It’s tempting to want to agree with then President-elect Joe Biden who, responding to the insurgents who attempted a coup in Washington a year ago today, announced to the country that elected him: “The scenes of chaos at the Capitol do not reflect a true America, do not represent who we are.”
But watching those scenes of violent chaos, it was clear that President Biden was at least partly wrong: That’s also who we are.
We will spend the rest of our lives reflecting on this moment in American history, and much of the finger-pointing will be justified: the lying, violence-inciting president; the members of Congress attempting to lead a coup even before the invasion; the enablers too gutless and unprincipled to take a stand throughout Donald Trump’s seditious presidency—including Sen. Mitch McConnell, whose impassioned early afternoon plea to his fellow Republicans to certify the electoral college results was too little way too late.
But let’s also be clear that this was a moment that presented all of us with a stark choice: You’re either for democracy. Or you’re against it. There is no middle ground.
If you choose democracy, as I really hope you do, then know that it requires vigilance, and hard work; that it is agonizing and sometimes offends; that it can break your heart; that it is, as Biden also said in his afternoon speech, “fragile and to preserve it requires people of good will.”
Are you on board? Then, here are a few ways to make our democracy stronger, even today when it feels weaker than ever:
Vote. Of course, vote. In 2020, we had the biggest turnout ever, for what even former Pres. Trump’s top elections official said was the most secure election ever, something confirmed by about 60 judges and elections officials in every single state. All of that was democracy at its best. That was followed by democracy at its weakest: Just 22 percent of voters cast a ballot this past November, for District Attorney, City Controller and a whole slew of judges. We can—and must—do better.
Fact-check your facts. See above: The election was fair and it was decisive. But years of sharing lies and half-truths have made it easy to convince millions of Americans that it wasn’t. Bookmark the non-partisan factcheck.org at Penn’s Annenberg School of Communications and check in everyday. Their list of most-read articles last year included everything from Biden’s incorrectly accusing the Trump administration of not trying to send people to China to investigate Covid-19, to misinformation in the President’s State of the Union, to many things about the Coronavirus.
Consciously avoid spreading untruths. Be the type of person Soviet dissident writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn extolled in his 1970 Nobel lecture: “The simple act of an ordinary brave man is not to participate in lies, not to support false actions.”
Pay attention to Pennsylvania. The U.S. Capitol isn’t the only place where democracy is threatened. Peel your eyes away from D.C. and demand the Pennsylvania state legislature actually looks after the interests of the state’s citizens. Tell them to keep their hands off new laws that make voting as easy as possible; demand redistricting is fair and not gerrymandered; elect representatives who support the rule of law this May and November.
Make state elections more fair. Join the efforts to create a nonpartisan redistricting committee to reshape electoral districts so the process is not controlled by either Democrats or Republicans in the state legislature. Sign on to the movement with Fair Districts PA.
Demand a social media reckoning. Steve Brill’s NewsGuard issued a scathing report before the November election on the proliferation of misinformation on Facebook, and social media companies have been called to account for their danger to our society several times this past year. This is not about limiting constitutionally-protected speech; it’s about limiting what is not protected: inciting violence. As Jonathan Greenblatt, director of the Anti-Defamation League, said to the New York Times: “Freedom of expression is not the freedom to incite violence. That is not protected speech.”
This was a moment that presented all of us with a stark choice: You’re either for democracy. Or you’re against it. There is no middle ground.
Better yet, stop using social media to get and share information—or, at least fact-check it first. See above. (Cat pics still okay.)
Teach, or advocate for more, civics in schools. Remember laughing at the idiocy of Alabama Senator (former Auburn football coach) Tommy Tuberville who didn’t seem to know the three branches of government? That’s not funny. We need Americans who know how America works—from how a law is made, to who makes them, who is supposed to defend them (including the president!), to why civic engagement matters.
Support independent local media. One other horrible facet of the pandemic has been the decimation of local newspapers all over the country. That leaves citizens with fewer reliable sources of information, and with little or no knowledge of what their local government is doing. That makes for a less engaged local citizenry and gives politicians the go-ahead to run amok. Support The Citizen, subscribe to The Inquirer, support WHYY—or pick your own.
Support Philadelphia Republicans who will actually compete in the marketplace of ideas. There needs to be a place at the table for constructive, opposing views to stimulate new ways of thinking and doing, and to increase accountability for our elected officials. It is shameful that, until the very recent rise of Philly’s Working Families Party—who anyway run as Democrats—we’ve been a one party town for decades.
Be a better citizen of your city, one small thing at a time.
Have zero tolerance for corruption and unethical behavior. We started the year with not one, but two indicted sitting City Councilmembers in the city of Philadelphia—one of whom, Bobby Henon, ran unopposed for reelection in 2019. We ended the year with Henon’s conviction on corruption charges—and still remaining in office. What’s worse: almost no elected officials in Philadelphia have called on him to resign or spoken out against his co-defendant, union boss John Dougherty. Shame on them all. But also, the rest of us carry on as if it’s a normal occurrence. It shouldn’t be normal. Haven’t we learned by now what normalizing allegations of unethical behavior can lead to?
Celebrate those who are doing the right thing, whether Republican or Democrat, especially when it’s brave. See, for example, Utah Sen. Mitt Romney. Or, closer to home, Republican City Commissioner Al Schmidt.
Push our elected leaders to listen to real people. Like, not just members of the media, pundits, lobbyists or each other. Chances are they’ll be surprised about what people actually care about. Hear what local philanthropist/businessman Richard Vague learned after 2016, when he took a cross-country tour to talk with middle class voters all over America.
Read something about our American democracy. Start way back with Alexis de Tocqueville whose Democracy in America celebrated our greatness, but acknowledged too, our weaknesses as a community and as individuals in the midst of a grand human experiment. Turn to Democratic Vistas, Walt Whitman’s seminal work about America, which also recognizes America’s contradictions, and celebrates its hope.
Talk to each other. Take a step outside your bubble, have a conversation with someone you think might disagree with you on something. The American tent is truly big enough for all of us. Read Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, University of California-Berkeley Professor Arlie Hochschild’s moving account of the time she spend talking to Tea Party members in the years before Trump. Try these tips from Megan Phelps-Roper, who grew up and was social media coordinator for the hate-mongering Westboro Baptist Church until she started talking to her critics on Twitter. Meaningful conversation can make a difference. Yelling at each other gets us where we were last year—and never want to be again.
Header photo: Wikimedia Commons