Commentary: Have we learned the necessary lessons in the year since last Jan. 6?
A pro-Trump mob breaks into the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington, D.C. (Win McNamee | Getty Images)
One year after the attack on the Capitol in Washington, D.C., our country finds itself in even graver danger than it was on that terrible, unprecedented day. A year after the attempted coup – and it was an attempted coup – we must understand and respond to that day in the context of history, because if one thing is certain, it is this: the United States is not immune to the patterns of history. If we fail to take this truth into account, we will lose our democracy for good.
History holds many examples of democratic governments descending into authoritarianism. Long-lasting, pluralistic democracy is by far the exception in human history, not the rule. At 245 years old, our democracy is already comparatively aged, yet somehow most Americans seem to believe that its continued survival is inevitable. Perhaps this belief can be attributed to the popular notion of “American exceptionalism,” that principle that, much to the chagrin of citizens in many other countries, allows us to swagger around the globe believing ourselves to be special and superior to everyone else.
Yet that same exceptionalism assumes that our democracy will survive on autopilot. Gifted to us by the Founding Fathers, it assumes that democracy is part of our heritage, and it can never be taken away. This is a fallacy, and it fails to account for the responsibility that was also placed upon our shoulders by those same Founding Fathers – mere flawed mortals who understood they were creating a government for a future they couldn’t even imagine. Democracy then, as now, was both precious and fragile. As I have written before, democracy isn’t something a country is; rather, it’s something the people of a country do. And it certainly cannot survive and thrive under continual attack from within, especially if those attacks are not adequately recognized and defended by the populace.
Warning signs of the danger to our democratic republic abound. Historians and survivors of past authoritarian regimes keep ringing warning bells, but how many people are actually listening? Timothy Snyder, a historian who specializes in, among other things, the Holocaust, is among those who have repeatedly pointed out numerous parallels between the current state of U.S. political activity and 1930s Germany. Snyder has called out the Big Lie and illustrated the violence that might be – and has already been – born from it. Last month, former President Ronald Reagan’s Solicitor General Charles Fried, who was born in Prague, Czechoslovakia, in 1935, spoke to CNN’s Christiane Amanpour about the dangers of today’s MAGA Republican Party, coming into and maintaining power via gerrymandering and unfair voting systems. He warned: “Czechoslovakia was a real democracy. And the demons of hell came out and spoiled that for 50 years. Now, I see those people are reemerging. I hear the same tunes. And it scares me.”
Are historians and witnesses like Snyder and Fried to be mere Cassandras, that mythical Trojan priestess condemned to prognosticate the truth only to have it fall on deaf ears? Or will sufficient numbers of Americans committed to our democracy ultimately listen in time?
Things feel better in our country today because they appear calmer than they were a year ago. An indisputably more “normal” president occupies the White House. There are ongoing investigations in the House of Representatives and at the U.S. Department of Justice into the Jan. 6 attack, and hundreds of those who stormed the Capitol have been convicted and are serving jail time.
Yet, as James Madison once wrote, tyranny arises “on some favorable emergency.” We are awash in emergencies, pandemic and otherwise. The calm in the White House and elsewhere belies the anger and autocratic power plays increasingly dominating state legislatures and school boards, Congress and other governmental bodies. GOP-led state legislatures are passing laws to restrict voting and, in some cases, enabling their own ability to stay in power and overturn election results. GOP officials are replacing non- or bipartisan election officials with those who are committed to doing their bidding. The MAGA GOP is operating a concerted strategy to dominate school board meetings and intimidate school board members, including threatening violence against them for disagreeing with their points of view.
When authoritarianism is not adequately recognized and extinguished, it will thrive. When political violence is not called out and punished, it will grow.
On this Jan. 6, 2022, it is crucial that Americans understand the dire nature of the threat before us. It is a tragic fact that the MAGA-led GOP no longer seeks democracy, but instead is pushing for one-party rule. The United States is just as vulnerable to history as any other nation that has ever existed on the Earth, and if we are to survive as a democracy, we must act to preserve it. The investigations must include the organizers of the coup attempt, and indictments must follow. Consequences must be imposed. The American people must not permit GOP-led takeovers of state and local political bodies such that no other political interests have opportunities for political participation; such a result would be fundamentally un-American. The threat is here; the time to resist is now.
Congress must pass voting rights legislation and democratic (small d) elections must be strengthened. Citizens need to participate in the working of our democracy by voting at all levels of government, actively supporting candidates who support democracy and by calling out bad, autocratic behavior when they see it.
A year after Jan. 6, 2021, we have more cause than ever to ask if our American democracy will survive. Let’s act now instead of just waiting around to find out.
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