Republican voters, including my former students, are the check on Josh Hawley.

The week since the Capitol insurrection has been a sad one for many people. Several friends and neighbors confided in me that they are heart-broken, angry, depressed, lethargic and full of disbelief since the events of Jan. 6 in Washington, D.C. It reminds me of the public’s reaction to the 9/11 attacks.

Here in Missouri, Sen. Josh Hawley has received a great deal of attention, condemnation and calls for his resignation in editorials and letters to the editors. If Hawley’s attempt to not certify electoral votes from Arizona and Pennsylvania was intended to garner national attention to increase his name recognition, it was a gigantic success — but not in the way he would want. A national Ipsos poll found 68% of people disapproved of Hawley’s “recent behavior” compared with 24% approving. The Ipsos poll found that Republicans are about evenly split on Hawley’s recent behavior, with 49% disapproving and 46% approving.

Many social media users first impression of Hawley is the photo of his raised fist and stern face against the backdrop of the east side of the U.S. Capitol. That photo is now being used in a negative ad by the Lincoln Project and is already being shown on the Columbia airwaves.

The conservative Washington Post columnist George Will is unlikely to forget Hawley either, writing the “Trump-Hawley-Cruz insurrection against constitutional government will be an indelible stain on the nation.” Will argues that everything Sens. Hawley and Cruz “say or do or advocate should be disregarded as patent attempts to distract attention from the lurid fact of what they have become. Each will wear a scarlet “S” as a seditionist.” Those are strong words. Combined with early campaign contributors like David Humphrey and Hallmark Corporation announcing their disapproval, Hawley has an uphill climb to gain reelection in 2024, but he does have time.

Hawley’s personal political ambition seems to repeatedly drown his good judgment. In his recent Senate stunt to not certify several state electoral votes, Hawley not only ignored the wisdom and wishes of his majority leader and other senior colleagues but also of senators of his own party in states whose votes he was attempting to not accept. Like Trump, Hawley ignored state officials, such as the Georgia secretary of state — a fellow republican — and more than 60 courts that did not find fraud.

When a book publisher withdrew plans to publish Hawley’s book because of the public reaction to Jan. 6’s events, Hawley’s first response was to play the victim and say that his First Amendment rights were being violated. Hawley, who taught constitutional law, knows that the First Amendment applies to government not to private corporations.

Politicians, not just Trump and Hawley, are quite skilled at spinning distortions and lies for their immediate benefit. This is a national epidemic such that I wonder if teachers and professors are not partly responsible for politicians’ penchant for incomplete analysis, rhetorical distortions and misuse of history.

In that light, I’ve been curious to learn the reactions of my former students to recent events. It would be comforting to magically observe my former students who lean Republican and will play a role in determining Sen. Hawley’s future and that of the Republican party.

Between 1986-2013, I taught more than 3,000 MU undergraduates in classes of under 75 students. I also directed student internships and taught several senior political science capstone classes, so I got to know students rather well. In the classes, or groups, where I became aware of students’ party identification, my impression is that MU undergraduates lean slightly, maybe 55%, Republican.

Looking back today, I can see three different types of Republican students: apolitical, party activists, party zealots. About half of my Republican students are probably “apolitical”— they vote Republican, are moderate and mostly focused on their occupations (lawyers, teachers, business) and families and could easily vote independently. About 40% are “party activists” who work in government or politics, who are Republicans but have other values that they promote and struggle to balance with the party line. About 10% of students who I sense are Republicans are “party zealots” — true believers not much concerned with opposing facts.

Higher education doesn’t do much to motivate party zealots to consider other points of view. I tried to emphasize that ideology and political rhetoric are not analysis, but I was no match for their commitment, verbal ability and aggressive personality. I bet Hawley’s professors feel the same way.

It is the 40% of my former students who are “party activists” that I am most concerned and curious about. Many of them are in sticky political environments on Capitol Hill, lobbying firms, the state legislature and government offices where they are challenged by the expectation that they walk the party line. It is these Republicans who will determine Hawley’s future.

If I had a 75-minute seminar with them, I hope I would hear that they are carrying out their positions in a public interest way not just as a cog in a campaign machine. I have several questions I would ask them in the name of the American people.

Why so much political polarization? What can you do to reduce it?

Since Jan. 6, we need both accountability and healing, but healing often sounds like “moving on without addressing the problem.” On a 10-point scale with 1 being “accountability” and 10 being “healing” where should we be?

What do you tell your kids about American politics? About President Trump? About the events of Jan. 6?

How can the U.S. adopt political reforms to increase citizen influence and election civility and integrity?

Are you satisfied with your career choice? Would you get involved in politics again?

I would end the imaginary class with Thomas Paine’s “These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.”

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