The siege at the U.S. Capitol on January 6 sent shockwaves across Wall Street and Main Street as Americans watched the attack in disbelief. The event quickly fractured the Republican Party with a growing number of Republicans calling out President Trump’s role in the violent attack, which culminated with former Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConell directly blaming him for provoking the mob. A few days later, ten Republican lawmakers voted for his impeachment. Corporate America responded by cutting off political donations. However, the vast majority of the Republican Party and the right-wing media apparatus stood by President Trump and justified the mob’s actions as an expression of discontent and distrust in U.S. elections. Of course, none of those lawmakers or media elites attended the riot they justified and provoked — that would mean experiencing the consequences of their political rhetoric — but the role of prominent lawmakers and media elites shape how Americans feel about democracy, and that power must be used with caution. Under the new Biden administration, Republican lawmakers and media elites must choose democracy over political opportunism so they can guide the American people back to a place where they can trust elections again.
The widespread distrust of the U.S. election did not occur in a vacuum or even organically. President Trump strategically cast doubt on the election before it even happened by making inaccurate claims about voter fraud. Millions of President Trump’s followers acquiesced to this constructed reality through his political rhetoric. Simultaneously, media elites and prominent Republican lawmakers, such as Senator Ted Cruz, used their platforms to give more credibility to the President’s lost cause even after the election was reaffirmed by the Department of Homeland Security, courts and the Electoral College. Once all the legal options to overturn the election were exhausted, some of President Trump’s followers turned to violence to stop the election from being certified. At that moment, it became clear that millions of Americans had lost faith in the same electoral process that had delivered the Trump presidency four years earlier.
Evidently, in a polarized America, the electoral system only works if it yields a victory.
Republican lawmakers and media elites directly contributed to the distrust in elections by using their platforms to elevate President Trump’s provocative rhetoric. Therefore, Republican lawmakers and media elites must now use their platforms to promote trust in elections and reverse the decline of democratic attitudes. Americans who believe the election was stolen will not listen to President Biden or other Democratic leaders, but they may listen to Senator Ted Cruz and all the other Republicans and media elites who convinced them that the election was stolen from them. It might seem like there are few political incentives to accept President Biden as the legitimately elected Commander in Chief but there is much to gain for ambitious Republican lawmakers and media elites in a Biden administration.
Republican lawmakers can use their leverage in Congress to influence President Biden’s Build Back Better agenda since any legislation that passes will be along narrow margins. Thus, successful legislation can be framed as a bipartisan victory for each party’s constituency. Alternatively, Republicans can use their leverage in Congress to oppose President Biden’s agenda and show their constituents that losing the presidency does not mean losing their voice in government. This is also true for media elites who can use their platforms to support or oppose President Biden — in the same manner many media elites opposed President Trump for the past four years. The democratic process allows for all this to happen without overturning elections or attacking the Capitol.
American democracy is nowhere near disintegration. However, the past few months have shown that only a handful of people are needed to take the country in that direction. All Americans — but especially Republican lawmakers and media elites — have a responsibility to restate their commitment to elections and the democratic process and to declare defeat and victory when results are in. Elections are not going anywhere, so Americans’ commitment to them must also remain.
Thumbnail photo courtesy of J. Scott Applewhite / AP Photo.