Preventing the Next Insurrection: The Virtue of Limited Government

Throughout history, many governments have fallen at the hands of barbarians. A year ago today, it almost happened in the United States.

Gallows erected by rioters at the U.S. Capitol, January 6, 2021. Vice President Pence was saved by Capitol police before he could be captured and hanged by the mob.

On the anniversary of the January 6th insurrection and riot at the U.S. Capitol, we will read many erudite journalists and hear eloquent political speeches expounding upon the terrible events of that day, and why Republicans should turn away from the dangerous conspiracy theories of Donald Trump. We will be reminded of the police officers who were beaten with U.S. flag poles; the calls to “Hang Mike Pence!” as a gallows was readied for the vice president who refused to heed his boss’s demand to overturn a legitimate election; and the shameful failure of influential politicians to condemn the most influential leader of the mob, the sitting President Trump himself, who sat in the Oval Office and watched the riot on TV, taking no action for hours as his most fervent followers stormed the seat of our nation’s government and threatened the lives of members of Congress.

Such reminders are well and good — but we should reflect not only on what happened and what fueled such appalling political violence, but on how to make sure that nothing like that ever happens again.

Simply urging Republicans to condemn Trump and his inflammatory lies about a stolen election is nothing more than wishful thinking. They’ve had a year to do so, and as the Washington Post reports in a front-page story, Trump’s grip on the GOP is stronger than ever. In fact, supporting the Big Lie that Trump was the rightful winner of the 2020 election has become practically a required prerequisite for running for political office as a Republican today.

Unfortunately, the Democrats are not reacting to the situation in the most reasonable way. Instead of prioritizing the prosecution of Trump and his co-conspirators for sedition — as would happen in any law-abiding democracy when a former president took the breathtaking action of an attempted coup — Attorney General Merrick Garland has focused on promoting liberal causes such as defending abortion rights from state-based restrictions and deploying the power of the FBI to intimidate parents who argue for conservative values at school board meetings. Meanwhile, President Biden and his progressive allies in Congress are trying to pass one of the biggest increases in government spending in American history: the “Build Back Better” bill that would create massive new entitlement programs such as federally funded (and regulated) free preschool for American children. This, at a time when Americans are already fighting fiercely with each other about the politicization of K-12 education.

There is positive path forward for America, a plan to make sure that the horrors of Trumpism and January 6th are part of our past, and not our future. That plan is not to expand the size and scope of government; in fact, it is quite the opposite.

There is… a plan to make sure that the horrors of Trumpism and January 6th are part of our past, and not our future. That plan is not to expand the size and scope of government; in fact, it is quite the opposite.

We need to consider why millions of people have decided to believe the thoroughly debunked lie that Trump won the 2020 election and why thousands of people stormed the Capitol a year ago to try to overturn the true results of that election that resulted in Biden’s victory. They did so because the United States government has become so powerful, and the American people so divided by a culture war in which both sides seek to use the awesome power of the government to impose their values on everyone including those who think differently, that many Americans have decided that the end justifies the means — that controlling this massive behemoth of a government is justified by any means necessary, to prevent its mighty powers from falling into the hands of those on the other side of the growing cultural divide. If you look at the evidence of history, the end result of such a situation is usually civil war.

I believe America is closer to that tragic outcome than we have ever been since 1860. But there is a noble, virtuous way to prevent it: by reducing the power of the U.S. federal government, decentralizing our political affairs, and allowing the people of the states and local communities more say in governing themselves according to their diverse values and priorities. Today, there is no moral issue of such gravity as slavery that demands federal intervention — none of our divisive issues come even close, objectively speaking.

The path of decentralization is a solution that could actually work, unlike the proliferation of well-intended but sadly empty talk about restoring decency and liberal democratic traditions to our national politics. Yes, it might be nice if Americans could be more united as one people, believing in the same ideals and happily working together to build a better society under the auspices of an ambitious national government that would make life better for everyone while respecting each other’s differences. But that cannot happen if the differences among Americans are too vast, and the disrespect too deep, so that attempts at unity take the form of attempting to enforce conformity. Too often, nowadays, the voters are seen as a mere inconvenience to be bulldozed over when they don’t agree with one’s own ideology.

The problem isn’t only Trump and the Republican Party; not even the Democrats respect the will of the voters anymore. For example, when moderate Democratic Senator Joe Manchin — whose centrist views are the furthest left that could ever be expected from a senator from overwhelmingly Republican West Virginia — resisted tremendous pressure to support President Biden’s massive proposed expansion of government spending, he has been faced with vitriolic public attacks from the White House, causing Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to suggest that Manchin should consider switching parties. Congresswoman Cori Bush even went so far as to play the race card, calling Manchin “anti-Black,” simply because he thinks government spending should be expanded somewhat less than progressives like herself are hoping for.

So, neither party today actually respects the traditions of democracy — of letting the votes be counted and laws be passed, or not passed, based on each political representative’s freely chosen vote. The dominant voices in both parties believe in raw power for their own political faction, using lies, slanders, and especially in the case of many Republicans, even seditious conspiracies and the threat of violence to get their way.

This is because too many chips are on the table. So much power is concentrated in Washington — and that power always seems to be growing — that control of the U.S. federal government is a prize that many people would do anything to attain. They would lie, cheat, bully, threaten, maybe even kill, so that their preferred faction will be the ones in charge of wielding so much power, instead of the other faction that they see as the enemy. According to a disturbing new poll, more than one-third of Americans — including 40% of Republicans, 41% of independents, and 23% of Democrats — say they believe violence against the government is sometimes justified. And these numbers are much higher than just a few years ago.

So much power is concentrated in Washington — and that power always seems to be growing — that control of the U.S. federal government is a prize that many people would do anything to attain.

What if we turn down the heat by taking some power away from the incredibly powerful government in Washington? Maybe things would be better and more peaceful if different states, cities, and communities were free to pursue their own policies on many of the issues that divide us today at the national level. West Virginia, for example, might choose not to have government-funded preschool, so that their residents could have lower taxes. California might have a government that provides lots of programs and services, at the cost of much higher taxes. People could choose to live in a state that fits their values and preferences. People would not feel so much of a need to make sure that their party wins control of the federal government by any means necessary. Instead, Americans might get more involved in grassroots local politics, and actually pay attention to what their city council or state legislature is doing — as was originally intended by the founders of our country.

I firmly believe that unless the power of the federal government is reduced, the risk of a catastrophic breakdown of the system will remain high, and it may even be inevitable. That breakdown may come through the overthrow of a legitimate election, such as Trump attempted in 2020 and may very well attempt again in 2024. It may come through the secession of one or more states after losing an election to the preferred candidate of other states, whom they see as utterly unacceptable (Trump 2024?), as happened in 1860. Or it may come through a general breakdown of the social order with widespread corruption, dysfunction and anarchy, as increasing numbers of people hate and distrust each other and a government they no longer believe represents them. This could result in a military dictatorship or the dissolution of the United States into several or many countries, as well as the internal breakup of states, gang warfare, and the possibility of genocide.

I don’t want to see any of these things happen, and I have concluded the most realistic way to prevent such scenarios is to deescalate the situation by taking some of the chips off the table — take some of the powers away from the U.S. federal government, as conservatives have long proposed. I say this as someone who, for many years, believed in the liberal goal of a larger and more powerful government to solve America’s social problems. That worldview no longer meets the needs of the moment.

After the extremely divisive Trump years, the horrific events of January 6, 2021, and the growing threat of political extremism, insurrection against our Constitution, and politically motivated violence, there is one problem we should all be focused on solving: the threat to the very survival of our constitutional republic. Big government has become too dangerous, so we’d better decentralize our country. It might be the only way we can save it.