The following is a guest contribution and reflects the author’s views alone. For information on how to submit an article to the Opinion Section, click here.
In 2016, the American Whig-Cliosophic society awarded Ted Cruz ’92 the James Madison Award, their highest distinction for those who have contributed to “the betterment of society.” While Cruz’s history of public service may have deserved the award in 2016, his recent actions — notably, his attempt to overturn results from the Electoral College, and the legitimacy he gave to false claims of a fraudulent election — contributed to the misled sense of righteousness that propelled rioters to storm the Capitol on Jan. 6. Considering his actions dramatically contributed to undermining faith in our democracy, I call for Whig-Clio to withdraw the recognition.
I wish I had been shocked by the violence in Washington. As I watched rioters parade the Confederate flag through the halls of Congress, posing for pictures in the inner chambers, I was overcome by a sad resignation that this was simply America today. The anger I felt during previous actions of the Trump Presidency — such as his refusal to condemn white supremacy or his discriminatory travel ban — had run out, replaced with an expectation that these offenses would simply be followed by even more egregious events. When I ask myself how I could have grown so pessimistic, I only find one answer: a lack of accountability.
In the past four years, there were many opportunities for elected officials to demonstrate accountability and discourage this tide of violence by standing up against the former president’s actions; however, partisanship and petty politics won time and time again. Somehow, the very concept of accountability has become political. Any effort to report on the former president’s numerous scandals was painted as a smear campaign, and the former president berated party members who dared step out of line. We grew to accept that “alternative facts” were a mainstay of the former president’s rhetoric. To call this anything but a horrifying deterioration of democracy would be a mischaracterization.
As the Capitol riots showed, this lack of accountability has consequences. Thousands stormed the Capitol because they believed what Trump and other politicians told them: that they were stopping corrupt officials from stealing an election. Trump, Cruz, and others’ insistence on challenging the election results legitimized the protests that culminated in deadly riots; to suggest anything else is disingenuous. Had we looked past the thin veil of partisanship to call out these actions, six people might not have died.
Accountability must start somewhere, and I believe it starts with us — the students of Princeton. We must call out these offenses when we see them and call each other out when we fail to do so appropriately.
In particular, I turned my eyes to Whig-Clio. As one of the most influential collegiate political societies in the country and as a body that honored Senator Cruz just four years prior, they are uniquely positioned to take action. I formally asked Whig-Clio to strip Cruz of the James Madison Award, but after conversations with multiple members of the governing council, it became clear that Clio, the conservative wing of the organization, would not condemn him.
Though deeming Cruz’s attempt to undermine the election results “unfortunate,” Clio Party Chair Mathew Wilson ’24 argued the Senator was not responsible for the violence that followed in a public statement on the protests.
This is not the case. Attempts by anyone to baselessly contest election results are wrong, even if permitted by Senate rules. Implying that because one party did it, the other can as well, is not justified. We should also note the context of Cruz’s challenge: unlike 2005 and 2017, where both democratic challengers conceded the election, Cruz’s recent challenges came as Trump continued to deny losing.
Cruz’s actions legitimized Trump’s narrative, whereas democratic challenges did not have the express support of senior leadership, and were not prefaced by a domestic terror attack. Cruz argued this objection was to establish an election commission “to consider serious claims of voter fraud,” of which there is yet to be a single credibly documented instance.
Wilson also argued that Cruz was not responsible for the mob that invaded the Capitol and offered the Senator’s condemnation of these actions as proof of innocence. Again, this is not the case. Simply condemning an action is not proof that you did not instigate it, as Trump’s recent statements show. Cruz’s prominent role in legitimizing lies about the election results had a direct role in encouraging the protests.
In a bid for accountability, I call for Wilson to rationalize why Cruz should not be stripped of the award and respond to three questions. First, did Ted Cruz make baseless claims of election fraud without concrete evidence? Second, is there a direct link between Cruz’s actions to challenge the election results and the deadly protests that took place in Washington? Third, should Ted Cruz be stripped of the James Madison Award?
I believe the answer to all three is yes (if that was not obvious already). In fact, I believe that answering yes to the first two questions would require us to answer yes to the third. As we have seen, verbal condemnation alone has lost practically all effectiveness in keeping politicians accountable. We must back our words with actions, otherwise we give a free pass to those in power. While I applaud Whig-Clio for condemning the protests and Cruz’s actions, this is insufficient. I assert that Whig-Clio must withdraw the James Madison Award as well.
I am not alone in calling for accountability. Some students and alumni have called on the University to censor Cruz, bar him from honorary titles, and consider rescinding his degree. There is a precedent for such action, as Rudy Giuliani had his honorary degree stripped by Middlebury College for playing a similar legitimizing role in the deadly riots. The University also recently established a precedent for addressing the improper actions of famous alumni, such as the Trustees’ vote to remove Woodrow Wilson’s name from the School of Public and International Affairs and the Residential College.
Holding people accountable is not an attack, but a push that requires further justification for our actions. This action should not be mistaken as a “callout,” or an attempt to expose someone in our community; this is a “call-in,” designed to start candid conversations and a method I use consistently as an RCA. In fact, I hope anyone who finds it necessary writes a similar piece that calls me in and attempts to hold me accountable. All I know is that the old way of talking around issues has to go, and we must start talking directly and openly.
Accountability must start with us — you reading this, me writing this, and everyone on Princeton’s campus. Let us start here.
Austin Mejia is a senior pursuing an independent concentration in Computer Science and Public Policy. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.