When Teachers College’s Peter T. Coleman, Professor of Psychology & Education, was interviewed last weekend by National Public Radio’s Cathy Lewis, he warned — as he has throughout the past year — that political polarization in America is, by some measures, worse than it was after the Civil War. “Since the 1970s, on the ground, we’ve seen citizens become more and more estranged from members of the other party, having different value priorities, different news systems we attend to that basically present reality in fundamentally different ways,” said Coleman, who directs TC’s Morton Deutsch International Center for Cooperation & Conflict Resolution. He paused, and added, in words that now sound eerily prophetic, “So we haven’t tipped into a level of violence like the Civil War, and God forbid that happens, but we’re definitely on a dangerous trajectory.”
Flash forward to Wednesday, January 6th. The nation watches, stunned, as an armed mob of President Trump’s supporters descends on the U.S. Capitol Building in an attack that leaves four dead and a score of police offers wounded.
“This was an absolute disgrace that was entirely predictable,” TC alumnus Basil Smikle (Ph.D. ’19), former executive director of the New York State Democratic Party, tells Caroline Hyde, Romaine Bostick and Joe Weisenthal of Bloomberg’s “What’d You Miss?” Smikle, now a TC adjunct professor and lecturer at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, adds: “This looks, to many of us, like an attempted coup.”
For Smikle, there were two immediate takeaways from the bizarre scene.
“Especially as an African American man, I look at the difference in treatment between Black Lives protesters and how they were talked about as being rioters, versus what we’re seeing here,” he said.
Smikle was also incredulous at the ease with which the mob breached the Capitol Building.
“How many of us who have been in politics have been in that building and realize how difficult it is to just get inside to walk around — particularly, if you remember, after those Capitol police officers were shot some years ago?” he said. Yet in Wednesday’s debacle, there were “people walking around with lecterns and podiums from the floor of the House and Senate. I cannot imagine how this could be possible with the kind of security I’ve seen or assume would exist in that building.”
That question, he suggested, is closely linked with the issue of Trump’s remaining days in office. “I do think that as Americans we need to look very closely at our government and our government leaders, because there might be many others in the ranks who are still siding with Trumpism — and this is the impact of it.”
More broadly, both TC commentators pondered the issue of how the nation can heal and begin to collaborate to tackle the vast problems it faces.
Since the 1970s, on the ground, we’ve seen citizens become more and more estranged from members of the other party, having different value priorities, different news systems we attend to that basically present reality in fundamentally different ways. So we haven’t tipped into a level of violence like the Civil War, and God forbid that happens, but we’re definitely on a dangerous trajectory.
—Peter T. Coleman, Professor of Psychology & Education, speaking days before the mob violence
Coleman, who’s newest book, The Way Out: How to Overcome Toxic Polarization, will be published later this year by Columbia University Press, was hopeful that with “a clear task ahead of them in terms of fighting COVID and trying to build a recovering economy,” the incoming Biden administration “might capture the attention of the public” with “some immediate wins.” The “good news,” he said, is that “there’s a growing group of Americans that are really fed up with the vitriol, hate, fear mongering and dysfunction of Washington. They really want functional government and compromise.” The task for the Biden administration — and for all seeking to build bridges between different constituencies — is not about “trying to change the minds of the more extreme voices, it’s about offering a different way of moving forward for people in the middle.” [Read a recent column by Coleman on Medium offering advice to President-elect Biden on how to unite the nation.]
Smikle expressed his hope that “Americans broadly will realize the consequences of their votes.
“When they go to the polls in 2021 and 2022, whether at the federal or local level, with these images in mind” voters will be “thinking that the people they elect to office should perhaps be striking more moderate, conciliatory tones,” he said.
I do think we can start to build on the message that your vote matters, that elections have consequences. Because unfortunately, this” — the mob at the Capitol Building — “is a consequence of an election that took place four years ago.
—Political consultant and adjunct faculty member Basil Smikle (Ph.D. '19), speaking after the attack
Right now, politicians perceive a “reelection disincentive” to working with someone on the opposite side of the aisle, and the result is that “we don’t have the kind of collaboration in Congress that we would like to see.” That problem, in turn, stems from gerrymandering – the manipulation of voter district boundaries to favor party interests. With recent national census, there’s hope for changing that picture, Smikle said. In the meantime, he’s hopeful that “voters really do understand the connections between policies and governance. And if we can hammer that home over and over and over again, then I do think we can start to build on the message that your vote matters, that elections have consequences. Because unfortunately, this” — the mob at the Capitol Building — “is a consequence of an election that took place four years ago.”