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Reflections on Democracy and Recent Events

Published January 12, 2021

Dear Beach Community,

I’ve spent the past several days reflecting on the horrific event that threatened our democracy on January 6, 2021. Our campus values make us most supportive of peaceful protest in support of varying points of view, but the mob behavior at our Capitol on January 6 was not a protest; it was a violent insurrection aimed at shredding our Constitution. Being a law and order nation means that we put laws above personal preferences. 

Of course, psychologists have long studied “group think” and mob behavior. As social creatures, humans are vulnerable to giving up personal agency and responsibility when swayed by persuasive emotional appeals and the sense that “everyone is thinking/behaving as I am.” Our world history is littered with evidence of the horrible things humans will do to each other when under the influence of ideologies, powerful leaders, and personal fears. As Voltaire famously said in his 1765 essay, Questions sur les Miracles, “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”

Time and time again, however, courts of law have not excused illegal behavior just because lots of others were doing the same thing. Akin, perhaps, to my Mother’s frequent questioning about whether I would jump off the Brooklyn Bridge just because my friends were jumping.

Our U.S. system of law enforcement and courts will decide if those who breached our Capitol Building are guilty of crimes such as murder, robbery, vandalism, forcible entry, and more. Whatever the courts say, those people are not lovable patriots. They are misinformed, incited, white-supremacist, and violent souls who were not fighting for freedom. They were fighting to overturn the will of more than 80 million voters. Please let’s not normalize this event as being a protest or representing some spontaneous rage.

A cornerstone of our democracy is the peaceful transfer of power. It’s understandable to be disappointed when a preferred candidate loses, but it’s illegal to threaten members of Congress for doing their Constitutional duty. It’s delusional not to accept the results of multiple investigations and court cases, including a U.S. Supreme Court decision, as to the veracity of results of the 2020 presidential election. 

I write today not to support a political position, but to urge us all to understand that our Constitution gives rights and responsibilities. Loving our nation means using Constitutional avenues to create social change. We will vote again for members of Congress in just two years. That will be consequential. We’ll vote again for a president in four years. That’s the way democracy works.

Our democratic institutions and Constitution are not perfect. Obviously, the Constitution and many state and federal laws and procedures gravely harmed Black and African Americans over the course of our history. Building up our institutions and perfecting them to be truly inclusive is a task ahead of us. The other formidable task that must be accomplished is to build common ground among the American people.

Our campus must play a significant role in being a model of equity. This is a work in progress to which I am committed. Our research and scholarship must also be a source of evidence and shaper of policies about issues of importance to all, for example, health, education, prosperity, racial justice, and community safety. Our teaching must be rigorous and lead to in-depth knowledge about forms of government with a special emphasis on our responsibilities as beneficiaries of living in a nation of laws. Let’s commit to 2021 as a year of illumination for ourselves and for our communities. Let’s be part of building a more perfect union.

Jane Close Conoley, Ph.D.