As National Divisions Deepen, Americans Must Choose Democracy

Can we rise to the challenge of uniting over the need to protect our democracy?

January 6th marks one year since the violent attack on the United States Capitol in which angry rioters sought to undermine a foundational democratic process, the peaceful transfer of power. As a congressional committee continues investigating the events of that day, and as midterm elections approach, our national divisions appear to be deepening. Americans face profound choices about what lessons to take from that ill-fated day in order to preserve our democracy.

The first choice is whether we will work simultaneously to advance our political interests and defend our democratic institutions—or if we will pursue the former at the expense of the latter.  Increasingly, Americans see the democratic system as only worth defending or supporting when its outcomes align with their interests. The rioters of January 6th certainly believed that.

But a fully functioning democracy is not a guarantee of our desired outcome, or that our side will win. It is a guarantee that there will be independent processes that allow all sides to have an equal shot at winning. It is a system structured to ensure there will be majority rule with protection for minorities, regardless of which side wins each election.

2021 saw an increase in efforts by partisans to manipulate the institutions of democracy to advance their own interests, through legislative gerrymandering and spreading disinformation about democratic processes like the 2020 elections. Any public official—regardless of who they voted for—who cannot stand in defense of our democratic system completely and fully neglects their oath to defend the constitution and the nation. Those who are willing to sacrifice our democracy for partisan gain are no longer fit to be representatives of it.

We also face a choice about rights—specifically, whether we will view the protection of our individual rights as intrinsically linked to the protection of others’ rights, even those with whom we radically disagree. It might seem counterintuitive, but this concept is central to a healthy democracy and to ensuring that rights are based on immutable and universal equality, not the whims of a leader. The rioters of January 6th sought to advance rights for only those with whom they agreed, drawing on historical symbols representing antisemitism and racism in America.

To ensure the protection of their religious freedom, believers of any faith must equally protect the space for those of different faiths or no faith at all. To ensure freedom of speech, advocates on both ends of the political spectrum or in the middle must be equally vigilant about the space created for dissenting voices. To stand for justice, Americans of all color must ensure that justice is extended fully and equally to all other Americans.

Ironically, leaders and citizen who work to undermine the laws, norms, and institutions that protect equal rights increase the likelihood that their own views will see diminished protection under a future leader less bound by the processes that characterize a healthy democracy. It is a fragile state where the protection of rights is contingent on who is in power.

Protecting our democracy will require strong advocates from diverse communities to stand for rights not only for their community but also for those in other segments of American society. It will require our civic institutions, including universities, houses of worship, service organizations, and others, to consider the advocacy for the protection of diverse groups and rights central to their contribution to American society. And it will take citizens holding leaders of their own party accountable when they try to undermine the rights of communities that are not their own. 

Finally, we face a choice about America’s trajectory. January 6th was a terrible day in American history, but the nation has experienced difficult trials before: political assassinations, devastating foreign attacks, and economic crises, events all accompanied by bitter civil strife. Our country has faced many inflection points at which the American people or vocal subsets thereof have had to make a choice; to decide whether they will call upon the “better angels of nature,” as President Lincoln said so profoundly in his first inaugural address, when he faced a country divided over our nation’s greatest sin of slavery. We have counted on strong, principled leaders and engaged citizens to recapture the best of American values to overcome the worst of who we are and have been. 

Not as conservatives and progressives nor Republicans and Democrats, but as a nation, we must use this anniversary as an opportunity to strengthen the thing that most unites our diverse country: democracy. And we must use it to fight for the one and only thing that guarantees that we will navigate our inevitable differences peacefully and not through violence. That too, is democracy.

Let us make the choice today—and every day—to restore and strengthen American democracy.  

Nicole Bibbins Sedaca is Executive Vice President of Freedom House and the Kelly and David Pfeil Fellow at the George W. Bush Institute.