Despite insurrection, Constitution "worked" during January 6 armed attack on Capitol

Current and former GVSU Presidents Haas, Lubbers, Mantella, and Murray, along with Jeffrey Rosen in a Zoom webinar screen.
Image credit - Screenshot | Amanda Pitts

Despite a strong challenge in the face of an armed insurrection in the U.S. Capitol on January 6, the U.S. Constitution worked, and ultimately resulted in the peaceful transfer of power from one presidential administration to the next, said Jeffrey Rosen, president and CEO of the National Constitution Center. 

Rosen was the guest speaker at a February 24 virtual presidential roundtable hosted by President Philomena Mantella and former presidents Arend Lubbers, Mark Murray and Thomas Haas.

The roundtable focused on the effectiveness and meaning of the Constitution in the face of insurrection and political polarization. 

Rosen said even though an armed mob descended on the Capitol, the original intentions of the framers of the Constitution held, allowed election results to be certified, and stood up to one of the toughest tests the Constitution has seen in the history of the country.

Rosen dove deep into the history of the Constitution, citing visions of the founding fathers that would allow the Constitution they were drafting at the time to overcome mobs of citizens "driven by passion, rather than reason."

Rosen said the founders' fear of "mobs incited by demagogues caused them to draft a Constitution strong enough to create a government based on reasoned thought."

The distinction between reason and passion, Rosen said, was central to the framework of the nation's founding document. Citing examples from the Boston Tea Party to Abraham Lincoln in the 1860s, Rosen explained that the founders thought the difficulty of organizing large numbers of people in the early days of the country would allow for a sufficient "cooling period" to allow rational thought to overcome inflamed rhetoric of the moment.

Rosen said social media and technology have overcome that barrier. "We all know the many technological and institutional and political changes that have undermined the vision of virtue," Rosen said. "Social media has served to inflame us. It's clear that posts based on emotion travel faster on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube than the founders ever imagined. It's far easier to rally around the most inflamed ideas rather than the most thoughtful ones."

Rosen said the Constitution had many chances to fail surrounding the January 6 attack, but didn't. "We can be grateful for the institutions, from legislative to judiciary, that allowed the peaceful transfer of power to take place, but we are facing serious challenges that the framers did not. Checks and balances helped work through the challenge," Rosen said. 

The "echo chamber" that many social media users occupy is driven by problematic social media algorithms, Rosen said, which often serve increasingly extreme content to users, which can drive online radicalization. 

The university presidents weighed in on the topic, each agreeing that the first step to healing growing political polarization is addressing each other in respectful terms and agreeing to have a civil dialogue. 

President Mantella noted that healing growing tensions is difficult, if not impossible, when people are told they can't participate because of the views they hold. 

Lubbers said democratic society must be made to work by agreeing to compromise in disagreements, and by maintaining courtesy toward each other.

Haas said the January 6 attack caused him to lose sleep, after watching in disbelief. He said we all have a responsibility to the nation, and encouraged citizens to serve others. 

Murray said the discussion brought him a degree of hope. "It shows that if we can use temperance and prudence and humility, we can get back to reason, and engage more civilly," he said. "In the face of crisis, there are millions of people looking and aspiring for hope and working to do the right thing."


Sign up and receive the latest Grand Valley headlines delivered to your email inbox each morning.