January 6, 2021, was a day of sedition and an assault on the very foundations of our democracy. Like many Americans, my family and I watched the events of the day unfold with mounting horror, chilled to the core. Over the course of a few hours, both the fragility and necessity of democracy came into full focus.
This was no ordinary protest. The events of January 6 represented a willful subversion of proper, functioning democracy. The invasion and occupation of the Capitol was a staggering repudiation of the will of the American people by violent radicals unwilling to accept defeat. It was an insurrection, plain and simple.
On Wednesday, thousands of protesters, incited by President Donald Trump during his Save America Speech, marched through Washington, D.C., and overran the Capitol. Two pipe bombs were later discovered, one near the Republican National Committee and another near the Democratic National Committee, as were a number of Molotov cocktails. DC Mayor Muriel Bowser called in the Washington, D.C., Maryland, and Virginia National Guards and instituted a city-wide 6 p.m. curfew in the wake of the violence. At 5:40 (EST), the Capitol building was deemed secure, and US representatives confirmed the election of President-elect Joe Biden as the next President of the United States.
The vast majority of congressional representatives and senators responded to this insurrection with condemnation. Utah Senator Mitt Romney, in a strident rebuke of Trump, said plainly, “This is what the president has caused today, this insurrection.” Likewise, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi condemned Trump’s actions as “seditious” during the confirmation proceedings that took place after the Capitol had been cleared.
The events of January 6 served as a stark reminder of democracy’s significance. John Dewey, in his many writings on public life, posits that democracy is a constantly evolving project, a torch passed hand-to-hand over generations. But it is inadequate to merely preserve democracy as it has been handed down. Good government requires consistent investment from representatives and, more importantly, the whole of the American people. In this country much of our focus is on negative freedom—freedom from. We prioritize freedom from oppression, from governmental overreach, and from the whims of others. This negative freedom is a good and necessary thing. However, we also need to exercise our positive freedoms, both on a federal and local level, in order to contribute to this democratic project. We must vote; we must hold onto our communities with both hands; we must ensure that our representatives remain accountable to the people they serve. This is not a tepid call for unity. Rather, it is an assertion of our fundamental rights, privileges, and responsibilities as Americans. Shirking these sacred duties represents a grave national failure and threatens the continued vitality of American democracy.
Yesterday’s events prompted me to turn to President George Washington’s farewell address, a seminal document in American history. In willingly relinquishing the office of the president, Washington preserved the Union and set a precedent for the peaceful transition of power. I cannot overstate the extent to which this act, fraught with symbolism of the noblest kind, shocked the world. It is easy, after hundreds of years following Washington’s example, to take the peaceful transition of power for granted. Complacency and trust in our history blinded many Americans, myself included, to the inevitable outcome of months of brewing hatred, disinformation, and blatant disregard for the precepts on which this country was founded. This cannot happen again. It is essential to preserve the peaceful transfer of power, the cornerstone of democratic functioning, as dictated by the results of free and fair elections.
Democracy balances on a knife edge. It always has. Americans can easily forget that both the peaceful transition of power and popular government, that which we view as our birthright, are anomalies. Democracy is not the historical norm; it is the exception. Without the vigilance and commitment of all it will not endure.
It is clear that the January 6 act of sedition was aided and abetted by Trump. During his Save America Speech, the president characterized Biden’s win as “outrageous election theft,” a failure of democracy, and then urged his supporters to make their way to the Capitol and give Republicans the “pride and boldness they need to take back our country.” He directed the perpetrators of violence. All involved in these seditious acts must be prosecuted and punished to the fullest extent of the law.
It is my great hope that Wednesday’s insurrection impels all Americans to look within themselves and become reacquainted with the American project. The violent assault on democracy undermined this collective work. However, the beautiful thing about this country is that it lives in hearts and minds as an ideal, at its best representing the pinnacle of justice, equality, and liberty. Although the United States regularly fails to live up to these ideals, the constant process of refining and striving for that which is laudable truly makes this country great.
Protecting and perfecting democracy is the project of every American. Through engaging in fruitful dialogue, electing officials, and investing in our communities we help serve this project both directly and indirectly. We must remain aware of democracy’s singularity and exercise the many freedoms we are afforded. With renewed fervor, we all must take up the torch of this sacred trust, not as apathetic observers, but as agents of change and protectors of good, democratic governance.
The image featured in this article is licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 license. No changes were made to the original image, which was taken by Andrew Van Huss and can be found here.
Katherine Leahy is a second-year Political Science major who spent the summer working as an AmeriCorps volunteer in the Rocky Mountains. On campus, she sings in the University Chorus, serves as a Chicago Swing Dance Society board member, and works as a research assistant. In her free time, she enjoys fiction, hiking in places with real elevation, mediocre coffee, and exploring Chicago with her friends.