Headlines are calling it the “GOP baseball shooting.” But when James T. Hodgkinson III opened fire Wednesday morning on Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) and a group of other GOP members of Congress, he was not just attacking Republicans. He was attacking the republic.
Early reports suggest partisanship may have motivated Hodgkinson. He apparently campaigned for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and hated the way Republicans have been running the government. These are not remarkable characteristics. What made Hodgkinson different from thousands of other Americans was his apparent conclusion that his feelings justified a treasonous assault on the legislative branch of the federal government. This deranged conviction seemingly led Hodgkinson to turn his back on civilized society and embrace the cruel barbarism of force.
More than perhaps any other institution in the country, the legislature represents the notion that a pluralistic society is capable of orderly, democratic self-government. In the United States, disputes are settled in Congress and the courts, with words and votes. These institutions emerged from centuries of experience with warlords, chieftains, despots and divine-right kings. Their wisdom has been continually reconfirmed as murderous dictators rose and fell and political revolutions of various ideological stripes threw countries into chaos and misery. Brutality continually reveals itself to be a cruel and frail basis for government, representative democracy the fairest and most stable way to handle social conflicts.
The system often feels unfair. Skewed electoral maps favor one party over another. Rural areas are overrepresented. Party fringes often exert more control over the agenda than the broad middle, where much of the country really is and the only place from which it can be effectively governed. Political money skews legislation. After an election such as last year’s, it is easy for the losing side to feel hopeless and desperate.
But voters reshape Congress every two years. Between elections, the complex process of coalition-building precludes rapid upheaval that would trample on the interests of the minority and promotes social cohesion. Though many of its steps may seem to be aimless or backward, over time and put together, the Congress’s movements resemble a march forward. If being an American means anything, it means respecting this representative style of government.
Congress has its problems. But, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, the alternative is not better. It was on bloody display Wednesday morning.