It was the worst day for American democracy in decades. It was the best day for American democracy in years.
What do you say when armed citizens storm the Capitol of your country, determined to overthrow the legitimate government? I have no idea. And until approximately 2pm on Wednesday, I thought that being an American meant never having to figure it out. We were the original experiment in self-government, the professor emeritus of democracy, sometimes creaky and behind the times but mostly respected despite our flaws.
Yet what happened on Wednesday afternoon – the Senate chambers occupied by Trump-supporting thugs; lawmakers and staff terrorized; windows smashed and offices looted – is in some ways quintessentially American. We like to say that we’re a nation built on an idea, the declaration that we’re all created equal. But that simple notion has led to centuries of infighting, sometimes peaceful and sometimes not. Does America truly belong to all of us, or only to a select few? That founding conflict defines our nation every bit as much as our founding ideals.
The Americans who staged the self-described revolution this week made it clear exactly where they stood. They had lost an election, a series of recounts, and a slew of court challenges. Yet they still believed they had the right to pick the next president of the United States. You wouldn’t know it from the silly costumes and dopey hats, but Trump’s failed coup was the definition of political elitism – a few thousand angry individuals deciding their preferences mattered more than the rest of the country’s combined.
While the Parler putsch ultimately failed, the message of its participants – one reinforced by their relatively lenient treatment at the hands of Capitol police – was clear: This country belongs to us, and us alone.
And yet, a few hundred miles to the south and just a few hours earlier, an entirely different vision of American prevailed. There, Georgians – not just Democrats, but Republicans and independents as well – set a record for turnout in a runoff election. Despite enormous pressure from the president and death threats from his supporters, election officials of both parties held a fair and free contest, corrected misinformation in real time, and even managed to count the vast majority of the votes before the night was through. The story told by those votes was clear: Georgians rejected a pair of incumbents who joined Trump’s attacks on our democracy, elected the state’s first-ever African American senator and demoted Mitch McConnell to minority leader for the first time since 2014.
During the Trump years, as embarrassment, outrages and horrors piled atop one another, it became a cliche to mutter, without much conviction, that “we’re better than this.” But on Wednesday, the cliche was true. We’re the country where armed guards came within a hair’s breadth of protecting its lawmakers from an angry mob incited by our own president. And we’re also the country that rejected that president, stood up for democracy, and reaffirmed our belief in our founding ideal of equality for all. We aren’t one America or the other. We’re both.
But we won’t be both for long. If there’s a silver lining in Wednesday’s attack, it’s that no one – not in Congress, not anywhere – can plausibly claim ignorance of what’s at stake. America’s anti-democratic impulses may have been on newly public display in the Capitol on Wednesday, but they’re as old as the country itself. They were with us through secession and segregation, through Know-Nothing-ism in the 1850s and McCarthyism in the 1950s. They’ll be with us after Donald Trump. The question is not whether our demons will magically disappear. It’s whether our better angels can overcome them before it’s too late.
Which is why repudiating violence – as most lawmakers did after order was restored in the Capitol – is not nearly enough. Nor is it sufficient to remove a dangerous president and hold him legally accountable for what he’s done. If lawmakers actually care about democracy, they have to dismantle the idea that America belongs to a select group of Americans, and that the rest of us deserve second-class citizenship or none at all. That’s the idea that galvanized a mob to violence this week.
It is also, as uncomfortable as this fact is to acknowledge, the idea that has galvanized Republican party politics for at least a decade. On issues from taxes to guns to healthcare to climate change, establishment Republicans – the party of McConnell, not Trump – depend on the idea that a minority of Americans who approve of Republicans’ proposals matter more than the majority which does not.
To some extent, this inequality within America is based on pure geographical luck. Red states have smaller populations, giving them more senators-per-voter than blue ones. Democrats tend to cluster in cities, making them easier to gerrymander into lopsided, uncompetitive districts. But in many other ways, the emerging tyranny of the minority has been brought about by design. Disenfranchising ex-felons and Dreamers; passing wave after wave of restrictive voting laws targeting young people and minorities; consigning Washington DC’s 700,000 residents to taxation without representation; ramming through unqualified, partisan judges at an unprecedented rate.
The idea that “real Americans” matter – and that the majority of Americans don’t – was not just espoused by the “deplorables” who occupied the Capitol as chaos reigned. It was also espoused by far too many of the “respectables”, the duly elected GOP lawmakers who reoccupied the chamber once order was restored.
America cannot continue to have it both ways. The logic of minority rule leads inevitably to the logic of mob rule. Soon a new president will be inaugurated, and a new Congress – made up of Democrats and, one hopes, a handful of Republicans genuinely appalled by what they’ve tried so hard to ignore – will have a real chance to pass bills into law. It may be our last, best chance to restore a representative democracy and to declare, hopefully with some finality this time, that America belongs to us all.
No matter what comes next, we’ll be the country we saw on Wednesday. But which country we saw on Wednesday will we be?