The stories we tell matter. How we collectively talk about the world informs how we make sense of the world and, more importantly, how we act in the world. The collective stories that Americans tell inform how we make sense of the political disputes of our time, and they inform how we structure our society through law, policy, and the organization of public institutions.
The storming of the U.S. Capitol by Trump supporters Jan. 6 is the product of the stories the conservative movement has been telling itself for a long time now. The protesters who stormed the Capitol were angered by fantastical and baseless stories of voter fraud and the “stealing” of the presidential election. It is a dangerous story told by the president even before his loss in the November election, but conservative politicians, activists, and media personalities have been asserting without evidence that election fraud was a serious problem for years. This is an alarming story to tell that undermines confidence in representative democracy, but it is important to remember this story is wrapped up with other more perilous stories that have led the conservative movement to this place.
One of the founding documents of the modern conservative movement was William F. Buckley’s “God and Man at Yale” published in 1951. Buckley was born into unimaginable privilege, but he used the pages of “God and Man,” and the National Review which he co-founded in 1955, to argue that to be conservative in the U.S. was to be a member of an oppressed majority under the rule of a liberal elite in government, academia, and media. His was a story that framed every issue and event as a battle between a mythic community of real Americans against a cosmopolitan elite that is hostile to “traditional” American values. It was quite a story to tell for someone who spent his childhood traveling the world, whose family owned multiple estates, and who graduated from Yale University. Nevertheless, it was a story that took hold in the early conservative movement from the conspiratorial John Birch Society that saw communist infiltration everywhere, including the presidency of Dwight Eisenhower, to the draft Barry Goldwater campaigns of 1960 and 1964 to Richard Nixon’s call to a “silent majority” in 1968.
The story Buckley told is a politics of “us” and “them” that frames every issue and event as an existential struggle where compromise or civil dialog is seen as surrender to a threatening and hostile elite. This is the original sin of the modern conservative movement, and one can draw a straight line from Buckley to the incendiary rhetoric employed by Fox News media personalities, such as Tucker Carlson, newer conservative outlets, such as NewsMax TV and OANN, and the hyperbolic opinion pieces and letters to the editor printed in local news outlets, including The Courier. Today, Buckley’s politics of “us” and “them” has morphed into a story of a media elite working to undermine our shared values, a university elite brainwashing the youth, and an illegitimate Democratic Party that “steals” elections.
History does not move in a straight line and turning points are rarely singular events. What occurred in the nation’s capital city Jan. 6 is part and parcel with other dangerous events over the past decade that include the armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, white nationalist rallies from Charlottesville to Portland, and the storming of the Michigan statehouse by armed thugs in paramilitary gear (to name just a few recent examples). The storming of the Capitol is but one more example of where this story of “us” and “them” leads us. Human societies are fragile things, and the political rhetoric coming from the conservative movement is chiseling away at the foundations of our republic.
We are reaching an inflection point in American history, and how we respond will determine the kind of world our children will inherit. I urge conservatives in the Republican Party, in national and local media, and in my community to back away from this dangerous rhetoric and begin telling a new story. It is okay, even necessary, to disagree about the political issues of the day, but your fellow Americans are not your enemy. And, civil conflict is nothing to celebrate. How we respond to the political chaos we are currently witnessing will have ramifications for years to come. It is incumbent that we all, not just conservatives, begin telling new stories about our world that can help us meet the profound challenges we face as a nation and as citizens of the world. Let’s get to work.
Scott Ellison is an assistant professor of educational foundations specializing in global and national trends in education policy. The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not imply endorsement by the University of Northern Iowa.