Robert George Discusses Capitol Riots and the Nation's Polarization

According to the noted Catholic scholar, the political anger now enveloping the nation has its roots in the rise of the counterculture in the 1960s.

Members of the National Guard and the Washington D.C. police keep a small group of demonstrators away from the Capital after thousands of Donald Trump supporters stormed the United States Capitol building following a "Stop the Steal" rally on January 06, 2021 in Washington, DC.
Members of the National Guard and the Washington D.C. police keep a small group of demonstrators away from the Capital after thousands of Donald Trump supporters stormed the United States Capitol building following a "Stop the Steal" rally on January 06, 2021 in Washington, DC. (photo: Spencer Platt / AFP/Getty)

WASHINGTON — The certification of the presidential election was halted Wednesday when a mob of Trump supporters stormed the Capitol, leaving destruction in their wake as they broke windows, scuffled with Capitol police, and ransacked the desks of the recently evacuated members of Congress. One female protester died after being shot in the neck, and four other people died after medical emergencies. Congress reconvened late Wednesday evening and Vice President Mike Pence called it “a dark day in the history of the United States Capitol.” 

The Register spoke with Robert George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University and a leading Catholic intellectual in the United States, following the disturbing events of Wednesday. George discussed the deterioration of civic friendship and an atmosphere increasingly hospitable to violence in light of the disturbing riots on Capitol Hill.


What has been your reaction to the events that unfolded at the Capitol yesterday?

Like all patriotic Americans, I was appalled by the image of a mob attacking the Capitol of the United States attempting to disrupt a constitutionally prescribed process that is the process by which the electoral votes are counted in a presidential election. People who are characterizing this as an attack on our constitutional system are not wrong. It was directed precisely at disrupting a constitutional process. I think people need to be willing to acknowledge that irrespective of their views about who should have been elected president or even their views about whether there was, or was not widespread electoral misconduct or even fraud. We have in this country procedures for litigating or otherwise resolving disputes, including disputes about elections. It’s those procedures that have to be used, not taking the law into one’s own hands or engaging in acts of violence.

Now, will those procedures always produce the correct results? No, no procedural system of any kind in this vale of tears will guarantee correct results every time. Ours is a very good system, but it’s not a perfect system. And yet, despite its imperfections, it’s our duty as patriotic citizens to rely on those procedures and to respect the outcomes of those procedures rather than taking the law into our own hands and disrupting constitutionally prescribed processes. I think that’s the most fundamental point that has to be made.

Having made that point, we can make the additional points that this is a time of great anxiety for millions upon millions of Americans. We’re in the midst of a public health crisis, a plague that has denied many people of their livelihoods. It has, of course, cost many lives. Government at all levels has done a less than perfect job in managing the public health crisis, contributing to the anxiety that Americans have. 

That’s part of the context in which what happened yesterday occurred. More of the context is that we have seen violence and lawlessness and people taking the law into their own hands, for months now literally, in cities like Seattle and Portland and Kenosha, and even in Washington, D.C. We can’t say that this sin against the law that was committed by a mob yesterday is unique. People with very different ideological predilections have been committing acts of violence for months, even taking control of a section of a city. We’ve seen looting, we’ve seen burning, we’ve seen attacks on churches. All of that is true. At the same time, nothing that has happened has had the symbolic significance of an attack on the Capitol of the United States. And symbolism does matter. It’s not the only thing that matters, but it does matter.

The third point about the context I would make is this is happening at a time of extreme polarization, partisan and ideological polarization. Civic friendship in the United States has virtually collapsed. Republicans and Democrats, progressives and conservatives, no longer view each other, in many cases, as fellow citizens with whom we disagree, people we think have the wrong judgments on policy matters, but are nevertheless our fellow citizens to whom we owe honor and respect. No, we’ve now gotten ourselves into a situation where Republicans and Democrats, progressives and conservatives, regard each other as enemies, people to be defeated. People who are threats to all that is true and good and noble and just.

We need to recover an understanding across the ideological spectrum and across the partisan divide of our fellow citizens, as in most cases, not all cases, but in most cases, reasonable people of goodwill with whom we disagree. We can regard somebody as profoundly wrong, even on a matter of basic justice, human rights, the common good while recognizing that person as a fellow human being and a fellow citizen, and indeed a reasonable person of goodwill who has made a mistake because human beings are fallible and can make mistakes even on important matters.


What do you think has led to the rise of this polarization in the U.S. civic life?

I think its roots are in the rise of the counterculture in the 1960s. The 1960s had good things and bad things. The advance of the civil rights cause which was achieved through non-violent means under the leadership of people like Martin Luther King and Ralph Abernathy, who were strictly committed to non-violence. That was a great thing but at the same time, the ’60s was a moment at which a certain ideology that was hostile to the principles of American civic life and to the broader ethical ideals of the Judeo-Christian tradition sprouted and began to take deep roots. This is what gave us in short order: the abortion license, the sexual revolution and together with that, of course, the rise of promiscuity, non-marital cohabitation, widespread out of wedlock births, rampant fatherlessness and a train of other social pathologies whose burdens are born most heavily by those who are most vulnerable, mostly by the poor. Whether we’re talking about urban poor, as Daniel Patrick Moynihan saw as early as 1965, or as we now know the poor in rural areas who statistically, in terms of the social pathologies I’ve mentioned and others, including drug use, juvenile delinquency, domestic violence, and so forth statistically are indistinguishable from the situation of urban poverty. 

We’re no longer united by a commitment to the principles of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States and the concept of America as an exceptional nation. Exceptional, not because we’re better than other people or morally superior, but exceptional because we are a country founded on a noble ideal. The concept that all men are created equal endowed by their creator with unalienable rights, as opposed to a country like most countries. This is what makes America exceptional, we’re not like most countries. Most countries are founded on blood and soil or throne and altar, a long cultural history, shared ethnicity. We’re not, we’re founded on a creed, not a religious creed, but a political creed with its roots in a deeper religious tradition, to be sure, the idea of human equality, human dignity. 

Now Americans used to have faith in that Americans, no matter where they came from, my grandparents came respectively from Italy and from Syria, but once they were here, they signed on to that creed. And it was by signing onto that creed that they became Americans. They spoke with broken English. My grandmother almost spoke no English, and yet they were Americans, as American as the people who came over on the Mayflower. Why? Because to be an American doesn’t mean to have a certain cultural or historical or ethnic identity. The American who raised his hand and made the oath of citizenship yesterday is as American as the descendants of John Winthrop.

Once belief in America as a creedal nation begins to fray and erode and be lost, well then what is there to tie Americans together? If you’re French or Japanese, you’ve got something, the old blood and soil or throne and altar alternatives. You know, you’re still united, even if you disagree. We don’t have that. If we are not united in our commitment to the basic principles of American republicanism, we are not united at all. We don’t have those other alternatives, no throne, no altar, no blood, no soil. 


The events that occurred yesterday highlight the level of certitude and commitment that a significant number of Americans have about the alleged fraudulent nature of the presidential election. So, in what way does it manifest the polarization that exists in the U.S.? Not just in terms of policy preferences, but even regarding versions of reality?

The polarization is both manifested or reflected in and enhanced by the fact that people now live in silos. People can now shut themselves off from sources of information or commentary from points of view they don’t agree with so if you’re on the left, you can read The New York Times, go to the progressive websites, watch MSNBC or CNN, and be reinforced in everything you believe constantly. If you’re on the right, you can read the Wall Street Journal editorial page, watch Fox News, go to the conservative websites and get all your so-called information and commentary from that side. 

I noticed this with both my progressive and my conservative friends. They are reinforced in everything they believe by everything they read and hear and they are easily riled up and provoked into high dudgeon by the influencers on their side. Those influencers depict people who disagree with them as bad people. So, if you spend all your time watching MSNBC and going to the ThinkProgress website and reading The New York Times you believe that even [Sen.] Marco Rubio is some sinister right wing, terrible person. And you get the equivalent from the other side, if you spend all your time watching Fox News and, and reading the conservative websites you can form the opinion that there’s no even halfway reasonable Democrat left in the country. They’re all bound and determined to impose socialism and crush all the liberties of ordinary Americans and they deeply sincerely believe this. 

Of course, that’s what happens to you when it’s all you hear. Why do people in North Korea tend to believe a certain thing? It’s because they’re not allowed to hear anything else. Now we’re allowed to hear other points of view so it’s not like North Korea, but in so many cases, Americans choose not to. 


Are the events of yesterday part of a broader trend in U.S. politics?

I think you have to see it in light of that context that I illustrated earlier — the polarization, the COVID plague, the months and months of politically oriented violence. We can go back to the shooting of the Republican congressman during the baseball game, the attack on [Sen.] Rand Paul, the intimidation of people by mobs, the vandalism against churches. All of this creates an atmosphere that is way too hospitable to a dramatic, violent uprising.


Would you see this atmosphere continuing? People are going to have to do their best to address this on both sides of the aisle.

I think that’s right. I think the new president is going to have to actually make good — which I have not expected him to do and I still think it’s a stretch to hope for it — on his promise of reaching out to people who are his ideological and partisan opponents. The trouble is, he’ll be under a lot of pressure from the left, more, I think, than he can resist, to move with an immoderate agenda, especially on social issues, abortion, attacks on religious liberty. He’ll be really pressured by his left to give them in return for their support for him, the things that they most crave and that’ll be in the domain of social issues. And that will simply inflame a lot of people on the other side.