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Reflections on a Deepening Governance Crisis

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The United States fell into a still deeper political and social crisis recently when a video revealed a Minneapolis police officer murdering an unarmed black man, George Floyd, during  a more than 8-1/2-minute-long strangulation as his police colleagues watched, and during which the assailant ignored the pleas of the individual he killed to relent.[1] Floyd’s death followed the senseless killings by police of a number of other minority group members in recent months. Those added to the countless such deaths throughout the nation’s existence. Predictably and rightly, protesters soon filled the streets across this country and such demonstrations have now spread throughout the world. Sadly, if understandably, not all such events have been peaceful, but most have been and are (they continue as I write). President Donald Trump, however, chose not to respond to these difficult events with empathy or by invoking the grander values of our nation. Instead, he described the marchers as more loathsome than the horror to which they were reacting, labeled all of them “terrorists,” and called on the nation’s governors to “dominate” them so those executives would not appear “weak,” as if that were even a relevant criterion.[2]

Matters became even darker when Trump asked Attorney General William Barr to arrange to clear a peaceful protest in Jackson Square near the White House so the president could walk across the street to a nearby church for a photo opportunity while wielding a Bible. Barr did so with mounted Park Police officers, individuals in unmarked uniforms from the Bureau of Prisons (contrary to U.S. practice) and tear gas, flash bombs and rubber bullets.[3] Soon thereafter, Trump deepened this ignominy by turning the White House into a fortress with reinforced fencing, by seeking to militarize Washington, D.C. still more completely and by threatening to employ United States forces against American citizens in a broad gauged way. His actions were unconscionable and his threats and posturing a gesture to white anxiety and racism, and to a too long history of systemic discrimination of minorities in this nation. His choices not only continued to tear at the already rent fabric of the ties among Americans, it exacerbated those differences while also despoiling and mocking the nation’s dearest values. It was a despicable moment and a stain on the Presidency and country’s governance that history will mark and long remember.

This has come on the heels of the COVID-19 public health emergency and the deaths, illness and economic devastation it has wrought and continues to impose. That challenge has exposed afresh the bitter reality that Americans of color on average earn lower wages, enjoy less robust health, live in less healthful conditions and enjoy less access to government and social services, including medical care, than their white counterparts. Trump has chosen to ignore those facts, blame the victims for them and call on other citizens—read white citizens—to “dominate” such groups rather than accept them as their equals and pursue shared efforts to help change these shameful conditions. This scenario is morally outrageous and profoundly anti-democratic and it undermines efforts to ensure continued respect for equal application of the law and human and civil rights for all. Overall, Trump’s response to the coronavirus and the protests to date have corroded the rule of law, polarized rather than united the population, imposed unnecessary suffering on countless citizens and offered lies rather than paths forward.

This is all of moment to VTIPG, a university-based research center charged with pondering American governance for obvious reasons. The demagoguery, now on offer in Washington and beyond, including its constant assaults on truth and equality particularly, constitutes a real-time challenge to the survival of the American regime as a putative self-governing regime. It is incumbent on scholars and others studying governance at higher education institutions, therefore, to trace the arc of this malignancy, seek to understand it and why some would support it and share our analyses with other scholars and the broader public in a vital ongoing dialogue to develop and implement strategies to address these wicked problems. This is a time-honored and rightful civic role for scholars and for universities, but perhaps never more significant than in the present moment in which the rule of law and American values are being tested in ways not in evidence since the conflagration of the Civil War.

In light of that fact, I wanted to highlight a “canary in the coal mine” argument that has applied to a major share of our work here at the Institute throughout our 14 years of existence. Historically, miners carried caged canaries into the mines with them and used them as sentinels: The birds would succumb to any dangerous build-up of carbon monoxide or other gases before humans did and their demise would signal the need for a rapid exit. We have long worked here at the Institute with and on behalf of vulnerable populations whose treatment and situations are analogous to the role of the canaries in the mines for our democracy. Whether refugees or immigrants, those suffering mental illness of all sorts, those with disabilities, those battling addictions of various types, those who belong to under-represented minority populations or those who were poor, all have suffered grave injustices in our policies and governance in the past and today. Across our history, we have undertaken a range of scholarship, developed policy analyses and program evaluations, helped to create assistance strategies and investigated programmatic interventions, all with the aim of securing more just outcomes for these people, both within the United States and internationally. In short, we have sought to pay special heed to these groups and the individuals who comprise them as a lens into the relative health of our Republic and as something of a leading indicator of the sorts of policies necessary to address inequalities and abridgements of civil and human rights of various sorts. Overall, how our polity treats these populations speaks volumes about our collective willingness truly to pursue the values enshrined in our nation’s Declaration of Independence and Constitution.

If studying the policies affecting these groups can reveal the effects of democratic politics, especially mobilization politics, that are often rooted in very human foibles, these are also very good places to examine how individuals exercise agency in the face of all manner of unjust treatment and irrespective of the constraints imposed by political, social or economic choices. Indeed, we have been struck repeatedly over the years in our various projects and scholarship by how profoundly individuals wish first and foremost to be accorded dignity and to be judged as individuals of worth and purpose. These are hardly intemperate desires; any theory of self-governance begins with just such a proposition. And yet, our history is littered with efforts to deny specific groups their human and civil rights under our Constitution. In fact, the present governance crisis was foreshadowed in a malevolent way with Trump declaring, as he announced his campaign for the presidency in 2015, that immigrants were “rapists and murderers” in order to scapegoat them for the anxieties of a share of the country’s voters.[4] More recently, as noted above, the president referred to individuals protesting across the nation as “terrorists” and “thugs.”[5]  What today’s protests against police brutality and sustained systemic racism signify in terms of agential possibility, despite Trump’s malicious and ignorant claims, is that notwithstanding hundreds of years of discrimination, despite current GOP efforts to prevent many citizens from voting, despite rhetorical and policy efforts to dehumanize too many of these individuals, these vulnerable individuals not only have maintained their sense of efficacy, but have also proven willing to act on it to demand the rights to which they are entitled as human beings.

As scholars of politics broadly defined, I know my colleagues take a measure of hope, as I do, from the fact that so many continue to fight for the rights they deserve despite the efforts of too many American officials to usurp and deny them. We take heart, as well, that so many citizens who have not personally experienced such injustice are joining the struggle as well. These are treacherous times for our nation and I can pledge that the Institute and its faculty will do all we can to examine our governance situation as painstakingly and honestly as we can, and when we find abridgments of law or rights, as so obvious in the present situation, we will call those out and to the extent we can, also suggest paths forward. No other course could be said to serve the ideals of scholarship and of the university nor, indeed, those of democratic self-governance. Finally, no other path could be said to be true to efforts to support the moral course of the American people and nation.

Notes     

[1] Hill, Evan, Ainara Tiefenthäler, Drew Jordan, Harley Willis and Robin Stein. “8 minutes and 46 Seconds: How George Floyd was Killed in Policy Custody,” The New York Times, May 31, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/31/us/george-floyd-investigation.html, Accessed June 3, 2020.

[2] Costa, Robert, Seung Ming Kim and Josh Dawsey. “Trump calls governors ‘weak,’ urges them to use force against unruly protests,” The Washington Post, June 1, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/trump-governors-george-floyd-protests/2020/06/01/430a6226-a421-11ea-b619-3f9133bbb482_story.html, Accessed June 1, 2020.

[3] National Public Radio, “Peaceful Protesters Tear Gassed To Clear Way for Trump Church Photo-Op,” https://www.npr.org/2020/06/01/867532070/trumps-unannounced-church-visit-angers-church-officials, June 1, 2020, Accessed June 1, 2020; Rogers, Katie, Jonathan Martin and Maggie Haberman. “As Trump Calls Protesters ‘Terrorists,’ Tear Gas Clears a Path for his Walk to a Church,” The New York Times, June 1, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/01/us/politics/trump-governors.html, Accessed June 1, 2020. 

[4] Scott, Eugene. “Trump’s most insulting—and violent—language is often reserved for immigrants,” The Washington Post, October 2, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2019/10/02/trumps-most-insulting-violent-language-is-often-reserved-immigrants/, Accessed June 3, 2020.

[5] Associated Press, “Trump Calls Floyd Death ‘Shocking,’ Call Protesters ‘Thugs,’” May 29, 2020, https://www.voanews.com/usa/trump-calls-floyd-death-shocking-calls-protesters-thugs, Accessed June 3, 2020.

Publication Date

July 1, 2020

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