On Jan. 6, the junior senator from Missouri, Josh Hawley ’02, issued a final, baseless objection to Joe Biden’s electoral college victory. With a downsized posse of congressional Republicans, Hawley challenged the counting of swing states’ electoral votes, despite lacking proof that fraud or misconduct influenced any state’s election results.
Coming on the heels of pro-Trump rioting at the Capitol, showing a fist in solidarity with insurrectionists, Hawley’s behavior is seditionary. His actions suggest he is willing to abandon democratic norms and safeguards for a pat on the back from the outgoing president. As Peter Wehner wrote in a scathing essay for The Atlantic, Hawley is emblematic of a class of politicians that are “far more ambitious than they are principled.” The costs of his power play will reverberate painfully in future elections and administrations.
To present Stanford students, Hawley also serves as a reminder that the intention to serve the public, especially in political office, warrants scrutiny. While we are quick to condemn the tech-centered myopia of our classmates, perhaps the danger is not only a budding Zuckerberg in CS 106A but also the budding senator in POLISCI 1. Stanford produces many members of Congress. And the past few years have shown that what masquerades as public service might really fuel private interests and undermine public welfare.
A look at D.C. today should leave us humbled (or more humbled) about the capacity of politicians to be virtuous, but should not leave us hopeless. We have a mandate to do better. To use the social capital and become worthy of the authority that a Stanford education confers on us, to continually hold ourselves accountable to democracy, to promote freedom and equality and to ensure that our colleagues and classmates do the same.
This could mean a number of things. Most straightforwardly, it might mean studying political and service ethics, as well as tech ethics, so that we not only understand theories of voting as an accountability mechanism for the people but think about what accountability actually looks like, what might tempt someone to disregard it and how they might enact it nonetheless. The new First-Year Shared Intellectual Experience plans to inject the study of citizenship into every Stanford student’s experience, with the aim of enabling responsible and engaged citizenship. Such a change is more timely than an event. The success of this program should be an institutional priority, with views to expand its reach so that it can affect the entire student body for years to come. We should build spaces to think about and enact civic virtues outside the classroom, through volunteer and political programming on campus and beyond, even as this historic election season ends.
The University should also condemn Hawley. Members of Hawley’s party and donors have done so. President Marc Tessier-Lavigne recently brought to our attention that Stanford’s mission is to “promote the public welfare” and involves “… teaching the blessings of liberty regulated by law, and inculcating love and reverence for the great principles of government…” To me, this does not only mean showing love and reverence for democratic government, but being clear-eyed about and condemning actions that show contempt for it, such as enabling an insurrection attempt.
That said, our focus cannot just be on immoral individuals but on fixing the systems that empower them. While Hawley has proved himself exceptionally determined to undermine democracy, the problem is not just one junior senator — but a system where alternative truths flourish on Fox News, social media can help organize massive violence and the only thing that stopped political leaders from undermining a peaceful, respectful transition of power was an armed insurrection. The fact that people brought arms and Confederate flags to the literal heart of the government speaks to the persistence of white supremacy, unchecked civilian gun ownership and the moral failings of American law enforcement. These are terrible symptoms of a broken system. They deserve condemnation, to be sure, but also brave, decisive counteraction and innovation.
We, as a community oriented toward research problems and their solutions, should rise to the occasion of repairing democracy, not just regretting its disrepair. We must not only personally recognize the value of democracy and democratic citizenship, but work to protect, rebuild and reimagine it. This involves civic action through programs like the Haas Center for Public Service’s Defending Democracy fair last year, the immediate departmentalization of AAAS and a concerted effort by the University to encourage students to do at least some work in political reform, regardless of their disciplinary background, during their Stanford career. Opportunities for such work abound — for example, in the Freeman Spogli Institute, Ethics in Society Center, Haas Center and Center for Philanthropy and Civil Society to name a few. Democracy reform and defense must be an integral component of civic life at the University, through continual and long-term initiatives that frame the primary importance of a robust political system to facilitate further change.
Our task is to safeguard the country and community from producing and enabling the Hawleys of history, endowed with power but uncommitted to the principles this power should serve.
Contact Megha Parwani at mparwani ‘at’ stanford.edu.
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