It is a well-established fact that America, as it approaches its 245th birthday, is a divided nation. Red versus blue, conservative versus liberal, right versus left, black versus white, rich versus (a growing number of) poor, urban versus rural. Further divisions may be drawn along education, religion, class, gender identity, ethnicity, language of origin and other descriptors.
It was all on technicolor display on January 6, the day when both the US Senate and the House of Representatives were due to certify the results of the 2020 presidential election as required under the US Constitution. The world watched as Americans, so passionately aligned with President Donald Trump and so convinced that the election had been stolen from him, determined to disrupt, if not destroy, the most sacred core of the country’s democratic system, the Congress.
It’s Time to Put Guardrails in Place in Washington
It was a horrifying and tragic example of democracy run amuck. What took place on Capitol Hill that day was everything the framers of the Constitution and the Founding Fathers sought to prevent. In fact, the rioters’ actions by no definition can be remotely described as democratic. They were purposefully dangerous and, as facts come to light, intended to inflict violence. It was mob rule. Insurrection. Rebellion. Sedition. It represented the abandonment of democracy and descent into anarchy.
Compared to What?
But before America’s critics, doubters, adversaries and enemies pronounce the country’s or its democracy’s last rites, they may wish to consult history. They may wish to reflect on the many other occasions when the world’s oldest democracy turned away from its constitution, its values, principles and its own laws. How does January 6 then compare?
How does it compare with more than 250 years of legalized slavery that only a bloody, four-year civil war could end? Or to another 150 years of Jim Crow and segregation? Of course, there were also the more than 120 unspeakable incidents of mass violence committed against the country’s black citizens, including the Slave Revolt in the Cherokee Nation of 1842, the New York Draft Riots of 1863, Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, Rosewood Massacre of 1923, Charlestown Church Massacre of 2015 and the Black Lives Matter demonstrations of last summer, on top of the 3,400-plus lynchings of black Americans in the period after the Civil War until well into the civil rights era.
And would January 6 look more uncivil and unconstitutional than the systematic theft of Native American lands in violation of all the treaties signed by them with the US government and often their forced removal from those lands? These date back to the nation’s independence and continue to this day.
To add tragic irony to those two sets of gross injustice, consider that substantial numbers of black and Native Americans fought valiantly to defend the very country and democracy that treated them as second-class citizens and often worse. At the start of World War II, the US government ordered Japanese Americans rounded up and confined in internment camps for the duration of the war. They committed no crime. They were given no trial. Yet despite the violation of their constitutional rights, 33,000 of the sons, husbands and brothers of those held in the internment camps volunteered to fight for the United States in the war, including 18,000 in the famed 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a highly decorated all-Japanese-American Army unit led by white officers.
There is also the country’s long history of denial of rights to and prejudice against other ethnic and religious groups, including Irish, Germans, Italians, Jews, Catholics, Chinese, Vietnamese, Muslims, Hispanics and other people of color. They learned that the Constitution and the Bill of Rights did not always apply to them. Furthermore, when they may have belatedly come to be accepted, restitution has rarely been offered.
How does all this compare with January 6, however despicable and detestable that event may have been? In view of these and so many other imperfections manifested throughout its history, America looks less like the “shining city on a hill” than a shadowy ghetto of hypocrisy. January 6 is just one more example and maybe not the most egregious.
No Auto-Pilot in Democracy
Yet the nation’s founders understood that the republic they were creating was an experiment. It was one based on the consent of the governed, a novel concept for the mid-18th century. They likely saw that a nation as large and diverse as it was in 1776 would only become larger and more diverse with time. The truly remarkable risk they took, however, was betting on the idea that the Constitution and a set of laws could define and unify a nation, as opposed to race, religion or language — another first in human history.
Since then, tens of millions of immigrants have risked their lives and futures, and those of their descendants, on the same idea. And new risk-takers continue to do so today. Last Wednesday and the annals of American history suggest that that idea is sometimes a mere aspiration. But it appears to be one with an irresistible attraction.
It should be no surprise that a man-made system, whatever its noble aspirations and claims to righteousness, might fall short from time to time, or even a lot. It is, after all, a nation of human beings prone to imperfection, individually and collectively. America has no special claim on perfection.
Moreover, a system as fragile as democracy requires constant maintenance and vigilance. It is never self-sustaining. Institutions and, most importantly, the people must attend, defend, revise, perfect and strengthen it continually. Citizens of courage may be called upon from time to time to make heroic acts and sacrifice to defend it. There is no auto-pilot in a democracy.
Those who participated in last week’s anarchy lost sight of America’s democracy. They cast aside a system purposely designed, however imperfectly, to allow for change, in exchange for change by violence. They failed. Despite the mob’s violent rampage, the House and the Senate returned to their chambers that same evening and proceeded to exercise their constitutional duty to certify the election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as the next president and vice-president of the United States. There would be no Reichstag fire in the United States in 2021.
Moreover, almost lost amidst all the noise of these events, just one day before, voters in Georgia, the heartland of the old Confederacy, elected, for the first time, a black man and a Jew to represent the state in the US Senate. Georgians showed up in record numbers at the polls or through mail-in ballots to express the “consent of the governed.” Voting officials and volunteers diligently managed the entire process without incident so that the voices of the people of Georgia would be heard and counted. The quiet courage of citizens attending to their democracy stifled the mob violence at the US Capitol.
January 6 surely should be a day that no American or citizen of any democracy should ever forget. It is a starkly painful reminder of human weakness and the fragility of democracy. Clearly, Americans should consider speaking more humbly of their “model” democracy. Their country is living proof that even after nearly 250 years, their experiment is still very much a work in progress.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.