The Re-Beginning of American Democracy01-21-2021
There has been a lot of worry recently about the health of American democracy. What the events of the last two weeks have confirmed, however, is that American democracy is quite robust and healthy. In spite of a President who sought to undermine an election, the system worked. The voters rejected a dangerous and narcissistic and corrupt President by over seven million votes and a large electoral college mandate. State electoral officials around the country guaranteed that an election amidst a devastating pandemic was safe, secure, and fair. The courts heard lawsuits challenging the results and disposed of them expeditiously. And Congress, in spite of showboating by over 100 spineless and power-lustful Republicans Congress people, did its duty and resoundingly confirmed the election.
A few hundred right-wing extremists, egged on by a President violating his oath of office, sought to undo the election. They did damage. But not only did they fail miserably; they actually initiated an unexpected and deeply positive counter-reaction.
Since the failed uprising, support for President Trump has plummeted. Many—but not enough—Republicans have recognized that their enabling of the President had crossed a line. They recoiled. Whether they impeach the ex-President, as they should, is an open question. But for now, Trumpism is in retreat. There is a temptation to hope we just witnessed the last inglorious end to an inglorious presidency, one that will restore some semblance of normalcy and political dignity in Washington. As I wrote shortly after the coup attempt,
“There is a hope that William James' two habits of American democracy—the willingness to accept political defeat and the resentment of those who would violently disturb the public peace—are being restored by the collective condemnation of the mob attack and the reassertion of basic democratic values.
Such a hope, however welcome, ignores some basic realities. The country was saved by brave and principled public servants such as Brad Raffensberger, the Republican Secretary of State in Georgia who stood up to President Trump and insisted on counting votes fairly and resisting the conspiracy theories spread by the President. And yet, across the country, members of QAnon and other conspiratorial Trumpist Republicans are entering public service. There is little doubt that some states in this country will have public servants—potentially on the left as well as the right—who see their job as pushing their political agendas by any means necessary. The example set by the Trump mobs along with120 House Republicans and six Republican Senators in 2020 and 2021 are now precedents for using nearly any means to interfere with and subvert elections that don't go one's way.
It is important now to restore an American consensus, a commitment to some common truths and common sense about the democratic and liberal traditions we share as a people. This will be difficult at a time of such incredible polarization.
Thankfully, the inauguration yesterday of President Joe Biden and Vice-President Kamala Harris was a good start. The President (oh how nice it is to say that and not cringe) invoked “love and healing.” He said “We must end this uncivil war." He offered assurances that he would be President for all Americans—but it must be recalled that ex-President Trump said similar things. President Biden has largely filled his cabinet with those who served him and President Obama. He has not shown a real interest or readiness to reach out to those on the other side except through rhetorical flourishes. He has given little hope that he will be successful in healing our uncivil war.
At its best, an inauguration is a beginning. And beginnings matter. As Hannah Arendt translates a line from Plato, “The beginning is like a god which as long as it dwells among men saves all things.” For Arendt , “It is in the nature of beginning that something new is started which cannot be expected from whatever may have happened before.” Like a miracle, which is something we can expect because of the human capacity to be beginners and to start things anew, the beginning can disrupt and interrupt stale ways of thinking and acting.
The real hopeful note of beginning from the inauguration came not from a politician, but from the 22-year-old Junior Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman. Gorman’s poem, “The Hill We Climb,” was a tour de force. It immediately reminded me and many I imagine of Richard Blanco’s “One Today,” which he read eight years earlier at the inauguration of President Obama and Vice President Biden. His poem "One Today," began, in Whitmanesque tones:
One sun rose on us today, kindled over our shores,
peeking over the Smokies, greeting the faces
of the Great Lakes, spreading a simple truth
across the Great Plains, then charging across the Rockies.
One light, waking up rooftops, under each one, a story
told by our silent gestures moving behind windows.
Gorman’s “The Hill We Climb” begins with the question many of us have, where we can find light in these dark times. And she acknowledges that darkness and offers the powerful insight that “quiet isn’t always peace.” There is, Gorman reminds us, a need for politics and a need for struggle.
When day comes we ask ourselves, where can we find light in this never-ending shade? The loss we carry, a sea we must wade. We’ve braved the belly of the beast. We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace. In the norms and notions of what just is isn’t always justice.
Quickly, however, Gorman pivots to a hopeful register.
And yet, the dawn is ours before we knew it. Somehow, we do it. Somehow, we’ve weathered and witnessed a nation that isn’t broken, but simply unfinished. We, the successors of a country and a time where a skinny Black girl descended from slaves and raised by a single mother can dream of becoming president, only to find herself reciting for one.
The dawn is ours. Our democracy was challenged, but it remains unbroken. America is not a finished project. And yet the fact “a skinny Black girl descended from slaves and raised by a single mother can dream of becoming president, only to find herself reciting for one,” affirms that America is a project worth the struggle and the effort. The American creed is not an accomplished fact, but it is a beacon of hope. Gorman continues:
And yes, we are far from polished, far from pristine, but that doesn’t mean we are striving to form a union that is perfect. We are striving to forge our union with purpose, to compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters and conditions of man.
And so, we lift our gazes not to what stands between us, but what stands before us. We close the divide because we know, to put our future first, we must first put our differences aside. We lay down our arms so we can reach out our arms to one another. We seek harm to none and harmony for all. Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true. That even as we grieved, we grew. That even as we hurt, we hoped; that even as we tired, we tried; that we’ll forever be tied together, victorious. Not because we will never again know defeat, but because we will never again sow division.
Scripture tells us to envision that everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid. If we’re to live up to our own time, then victory won’t lie in the blade, but in all the bridges we’ve made. That is the promise to glade, the hill we climb if only we dare it. Because being American is more than a pride we inherit; it’s the past we step into and how we repair it. We’ve seen a forest that would shatter our nation rather than share it, would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy. And this effort very nearly succeeded.
But while democracy can be periodically delayed, it can never be permanently defeated. In this truth, in this faith we trust, for while we have our eyes on the future, history has its eyes on us. This is the era of just redemption. We feared it at its inception. We did not feel prepared to be the heirs of such a terrifying hour, but within it, we found the power to author a new chapter, to offer hope and laughter to ourselves.
So, while once we asked: “How could we possibly prevail over catastrophe?” Now we assert, “How could catastrophe possibly prevail over us?”
We will not march back to what was, but move to what shall be: a country that is bruised, but whole; benevolent, but bold; fierce and free. We will not be turned around or interrupted by intimidation, because we know our inaction and inertia will be the inheritance of the next generation. Our blunders become their burdens. But one thing is certain, if we merge mercy with might, and might with right, then love becomes our legacy, and change our children’s birthright.
So, let us leave behind a country better than one we were left. With every breath from my bronze-pounded chest, we will raise this wounded world into a wondrous one. We will rise from the gold-limned hills of the West. We will rise from the wind-swept Northeast where our forefathers first realized revolution. We will rise from the lake-rimmed cities of the Midwestern states. We will rise from the sun-baked South. We will rebuild, reconcile and recover in every known nook of our nation, in every corner called our country our people diverse and beautiful will emerge battered and beautiful.
When day comes, we step out of the shade aflame and unafraid. The new dawn blooms as we free it. For there is always light. If only we’re brave enough to see it. If only we’re brave enough to be it.
— Amanda Gorman’s “The Hill We Climb,” as recited at the inauguration of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris
I highly recommend watching Gorman recite “The Hill We Climb” at the inauguration. It is a reminder that in a broken nation, it may be the poets, and not the politicians, who can speak the words that might inspire the “love and healing” that are so needed in these dark times.