Following the Jan. 6 violent riots at the United States Capitol building, politicians, celebrities and everyday people have called for a second impeachment of President Donald Trump for his involvement in stoking the fires of the rioters. On Jan. 13, those calls were heard, and Trump was impeached by the U.S. House of Representatives. Four political scientists at NC State participated in the call for Trump’s removal from the presidency by signing an open letter written by Dartmouth University political scientist Brendan Nyhan.
Teaching assistant professor Gordon Ballingrud, professor Steven Greene, associate professor Mark Nance and associate professor Michael Struett all signed the letter. According to Greene, Nyhan, who is known for his phrase, “What would you say if you saw this in another country?,” put together this open letter, or a letter that was written with the intent of being published, as a way of calling for serious consequences and repercussions for a president who attempted to undermine free and fair democracy in the United States.
Greene supported the open letter because he sees Trump as a person who has been a threat to democracy since the beginning of his presidency and believes it is his duty to defend democracy.
“I’ve been doing this for long enough that there’s obviously been other presidents that I’ve disagreed with strenuously on various matters, but that’s a very different thing than saying that they’re threats to our democracy,” Greene said. “People really need to understand that this goes so far beyond any ideological disagreement; it’s really about whether you really believe in the idea of democracy.”
Nance also believes that Trump should have been removed prior to the Capitol riots.
“I think the most important point for me — and the clearest case for removal — stems from the Georgia phone call,” Nance said. “The president there clearly, directly asks for officials to find votes that would put him over the top. That should not be allowed.”
Greene sees his signing of the letter as a part of his role as a political scientist in a democratic society. He believes political science instructors should allow their students to make their own opinions about ideological differences, but should hold firm when democracy is threatened.
“I love this Latin phrase, ‘sine qua non’, ‘without this, nothing,’” Greene said. “It’s not our place to tell our students what to believe about abortion or healthcare, but it is our place as people who study democracy, who study United States government, to really uphold these democratic principles and push for these principles and teach our students why they’re important.”
Nance slightly disagrees. He believes that political scientists have no larger role in the democratic process than any other person. He doesn’t even necessarily believe the letter will actually change anything. He sees his signing as contributing to a “chorus of voices” calling for repercussions and showing that this is not OK. Nance thinks a political science instructor’s main role in their students’ lives is teaching the skill of critical thinking.
Nance, who studies comparative politics, believes that political scientists studying American government are not the most effective at understanding or characterizing what happened at the Capitol. He says political scientists have been too quick to see the United States as a unique and ideal democracy where this kind of thing could never happen.
“For a long time, we have lived with this idea of American exceptionalism and somehow democracy wasn’t a fragile state of being,” Nance said. “[Political scientists who study American politics], for a long time, have continued to study it as a unique city on a hill and failed, for the most part, to take the lessons of the rest of the world. I don’t think this threat has gone away.”
Further, Nance points to other areas of study, such as sociology, anthropology and psychology, as being more apt to understand and effectively define what happened at the Capitol, especially considering the racist and racialized aspects of the riot.
“This is a fundamentally racialized situation,” Nance said. “It’s not a coincidence that the vast majority of the people participating in this were white. Race has been an especially fraught question since day one. I think political science as a whole has not done a good job of wrestling with that, whereas other disciplines have.”
Both Greene and Nance had similar responses when questioned about whether the discord caused by impeachment is worth it.
“We don’t not do the right thing because it sows discord,” Greene said. “Ask any parent. Certainly, in general, less discord is better than more discord, but the idea that that should be a reason to not hold a person or people accountable is not a good argument.”
Nance was realistic about the largely Republican fears of increased discord due to impeachment.
“What does that mean?” Nance said. “Does it mean that people will storm the Capitol and stage a coup? Because we’re there … We’re in this upside down world where the side that perpetrated the attempted coup or those that have given shelter to the groups that are trying to stage a coup are asking for reconciliation in some form that we need to move past this. I agree we need to move past this, but we also need some kind of accountability.”
Nance doesn’t see this threat ending with the transition to a Biden administration. He notes that coups are ongoing and are rarely one-time events and said it must change the way we view our democracy and the threats to it moving forward.
“Now we’ve opened this large Pandora’s box,” Nance said. “We’ve identified this group of people, some who work for the government themself, who are intent on overthrowing it. It should and it must change how we think about it now. All of a sudden you see things as possible that seemed impossible before.”
“They’re not banning him because of his conservative viewpoints,” Greene said. “They’re banning him for his violently-undermining-American-democracy viewpoints. You can go on Twitter and post 10,000 posts a day about abortion, about the environment; you can even call climate change a hoax, so to say it’s about conservative viewpoints? No. It’s about viewpoints which threaten to violently undermine American democracy.”
Nance said we should all keep in mind the history of coups throughout American history and the world. With this history in mind, Nance finds it easier to understand how this could happen as well as understand why this threat isn’t going away any time soon.
“Coups are not uncommon,” Nance said. “The US itself has been involved in perpetuating a number of those coups. It’s important to acknowledge that the US has played a role in overthrowing many governments, including democratically-elected governments, especially since the second World War.”
However, Nance offers some advice: to squash election fraud myths from the federal to the local levels.
“I think the thing that will matter a great deal here will be leadership down to the local level,” Nance said. “How will the state parties respond? Will they continue to promote ideas that the election was fundamentally flawed and unfair or will they say, ‘There is no evidence of those claims?’”
As of now, a date for the Senate trial of Donald Trump has still not been confirmed.