The January 6th Capitol riot, Martin Luther King Day Celebrations, the Inauguration of President Biden and the pending Impeachment Trial of Donald Trump. What a start to 2021! What do all four events/days have in common? Nothing some may say, and everything, others may suggest. I’m in the group that will highlight some important similarities and very real differences between these events. I do so not to “force fit” any of these events together, but instead to reflect on three themes that may serve as an important reminder for those of us who study and practice in public affairs across a variety of roles and disciplines represented in our College and for citizens at large. To start, I’m not talking about the fact that all these events happened in January or that they are in chronological order. The themes that surround these events revolve around Change, Hope and Renewal.
Change can be both unsettling and inspiring. That theme is seen in the discontent about duly constituted elections in the choice for President of the United States. For many the dismay tuned to anger and revolt on January 6. But change is a process of our life cycle and our history as a nation. How we handle change becomes the issue. Violence and outrage present an option to some when confronted by change, but are never the answer in a democracy. Voting and participation are the vehicles for change in a democracy.
MLK Day celebrations are equally about change. Yes, the day is homage to a great civil rights leader but it is more about equal rights and social justice and eradication of discrimination. Remembering the man and the movement recognizes that change is not always fast or peaceful. Attitudes, laws and social conventions sometimes take a long time to change. American society is not there quite yet. But change is in the air.
The inauguration of the next President is equally about change. It is the pinnacle of our democracy in many respects. The orderly transfer of power signifies a change in leadership for the nation. Change may mean new directions, new approaches and new people in charge. But that change is the product of our electoral process and mandate of the people. For many, that may be an uncomfortable fit, but that’s just change for now, until the next election.
Lastly, the upcoming Impeachment Trial for Donald Trump seems to equally be about change. A trial implies one side versus the other. Many may question the fairness of the trial. But the jury (US Senate) sure can’t get any more balanced at 50-50 between Republicans and Democrats. That should mean an element of fairness in the process. But guilty or not and whatever consequences that may mean for the former President, the trial/process itself is all about change. When our institutions and our leaders “push the envelope” of traditions, laws and expectations, that change equally comes under scrutiny. That is what is on trial in the upcoming impeachment at the most fundamental level. Sorting out that change is what is on trial.
Hope springs eternal…so someone said. Not sure I believe that, but hope still becomes an important connection to all these January events. The January 6 riot was many things (violence, protests, insurrection), but it was also about hope. The issue here is hope for who? Fervent Trump supporters on the "right" (and others) hoped that this moment would lead to a reversal of election results and a repudiation of all things the “left” supports or wants. Many will argue that it was a hope misplaced and not without consequences, but it was nonetheless, a driving force for those rioters and maybe some of the 74 million who voted for Donald Trump.
Alternatively, there is nothing more inspirational than the hope that shines from Dr. Martin Luther King and is the overarching tone of all MLK celebrations. Some will say, well maybe, but that is also a hope displaced. Discrimination against African Americans and persons of color has not gone away despite Civil Rights laws and regulations since the 1960’s. It is worse in some places than others and it is implicit in many aspects of American life. Dr. King often spoke of a struggle, and indeed it is still a struggle. But for everyone who struggles, there is hope. That hope burns bright that in 2021 and beyond finally discrimination and hate will end. I see that in every MLK celebration that I attend large or small. The Inauguration of President Biden was about a lot of things (transition of power, pomp and circumstance, and high powered entertainers) but mostly it was about hope.
The hope that with a new President and a new direction, American society will emerge from the pandemic, relish in economic and social growth and reset the direction of American policy at home and abroad. Of course, not everyone sees it quite like that, but that's what elections are for. Elections I will argue are about hope. Hope for the future and the premise that something brighter lies ahead of us. Somehow our newly elected leaders may take us there. And whichever political side you are on, that hope extends not just to your supporters but to everyone impacted by the election. Sharing, extending and embracing that hope is not a bad thing.
On the Impeachment Trial of Donald Trump, it is fair to say there is hope on both sides, for conviction or acquittal. But guilty or not, there is something more fundamental on trial. That is the belief that accountability in leadership and public life matters. That fundamentally is the hope that our democratic processes and principles still work. In this sense, we can all hope for what is best for America even in a Presidential impeachment.
Renewal is equally a part of our life cycle. It is also a bedrock of democracy and our American society. Rooting for the underdog, pulling yourself up from your bootstraps, a second chance, and rags to riches are all about renewal. Renewal equally has many religious and philosophical dimensions but the concept of renewal is positive and uplifting.
I suppose the renewal in the events of January 6 was evident in what happened on January 7 and beyond. Trashing of the Capitol, attacks on Congress and the killing of a police officer may have for a moment been sadly satisfying for those rioters, but it was far from any renewal. What was more indicative of renewal was found in the aftermath of the rioting was the reality that things had gone too far. The renewal was evidenced by a correction or reapplication of the rule of law by the citizenry at large. There, I hope, was the realization that revolution was not the answer but that a renewal of our pledge and tradition and foundation of free elections was the answer for expressing ourselves and advancing our concerns and preferences.
The many MLK celebrations across the nation were equally about sharing a spirit of renewal that is long overdue. The renewal is the strength of bonds between brothers and sisters regardless of the color of your skin or ethnic heritage. That struggle for equality has been long and continues, but its foundation is renewal.
Moreover, renewal is no better demonstrated than in the uplifting and inviting message delivered by President Biden on Inauguration day to come together and renew our ties and work together as a nation despite our political and other divides.
And finally the Impeachment Trial is grounded in the belief that the democratic process and all its mechanisms and processes and procedures are geared toward that end goal of renewal of foundational democratic principles that have made this country great. Indeed, elections, trials and political discourse are the hallmarks of a democratic system that has endured for over 200 years.
Change, hope and renewal are alive and well in America. Those committed to public service and hold elected or appointed offices and "We the People" must never lose sight of those imperatives. Onward in 2021!!
Robert W. Smith, Ph.D.
College of Public Affairs and Administration
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