‘Deeply Harmful Rhetoric’

Political science association apologizes for its "both sides" statement on the Capitol mobbing.

January 12, 2021
 
Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images
National Guard members stage in Washington Monday, amid heightened threats of violence.

Facing questions and critiques from its members, the American Political Science Association on Monday released an updated statement on last week's attack of the Capitol. The statement apologizes for a previous APSA statement saying that public officials on “both sides” of the political divide need to do better. It also acknowledges the racial dynamics at play Wednesday and in Trumpism more broadly.

“No tolerance should be given to the insurrectionists and the hatred and lies that motivate them,” says APSA’s new take, which is signed by Steven Rathgeb Smith, executive director, and the group’s three presidents, past, current and elect.

APSA's first, unsigned statement, released Thursday, condemned “President Trump and legislators who have continuously endorsed and disseminated falsehoods and misinformation, and who have worked to overturn the results of the presidential election.” This was uncontroversial among members.

Changing tone in its final paragraph, however, the statement praised Congress’s attempts at “reconciliation” in resuming the interrupted Electoral College certification vote following the riot. APSA also applauded what it described as an “agreement by both sides to do better and work together to dismantle the system and structures that lead to the harm.”

Almost immediately upon publication, APSA members began to ask who drafted the first statement and who approved it. Several members of the governing council have stated that the body was not consulted about the document.

Smith said Monday via email that statements are crafted in "collaboration between APSA staff and APSA presidents and/or Council members. Most statements don't go before the full council simply because of the size of the Council. What happened Wednesday was such an unforgivable tragedy on so many levels we wanted to quickly and clearly condemn anything related to the Insurrection. Unfortunately, in our haste, we chose the wrong words for the wrong time."

Content-wise, critics of the first statement said that a professional network of political scientists should not encourage reconciliation before accountability for the attack. Many also criticized APSA for using the term “both sides,” which recalls Trump’s sympathetic comments about the far-right mobbing of Charlottesville, Va., in 2017. Saying that “both sides” need to do better also lets Trump’s fiercest defenders eschew responsibility for what happened last week, these scholars said.

Anna O. Law, Herbert Kurz Chair in Constitutional Rights at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York, wrote on APSA’s Political Science Now website, “This is a terrible weak tea statement and does not rise to the severity of the occasion. No mention of white supremacy or authoritarianism? It was one party and one president who aided and abetted both. This is not a ‘both sides need to work together’ sort of situation.”

By way of comparison, Law praised the American Historical Association’s statement on the riots, which says, in part, “We deplore the inflammatory rhetoric of all the political leaders who have refused to accept the legitimacy of the results of the 2020 election and thereby incited the mob.”

Law said Monday that “reconciliation” in the first statement was “used without and before discussing accountability, truth, rule of law and bringing perpetrators to justice -- both instigators and rioters.” Looking to historical precedent, Law said reconciliation as an ideal failed following the Civil War and President Lincoln’s assassination because President Andrew Johnson didn’t punish former Confederates who’d fought against the U.S. That “leniency” ultimately paved the way for “white supremacy to defeat racial justice and more democratic practices, like Black people voting and holding political office.”

Moreover, Law said that any statement should make clear that “one party's official and leader consistently rejected democratic election results, and tried to overturn those results by lying about the valid results.”

Ben Ansell, an APSA Council member and professor of comparative democratic institutions at the University of Oxford, confirmed via email that he did not receive an email about the first statement before it was issued. Ansell also wrote on Twitter, “I’m afraid to say this statement, which includes the unfortunate phrase ‘both sides should do better’ was not run by the Council and I certainly don’t approve of this kind of equivocal response. One side was responsible.” He added, “To be precise the statement says it will encourage ‘agreement by both sides to do better’. As noted, I cannot support that part of the statement.”

William Hurst, professor of political science at Northwestern University, said the “sacking of the Capitol by a mob incited by the sitting president must not be mistaken for some petty divarication of partisan politics, about which dispassionate scholars could be expected to maintain objectivity and give equal representation to both sides.” Instead, he said, what happened last week represents a “qualitatively different, stark conflict between a president who has turned against law and the Constitution and other political actors who remain loyal to defending them.”

APSA's new statement on the riot says the words "both sides" evoked "deeply harmful rhetoric." The new version asserts that “numerous elected Republicans in the Senate, the House, and the president of the United States acted dangerously and in ways that betrayed their oaths to the Constitution. They bear responsibility and are accountable for the horrific and deadly actions on Jan. 6.”

APSA also now says it failed to “address and condemn the historical, social, and political contextual factors that led to [the riot], including xenophobia, white supremacy, white nationalism, right-wing extremism, and racism.” The new statement condemns “the racial disparities in treatment by law enforcement and the unequal application of the law,” as well.

Tommaso Pavone, a postdoctoral fellow in the PluriCourts Centre at the University of Oslo, in Norway, wrote up a heavily revised copy of the first statement summarizing the major criticisms. He said Monday that while the statement’s flaws are “fairly self-evident,” he remained concerned about the process by which the statement -- supposedly representative of APSA’s membership -- was published. Regarding the new statement, Pavone underscored that it includes plans for how APSA will approach such statements going forward.

Indeed, APSA promises a “review of the process” and a commitment to “doing a better job of seeking to understand, acknowledge and communicate the myriad factors involved in the issues we are addressing as an association and society while centering political scientists who have devoted their careers to studying these phenomena, especially Black and Indigenous Scholars, Scholars of Color, Women and other Scholars who have been marginalized historically.”

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