News & Ideas  -  The Fight for Democracy: We Don't Get to Sit This One Out

Defending Inclusive Democracy Kettering Conversations Senior Fellows

By Maura Casey

Political violence remains a widespread concern three years after the insurrection of January 6, 2021, but the people’s determination to stand up for democracy will make all the difference. That was the message of the Kettering Conversations with Democracy Innovators event held in Washington, DC, on January 9 that included a panel discussion, a speech, and a conversation held before an audience both present and on Zoom.

Perspectives on Political Violence Panel Discussion

The panel included the foundation’s Chief External Affairs Officer and Director of DC Operations Brad Rourke, moderating; former US Representative Donna F. Edwards, Maryland’s 4th congressional district; Alan Jenkins, professor of practice, Harvard Law School and the coauthor of 1/6: The Graphic Novel, about what could have happened had the attack on the US Capitol succeeded; and Alex Theodoridis, associate professor of political science, University of Massachusetts Amherst, whose research focuses on political polarization.

Rourke began the discussion by asking Edwards what makes her concerned about the potential for political violence in the coming year. “Threats of violence happen all the time,” Edwards replied, including against members of Congress. But, she said, “There is a thin line between a threat and when it becomes action. When you see the number of Americans who think violence is an appropriate response to a policy difference, that’s frightening. Those ideas are held by fully a quarter of Americans.”

Theodoridis said he was equally concerned, but especially so when political elites tacitly encourage violence. “When we have elites using dehumanizing rhetoric, endorsing violence, the average voter needs to hear that these things are not OK, that political violence is never OK,” he said. “If they don’t do that . . . it can lead to a very dangerous place.”

Jenkins recalled that when watching the events of January 6, he was “shocked that it happened, but intellectually not surprised.” Jenkins said he cowrote 1/6 in the hopes of reaching across divisions of age, demographics, and ideology. The book has given him the opportunity to talk with people who might not agree with his views.

Edwards said she has had similar experiences through travels in her RV, including roasting marshmallows with people whose campers display Confederate flags. “Each of us in our individual communities and spaces can have those [dialogues] . . . If a quarter of all Americans believe that political violence is an answer, that means 75 percent of us don’t,” Edwards pointed out. “We can’t be afraid to step up.”

Centering the Threats of Political Violence

Kelley Robinson, the president of Human Rights Campaign and a foundation senior fellow, followed the panel with a powerful speech about the possibilities and pitfalls the nation faces. She reminded the audience of a quote by Martin Luther King Jr.: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” But, she said, “It doesn’t happen by accident. It takes people pulling and prodding and pushing and willing it to do so. This conversation is a call to arms, and a call to action to be a part of that work.” She pointed out that many strides have occurred in LGBTQ+ rights over the last 40 years. “We have to remember that so much of the violence that we’re experiencing now is actually a response to the progress that we have made over generations to get to this very point.”

Robinson continued, “Love of country does not mean never having to say you are sorry. It certainly doesn’t mean revising the past so you can skip the apology altogether. Love of country means owning the past and learning from it. It means seeing the present as it is, and reaching for a future we can all believe in.”

The Stakes for US Democracy

Following Robinson’s speech, two additional foundation senior fellows held a conversation: journalist and author Chris Matthews and former FBI director James Comey. Matthews brought up how former President Trump uses the word “hostages” to describe those who have been imprisoned for their roles in the January 6 insurrection. Comey responded, “It’s not too dramatic to say we’re seeing a ‘lost cause’-type effort to rewrite, to normalize, shocking and horrible behavior. And this is part of it.” Yet there is a danger in overreacting to January 6, he continued, because that would lead to mistakes.

Matthews asked Comey if he thought there was a risk of more violence occurring. Comey responded that one barrier to more violence is the fact that 1,200 participants who participated on January 6 have been prosecuted. It has sent a “shock wave of deterrence” through those who might be tempted to commit such violent acts, said Comey. An additional reason to hope is the decision of the Kettering Foundation to raise its profile. “The idea that an organization this old has decided, ‘We are out there, we are going to make a difference, we’re going to drive these conversations,’” said Comey, “is important.”

Political Violence in the US Landscape: Are We Ready?

In her remarks summing up the day, Kettering President and CEO Sharon L. Davies noted that the foundation had to decide what was important to focus on at a time when democracy was imperiled. “We had to be more public-facing than we had been in the past in order to do our role, live up to our responsibilities as citizens in this nation to help to preserve our democracy and to improve it,” she said. One reason the events of January 6 were so shocking, she said, is because we had not been accustomed to seeing images of political violence since the long-ago civil rights era.

Davies noted, “But William Faulkner told us that ‘the past is never dead. It’s not even past. All of us labor in webs spun long before we were born.’ What we are dealing with today is being haunted by the wrong turns and roads not taken,” by previous generations of citizens, as well as leaders. “And it’s our responsibility today to make sure that we make right turns for our nation’s future, and our children,” Davies said.

“At every moment of transformation in this country, there were citizens who were willing and exhibited the courage to act. [This suggests to us that] we don’t get a pass. We don’t get to sit this one out. We know that we must continue to fight for our democracy,” Davies concluded.