- Watch the full panel discussion
- Related: When the barricades fell, so did First Amendment protection
MURFREESBORO, Tenn. – Speakers from academe and the news media saw dangerous implications for democracy stemming from the pro-Trump attack on the U.S. Capitol during a webinar Jan. 11 hosted by the Free Speech Center at Middle Tennessee State University.
Five people, including a Capitol Police officer and a protester, died in the Jan. 6 mob assault that damaged the interior of the Capitol building. In remarks before the attack, President Donald Trump urged tens of thousands of supporters to march on the Capitol in protest against congressional certification of Joe Biden as president-elect.
Ken Paulson, Free Speech Center director, moderated the virtual panel, “On Freedom: Capitol Chaos and Its Impact on Democracy.”
“Something very big and potentially very dangerous is happening,” he said of the riot and aftermath.
MTSU political science professor John Vile said, “The closest analogy we have is 1814” – referring to the burning of the Capitol and the White House by British troops in the War of 1812.
How, speakers wondered, were protesters able to overwhelm Capitol security and breach the building?
“What we saw was an atrocity on so many levels. So many things went wrong,” said Lynda Williams, an MTSU criminologist and former Secret Service officer. “Security measures were already in place … but somebody didn’t act on them.”
Sekou Franklin, MTSU professor of political science and international relations, contended that a double standard in law enforcement allowed the mostly white crowd to act with less interference than Black Lives Matter protesters did last summer. Those and earlier civil rights demonstrations, he said, drew “a heavy-handed response” from police, including “mass arrests” and in Ferguson, Mo., “tanks in the streets.”
Tennessean opinion editor David Plazas said the “attempted coup” was the result of too many people being willing to believe what is not true – that the election was stolen. “People are believing a tweet” instead of looking for facts, he said.
Political debate and dialogue has degenerated into name-calling since the mid-1990s, according to Kent Syler, MTSU political science professor. “We are far more polarized and divided now,” he said. “We’ve somewhat self-sorted ourselves into very red and very blue areas. The middle doesn’t really exist anymore.”
Like Plazas, moderator Paulson, former editor of several newspapers including USA Today, lamented the unintentional overthrow of reliable journalism – the free press guaranteed by the First Amendment – by social media and online outlets.
“What I’m worried about is a lack of knowledge in this country,” Paulson said. “What’s really missing from society is knowing what the truth is,” he said, adding, “Digital disruption didn’t mean to take out the guardian of democracy, but it did.”
Panelists differed on which would be more divisive to the nation, punishing Trump for his inflammatory rhetoric – by impeachment or removal under the 25th Amendment – or simply letting his presidency expire on Jan. 20.
“There has to be some kind of penalty for Trump,” Plazas said. “Not as retribution but [to set] a standard for acceptable political behavior.”
Sekou expressed the hope that educators could start to “tell stories better” to their students about national affairs. “There are better stories to tell around policy, around issues. We’re not telling these stories,” he said.
Syler saw a hopeful sign that a minority of moderate, disaffected people, both right and left, “want to re-establish a middle in American politics.”
Paulson mused in concluding the panel that the entire U.S. political system might need to be rebooted. “Let everyone wake up tomorrow and become an independent, and let’s start over,” he said.