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Opinion: If Congress won’t protect democracy, Americans must

But it’s also because the Democratic Party has been tepid in its response. The January 6 commission is exploring the extent of the crimes committed that day, but when it comes to safeguarding liberal democracy, Democrats have failed to act with the urgency the moment requires. Voting rights legislation languishes in Congress, while structural reforms for the filibuster, the Electoral College and the US Supreme Court are all nonstarters for the current Democratic caucus, thanks to resistance from Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema.

It’s easy to despair in the face of this institutional inaction. If the very people under attack on January 6 can’t act effectively, then what hope do regular people have of safeguarding democracy? It’s an understandable sentiment, but action by people outside of government has always been essential to creating and protecting a multiracial liberal democracy in the United States.

Black and White abolitionists pushed the US toward the abolition of slavery; activists led the Black freedom struggle that led to the destruction of Jim Crow; suffragists — for Black Americans, women, Asian Americans, Indigenous people and more — expanded the right to vote to near-universal levels. The failure of elites to do so has made it even more important that the rest of us redouble our efforts in the years ahead.

So what do we do?

Tell the truth about what happened on January 6. There is a concerted campaign on the right to rewrite the history of the insurrection, arguing that it was nonviolent and that the people who have been arrested are victims or political prisoners of the Biden administration. That narrative has taken root among Republicans, a majority of whom in a new ABC/Ipsos poll say the insurrectionists were “protecting democracy.”
If you exist outside the right-wing media ecosystem, that rightly sounds like absurd propaganda. But just because it’s untrue doesn’t mean it has no power. For more than a century, the dominant interpretation of the Civil War in the United States was that soldiers in both the US and Confederate armies fought for noble causes, and that efforts at biracial government in the South in the years that followed were a mistake. That Lost Cause narrative was not rooted in reality, but it took root in a lasting and damaging way. Retelling the real story of the insurrection and making clear the threats to democracy that have mounted in the year since, is the first step in countering the emergence of the right’s new Lost Cause.
Talk about values, not norms. During the Trump years, people rightly recoiled at the rampant violation of norms — violations that had, in fact, been happening for years (see: Merrick Garland). Many political observers have called for Democrats to recommit themselves to upholding norms as a way of defending liberal democracy. But neither political nor social norms exist without agreement: if one side has abandoned them, then continuing to promote them as good things in and of themselves becomes a kind of debilitating virtue-signaling. Clinging to things like the filibuster or bipartisanship simply because they are norms makes it far more difficult to actually safeguard democracy.
The battle that will define America in 2022 began in 1865

What proponents of democracy should talk about instead are values. We need to reiterate them: These are the features of a liberal democracy worth defending. This is why we should we oppose political corruption, and why honesty and good information matter in representative government. Doing things like banning Muslim immigrants or creating obstacles to voting or embracing authoritarian regimes abroad do damage the lives of all Americans in real and lasting ways. Talking openly and often about the value of a multicultural liberal democracy is far more important to ensuring its future than a constant appeal to norms.

Engage in local activism. One of the big stories of the Trump years was the rise in local activism. Though groups like Black Lives Matter and Indivisible were part of a national network, the activists who joined them spent much of their time responding to local conditions: showing up at city council meetings, aiding local refugee networks, addressing issues of housing and policing in their cities and towns. That kind of activism is the core of democratic action, and it’s very different than repeatedly hitting the donate button during election years or making get-out-the-vote calls. It involves things like regular meetings, constant interaction with other people (often from different backgrounds and circumstances) and unglamorous problem-solving.
The bigger lie threatening US democracy

Yet precisely because it is an interactive, frustrating process of compromise and consensus, because it requires understanding the work of governance and change in a granular way, local activism can be a way to not just voice democratic values but actually live them. And it is a site of genuine change, too, as the right-wing activists now flooding school board meetings show. The only way to win those arguments is to show up.

Revive civic life and institutions. The polls about public trust in institutions paint a dark picture: Trust is perilously low and somehow sinks still lower ever year. Faith in government, media, universities, religious institutions — all have collapsed in the last several decades. While that loss of faith has been driven in large part by a decades-long right-wing campaign against those institutions, it has been helped along by failures from inside them as well. Government has not been particularly responsive to people’s needs, journalists have provided cover for corrupt causes (see: the Iraq War), and universities have become outrageously expensive and inaccessible.

Those institutions need serious reform, which regular people can certainly advocate for. But it’s possible to have much more impact by rebuilding civic life and institutions on the local level. That starts with investing in local institutions, not just through organizing, but with expanded social and financial support to rebuild public libraries, schools and local news outlets. Communities can channel local engagement to bring civic spaces back to life and imbue them with the values of a liberal democracy: a commitment to openness, inclusivity, justice and participation.

Will that automatically restore faith in US institutions, especially political institutions? No, but it will model what trustworthy and responsive institutions look like. It will help grow a vibrant, robust commitment to democracy even when our politics are so fractiously divided.

The road ahead for US democracy is a long and difficult one. January 6 showed how fragile that democracy is, and the year since has confirmed that at least one major party will not be a partner in the fight to defend it. That makes it even more urgent for Americans outside of government to redouble their efforts to safeguard democratic governance and the values that underwrite it. If proponents of democracy fail to do that work now, future generations will not have a democracy to defend.


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