white southerners responded with cries of election fraud and organized campaigns of violence and intimidation designed to force African Americans and their white allies from political power. Much has changed since then.
“The 2020 elections were far more orderly and fairer than those of Reconstruction, thanks in large measure to the professionalism of local election officials. But familiar currents persist, as a segment of Americans continue to value preserving their own power and privilege over supporting democracy and the rule of law.”
Risking a dangerous new normal
Laurel Harbridge-Yong, Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and Institute for Policy Research, is an expert on partisan conflict in American politics.
“Can our country come together with a bipartisan voice to say that President Trump's behavior crossed a line and violates his oath of office?
“If there is not bipartisan support, Democrats may have to accept short-term challenges to their legislative agenda and criticism for inflaming partisan tensions to protect the country from the long-term damage that could come from a failure to hold the executive accountable for his actions. Without accountability, Trump's behavior could become the new normal for any leader who does not like the outcome of the election.
“The upcoming weeks will also highlight divisions within the Republican Party and signal how many members are willing to break with Trump even as they face threats of primary challengers for a lack of loyalty to the President.”
Surveying the threat of social change
James Druckman, Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and Institute for Policy Research, is an expert on public opinion of COVID-19 impact and response.
“The storming of the Capitol was hardly surprising given a non-trivial number of individuals expressed willingness to do so. While Trump surely played a role, we also should recognize the larger societal forces at play, including how social changes are feeding into group threat and prompting dangerous reactions.
“Our 50-State COVID-19 survey asked respondents for their opinions about acceptable reactions to an unfair election, 45% of Americans approved of protesting on social media, 38% of protesting in person, 18% approved of violating laws without violence, and 8% of using violence. Non-violent law breaking was approved by 23% Democrats and 17% Republicans, violence by 10% Democrats and 8% Republicans.”
Working swiftly to heal
Jaime Dominguez, Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, is an expert on politics affecting minority populations.
“The spectacle was a clear assault on our constitutional democracy; in particular, on our free and fair elections motto. The images of rogue mobs disrupting the sacred ritual of the peaceful transition of power rekindles images of the South’s attempt during the 1940s and 1950s to intimidate and commit violence against African American voters. Like then, these terrorists’ sole purpose was to instill fear in the nation to force the Congress to cave in and overturn the voice of the people. If there is anything different this time around, it’s that the assault was on a national scale that reached all corners of our nation regardless of regions, race, gender and ethnicity.
“I don’t expect the impeachment vote to have any negative impact on the inauguration. Biden must be swift in his commitment to heal the nation and to tackle the virus to ensure the fast and efficient distribution of the vaccine to the states. He must let the legislative branch do its work on the impeachment but work closely with Congress to bring economic relief to Americans via a new stimulus spending bill.”
We will remain who we have been
Alvin Tillery, Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, is an expert on American politics and contemporary social movements. He is also director of the Center for the Study of Diversity and Democracy.
“President Biden will not have the customary honeymoon phase that most American presidents have enjoyed. Instead, like President Roosevelt, he will need to roll up his sleeves and get to work immediately in order to have a fighting chance to turn the tide of the country for the better. Fortunately, for Mr. Biden and the country as a whole, he is arguably the most experienced new president in American history.
“One thing is certain, President Biden will need to rely on both his deep reservoir of experiences and new ideas if he is to overcome the truly toxic environment that Mr. Trump has created for him by fomenting sedition at the U.S. Capitol last week. I am heartened by the fact that Mr. Biden seems to be meeting this challenge by demanding that we remain who we have been since George Washington stood down from power in 1796. The signs of this are that he has decided to go forward with his outdoor inauguration regardless of the degraded security environment, and that he has stood with his party in insisting that Mr. Trump and the seditionists at the Capitol be held accountable.”