America’s Unfinished Democracy

The assault on the U.S. Capitol Building of Jan. 6, 2021, led quickly not only to addressing immediate questions about accountability and consequences for those who broke the law but also about reconciliation in the face of a political chasm about the nature of government and of democratic rule. If reconciliation is possible, a key player will be President Joseph Biden, a practicing Catholic who often testifies about the impact of faith on his life and conduct. We spoke about justice, accountability and reconciliation with Sean Dempsey, S.J., an LMU historian who studies U.S. politics and the role of Catholicism in the nation’s politics. Dempsey was interviewed by Editor Joseph Wakelee-Lynch.

The assault of the Capitol Building made clearer than ever a rift in the American body politic: The hardest core of support for former President Donald Trump ransacked the Capitol, many carrying weapons and threatening to harm and even kill senators and representatives. As a historian, do you see parallels for this event in U.S. history short of the Civil War?

There are ways in which what we saw has deep roots in U.S. history, but in other ways it was an utterly new fusion of forces. I saw two trajectories on display.

One would be the politics of white supremacy and racial resentment that you especially see during the Reconstruction period after the Civil War, and most notably, as the Reconstruction period wound down and Southern whites often violently tried to seize back power usually on the state and local levels in the South. That campaign of domestic terror led to the formation of the Jim Crow system that would be in place for many decades in the South.

The second trajectory I saw on display, which I think has been talked about less, is not so much about race as about political ideology. It’s about an idea from the right that American liberalism or anything that even approaches the more progressive side of the American political system represents an apocalyptic threat, which is often couched in religious terms. You saw that going back to President Herbert Hoover and the transition in 1932–33 between the Hoover and FDR administrations. Hoover himself saw the coming of the New Deal and the Franklin Delano Roosevelt administration as an existential threat to the character of the nation. He thought that the expansive government action that FDR had in mind needed to be resisted at all costs. That became foundational to Republican politics even up to the present day.

The reason I say this is a new fusion is that those are two, in my view, almost virulent strands of sometimes anti-democratic and illiberal forces in American politics. Of course, that Southern white strand had been contained within the Democratic Party for many decades, whereas Hoover’s apocalypticism around the liberal project was within the Republican Party. Now what you’re seeing is those two strands coming together on at least one end of the Republican Party. That’s what I think is new and, as a historian, most troubling. These two darker aspects of American political history have fused together. 

There is no genuine reconciliation without justice, and forgiveness is not about ignoring the wrongs of others but acknowledging that harm has been done to the community.

Do the historical parallels, like those you’ve described, offer lessons, or do they all offer only warnings?

There are ways that parties can change and deal with their troubling factions. A side effect of our two-party system is that their coalitions are by nature unstable and often include, to varying degrees, more fringe kinds of perspectives. Certainly, the Democratic Party, starting in 1948, began to embrace civil rights as part of its platform, which led to a lot of folks leaving the Democratic Party. But that was an example of a party coming to grips with some of the less noble parts of its coalition and taking a stand. And you saw change in the Republican Party. It certainly harkens back at least to Barry Goldwater’s presidential candidacy in 1964, with regard to the John Birch Society and other rabidly anti-communist groups that were prevalent in that party then. To their strategic credit, many conservatives worked to marginalize some of those voices over time, to at least not have them be the public face of the party. In many ways, what the Trump coalition has done is take the mask off of that process that began in the 1960s. Some would argue it was sort of a thin veneer and that it wasn’t hard for Trump to take the mask off. And that’s certainly something that historians continue to debate.

At the time, Goldwater’s views were considered very apocalyptic. Yet, four years later the Republican Party managed to get Richard Nixon elected, whose views were more centrist in many ways than Goldwater’s. Do you think the Republican Party could pivot quickly then because Goldwater’s support within the party was less extensive then than Trump’s is now? 

I think that’s right. Goldwater is someone to study in order to understand this moment in the Republican Party, because you see a clear path from Goldwater not so much to Nixon but to Ronald Reagan and to Trump. You see a lot of grassroots, far-right energy animating all three of those figures to differing degrees. Nixon, although he made his career by being a strident anti-communist, worked with largely Democratic-controlled houses of Congress as president and inherited liberal policies that, to his credit, he did not try to completely unwind. He’s an interesting figure who doesn’t quite fit into the arc I’m tracing, but I definitely see the Goldwater-Reagan-Trump continuum. 

Speaking as a historian, what does accountability for the insurrection require, and how can accountability help society as a whole? Can accountability in the form of trials, and, presumably, imprisonment, lead to justice?

That’s a great question. For various reasons, the United States sometimes has chosen not to hold people as accountable for their actions as it might have. The most infamous example would be Andrew Johnson’s presidency, which followed Abraham Lincoln’s. He was quite lenient with the former Confederates. There were no trials, perhaps a few in egregious cases, but his policy, which we hear of all too often in the United States, was basically “It’s time to turn the page, it’s time to look forward.” But if you do that too often, you don’t really solve the problem, and you don’t really speak to questions of justice, accountability and genuine reconciliation. A recent example was the blanket pardon of Nixon by President Gerald Ford after the Watergate scandal. Some would say that sent the message, however unintentional, that political crimes don’t matter, or that the political elite are above the law, even though Watergate investigation was supposed to be about the opposite: holding Nixon accountable for breaking the law. 

In this case, you’re already seeing that narrative emerging again: “Shouldn’t we just move on? Why bother with an impeachment when Trump is no longer the president?” But I do think this may be an opportunity for genuine accountability, an investigation into how these events unfolded and who was responsible, and to let the process play out, perhaps more than it ever has in U.S. history.

As a Jesuit and a Catholic historian, what does Catholic social teaching have to offer at this moment, especially when we now have a president who is predisposed to give an ear to the church’s social teachings for guidance?

First, a bedrock concept in Catholic teaching is about genuine unity and harmony in the body politic. But we also have a strong tradition of searching for justice. There is no genuine reconciliation without justice, and forgiveness is not about ignoring the wrongs of others but acknowledging that harm has been done to the community: There’s been a tear in the political and social fabric of this country. Few people could deny that there has been that kind of wound or rupture. Accountability is part of that process, not an accountability through which you try to vindictively punish the perpetrators but one that can trend toward reconciliation in the body politic, to root out those who have, to use theological language, transgressed or sinned against the body politic. It’s important to make decisions such that both justice and reconciliation can be best served.

Do you see any hope for political reconciliation across the U.S. political spectrum?

I’m hopeful that the shock of Jan. 6, and what seems to be a collective sigh of relief, even on the part of some Republicans on Inauguration Day, indicates that things are coming back a little bit to normal. It’s still unclear exactly how large this anti-democratic segment of the Republican Party is. It’s also unclear how durably attached they are to the Republican Party. We can’t confuse right-wing people simply with the Republican party. My understanding is a lot of Trump voters were not voters for anyone previous to Trump coming on the scene. These are people who were alienated from electoral politics. Do they remain loyal Republican voters, or do they grow less interested in elections? That could be good or bad, because if you completely lose faith in elections, that may lead to more violence. But it remains to be seen whether this movement will shift, or even evaporate, or move to different causes. Or will it remain a bloc within the Republican Party. If it remains a bloc within the Republican Party, then the nation faces the possibility that there will be an anti-democratic faction within its own government. That’s something that I can’t really point to as having parallels in U.S. history.

What is the role of the church and especially its bishops — who are its teachers — in speaking to this U.S. president in this crisis?

There has certainly been quite a bit of controversy over how to do that in recent weeks. I certainly understand the stakes in the issues involved. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops is committed to a comprehensive and holistic vision regarding Catholicism’s role in public life and the obligations of a Catholic politician like Joe Biden. But we do seem to have a difference of opinion within the church and even among the bishops as to which points to emphasize. We had a statement from the USCCB that seemed to emphasize disagreements with the Biden administration, especially on life, gender, marriage equality and other issues. But other bishops, such as Cardinal Blase Cupich, who is Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Chicago, have been pointing out the major areas of overlap and agreement, especially in a Pope Francis-type of agenda that emphasizes the environment, income inequality, dignity for all people and dialogue and encounter. I don’t think that indicates an irreconcilable rift but different approaches to basically the same question. But, to make an editorial point, I do think this moment is a major opportunity for the Catholic Church to rebuild its moral voice in the United States, much of which sadly has waned in the light of the abuse crisis and other missteps in past decades. Yes, Joe Biden is the second Catholic president, but we can say already he is the most Catholic president, because John F. Kennedy, although Catholic, was not necessarily the most serious practitioner of the faith. Arguably, Joe Biden is the president who has taken Catholicism the most seriously, and that represents an extraordinary opening for the U.S. Catholic community to come together and to enter into dialogue and new kinds of relationships with folks who may not take religion seriously or know where Catholics stand on a variety of issues.

If the administration is a receptive audience, so to speak, to Catholic views on some issues, does it mean that this opening is an opportunity for the church to have influence not just through words but also by its policy proposals? 

Absolutely. The Catholic Church in the United States had an extraordinary amount of influence between World War I and World War II. The federal government was extremely grateful for how the Catholic Church had organized its philanthropic activities for the World War I effort and for the establishment of the National Catholic Welfare Conference, which eventually morphed into the USCCB. That was something meant to coordinate Catholic activity for the sake of supporting the government during World War I. And the church played a huge role in supporting and amplifying FDR’s New Deal. Catholic Charities and the support of Catholic working class folks were absolutely foundational to the New Deal. So, there’s precedent: That was a moment when Catholic leaders and ordinary Catholics were helping shape the trajectory of the country and its policies. To sound an optimistic note, I don’t know that there has been another opportunity like that until now.

Sean Dempsey, S.J., is assistant professor of history in the LMU Bellarmine College of Liberal Arts. His research focuses on the intersections of religion, social thought and urban politics in the 20thcentury. An interview with Dempsey on the future of the Catholic Church in Los Angeles and the United States appeared in the spring 2019 issue (Vol. 9, No. 1) issue of LMU Magazine.