America turns the page

WASHINGTON — Fireworks exploding spectacularly over a nearly deserted National Mall on Wednesday evening closed a nail-biting day for the United States and its longstanding experiment in democracy.

Just two weeks after a bloodthirsty mob stormed the Capitol with plans to take national leaders hostage and worse, President Joe Biden stood upon the West Front of that very building and declared, “This is a triumph not of a candidate but of a cause, the cause of democracy. We have learned again that democracy is precious, democracy is fragile, and at this moment, my friends, democracy has prevailed.”

But as he and Vice President Kamala Harris emphasized throughout the day, the work is just beginning. 

“We face an attack on democracy and on truth,” Biden said. “A raging virus. Growing inequity. The sting of systemic racism. A climate in crisis. America’s role in the world. Any one of these would be enough to challenge us in profound ways. But the fact is we face them all at once, presenting this nation with the gravest of responsibilities. Now we must step up.”

What does that look like? Community organizers, public health experts, climate advocates and scholars have some ideas. And the Biden-Harris administration has laid out an ambitious 100-Day plan to tackle all of the country’s crises at once.

They have something to build on: the country appears to have turned back a rising authoritarian tide after the “guardrails of democracy” were battered and tested under a Trump administration that did everything it could to rip them out. 

As scholar Ruth Ben-Ghiat said as part of the Renew Democracy Initiative Challenge event Tuesday, “We interrupted a process of authoritarian capture of state and society, and that is something to be celebrated.”

The democratic revival was made possible by one of the greatest surges of voter participation in American history. Black voting rights organizers in Georgia set a high bar, joined by Native organizers in Arizona, Muslim organizers in Michigan and Pennsylvania, young poll worker volunteers, secretaries of state from both major parties and civil rights attorneys nationwide. 

They braved a rising white nationalist movement fueled by the Trump administration and its allies, driven to acts of violence by fascist rallies, right-wing media and well-funded digital disinformation campaigns. After Biden was declared the winner of the election, the movement galvanized around a “Stop the Steal” propaganda effort embraced by a significant number of Republican members of Congress that culminated in the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, which intended to disrupt the peaceful transition of power.

While that anti-democratic movement persists, Democrats’ control of the White House and both chambers of Congress will provide a base of power to fortify the system against further attacks.

Proposed solutions include:

  • Holding all involved in the insurrection accountable. The FBI has arrested more than 100 members of the mob and expects to arrest many more. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced Thursday that Democrats would lead an investigation into the involvement of members of Congress. “There will be prosecution if they aided and abetted an insurrection in which people died,” she said. And former President Trump has been impeached for a second time on the charge of “willful incitement of insurrection” with a trial forthcoming.
  • Passing election reform legislation known as H.R. 1 which tackles voter suppression, gerrymandering and special interest campaign funding. The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act (H.R. 4), would reinstate a portion of the 1965 Voting Rights Act struck down by the Supreme Court in 2013.
  • Committing to racial justice and pushing reforms that dismantle institutional racism. One of President Biden’s first acts in the Oval Office was the signing of an executive order directing a “comprehensive approach to advancing equity for all, including people of color and others who have been historically underserved, marginalized, and adversely affected by persistent poverty and inequality.” 
  • Deradicalizing Americans who have been taken in by QAnon and other disinformation movements while continuing to disrupt the funding for extremist groups who took part in the Capitol attack.
  • Addressing underlying economic turmoil that has pushed so many Americans to the brink. Rebuilding rural America, with jobs that pay a living wage – be it in the coal country, or the once-prosperous manufacturing bases across the country. Calls for stepped-up government stimulus and cancellation of student debt have become louder as the pandemic has hit low-wage workers especially hard. 

At the same time, Americans will continue to grapple with the national trauma of more than 400,000 deaths due to COVID-19 and haunted thoughts of what might have been as millions of people continue to self-quarantine.

And they will carry the memory of the day when, beyond the checkpoints and steel fences, perched upon the face of the Capitol, a new administration committed to building “a more perfect union” defied an insurrection to take the helm of a damaged nation.