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.
So what do we do?
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.
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.
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.