Despite short notice. Despite terrible wet, cold conditions. More than 50 hardy citizens joined together Thursday evening as a community to take pause and reflect on how fragile our democracy is and how we must continue to proudly use our voice to reflect our opinions.
As I switched on the microphone, I took a quick look out at the gathering and saw a sea of serious faces lit by candlelight. I immediately felt a wave of emotion that made me proud to be part of a community that is willing to brave the elements to show unity in purpose and a willingness to have their voices heard—part of the very foundation of what our democracy stands for.
I made a few opening comments which I strongly believe to be true. I believe the most salient comments suggested that we are in the midst of a culture war for the soul of America.
Red Vs. Blue. Mask Vs. No Mask. Vax vs anti-vax, etc. I suggested we must transcend beyond the cultural media battlefield. We must remember that we may disagree on many things, yet we need to remember to agree that we are all part of the fabric of one nation.
I turned the microphone over to Benicia’s Poet Laureate Mary Susan Gast who read four very powerful poems. One in particular still echoes in my mind. It is titled On the day after the Insurrection, by former Benicia Poet Laureate Johanna Ely. The final three lines struck me soundly:
As I cry for my ravaged country,
how exquisitely the landscape blurs,
my eyes weeping water and light.
Following the poetry readings, I asked if anyone wished to speak. Former Benicia Mayor Elizabeth Patterson and our Solano County Supervisor Monica Brown both spoke with emotion and yet with clear purpose of what can happen to our democracy if we do not continue to be aware, educated and ready to fight for our democracy. With each speaker came a new perspective on the impact of the January 6 Insurrection and how we must be united in purpose as we move forward.
Each speaker adding an additional emotional layer on top of the speaker before. It was so genuine. So energizing. But also a bit scary that we are sincerely discussing the possibility of losing the precious gift of democracy.
As the event ended, I could see groups of four and five people sharing comments and observations. I heard a group of folks singing behind me like a subtle sound track for the closing moments.
Clearly those who came out did not want to stop sharing this moment. It was a heartfelt expression of a community bonding together.
Memorial Day honors Americans who died while performing their military duties in our armed forces. This year, it is accompanied by attempts to make Americans sleepwalk through history.
The holiday arrives but three days after Senate Republicans blocked the formation of a bipartisan commission that would have investigated the January 6th Capitol insurrection. And it comes just one day after the Texas Legislature tried but temporarily failed to adopt one of the most stringent voter suppression laws in the country.
What we have, then, is a national holiday commemorating our history, following on the heels of a major political party seeking to deny it.
As former Republican George Will put it, “I would like to see January 6th burned into the American mind as firmly as 9/11 because it was that scale of a shock to the system.” Yet in filibustering the commission into oblivion, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and company sought to minimize a day that, like both 9/11 and Pearl Harbor, should live in infamy.
Even worse, the move seeks to prevent our fully finding out what happened that day. What did Donald Trump know and do – or deliberately fail to do – while the Capitol was under attack? Who else failed to act, and why? What kinds of collaboration might have been going on among the rioters and with outside forces?
Then there’s the Texas legislation, temporarily derailed when Democrats walked out and denied the Legislature a quorum, but sure to resurface and most likely pass when Gov. Greg Abott calls a special session later this year. Among other things, the bill “included new restrictions on absentee voting; granted broad new autonomy and authority to partisan poll watchers; escalated punishments for mistakes or offenses by election officials; and banned both drive-through voting and 24-hour voting, which were used for the first time during the 2020 election in Harris County, home to Houston and a growing number of the state’s Democratic voters.”
It’s but the latest and perhaps most ambitious of the like-minded slew of democracy-gutting proposals that Republican-controlled state governments are pushing into law across the country in preparation for the 2022 and 2024 elections.
It’s also part and parcel of the Republican effort to promote the Big Lie, still bought by 61 percent of Republicans in a national poll just two weeks ago, that the election was stolen from Donald Trump. The circular justification for the voter suppression in Texas and elsewhere is that in the wake of 2020 people have doubts about election integrity – doubts spurred by the Big Lie and its associated prevarications.
It’s all so 1984. But in addition to Ignorance is Strength, we have lies are facts. Instead of a Ministry of Truth, we have Fox News going even more whole hog to promote this hogwash in response to viewer encroachment by Far(ther) Right outlets Newsmax and One America News.
Why Did They Die?
And we have an ongoing attempt to erase recent history and memory.
Which brings us back to today’s holiday. The Americans mourned on Memorial Day gave their lives for many things: their country, their communities, their families, their friends, the folks in their squads. A more cynical take would explain some deaths in terms of their leaders’ sometimes dubious foreign policy goals.
Regardless, one thing many died for – or at least felt they were dying for – is democracy. What an irony that they fell defending it abroad only to have it threatened here at home.
In downplaying and perpetrating the greatest internal attacks on our democracy since the Civil War, congressional Republicans and other Party leaders are desecrating the graves of the fallen.
Let me be clear: I’m not attacking the many, many Republicans who have served and love America. But with shockingly few exceptions, the Party’s leaders have made the GOP into something shockingly destructive.
And for what? No grand principle. No crying need. Just the tawdriest of causes: to fuel and appease some voters’ repugnance against people who supposedly don’t belong; to cling to power and perks at all costs; to sell their souls for 30 pieces of political silver.
History Is What We Make It
But the story does not end there. We’re not helpless in the face of these attempts to flush recent history down the toilet. We can donate, campaign, educate and otherwise act to combat the danger. Texas Democratic legislators scored a victory of sorts by delaying the voter suppression vote and ensuring it will get renewed scrutiny down the line. Congress’s Democratic leaders can go ahead and appoint a select committee to investigate January 6th, pointing out that they gave the Republicans every fair chance to go bipartisan.
We can be active participants in history, not simply observers. To act otherwise is to accept defeat in the middle of the battle.
Benicia resident Stephen Golub offers excellent perspective on his blog, A Promised Land: Politics. Policy. America as a Developing Country.
To access his other posts or subscribe, please go to his blog site, A Promised Land.
Stacey Abrams, a Democrat, is a former minority leader of the Georgia House of Representatives and founder of the group Fair Fight.
The violent Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, coupled with ongoing threats to election officials, election workers and lawmakers at all levels, represent unprecedented attacks on the foundations of our democracy. Certainly, President Donald Trump and others in his party who inspired the attacks must be held accountable through all available means. But accountability alone will not be nearly enough.
Only meaningful reforms can undo the damage done — and establish a government that is truly representative of the people. The next real test of our democracy comes now.
Make no mistake: Democracy may have survived this year, but President Biden and Vice President Harris were elected despite, not thanks to, weakened electoral systems. Together with the Democratic Congress, they now have the opportunity to implement reforms that reaffirm our nation’s promises that our country represents and works for everyone. We as Democrats must act before it is too late.
Our democratic system faces extraordinary threats today because of sustained attacks from Republican leaders who throw up roadblocks to voting and, among the worst actors, stoke the flames of white supremacy and hyper-nationalism to cling to power. There can be no clearer example than the covid-19 pandemic. The deaths of more than 450,000 people in the richest country in the world are symptomatic of a democracy in crisis and a political system that rewards cronyism over competence. Despite strong public support for the Centers for Disease Control’s work, the Affordable Care Act, and other economic justice and safety-net policies that could save lives, millions nevertheless continue to contract the disease without adequate access to health care.
No thinking person can deny that the communities of color disproportionately suffering and dying from this pandemic are also the people whose votes — and ability to hold failed leaders accountable — have been continuously suppressed.
The pandemic has been a collision of tragedy and corroded institutions, and the challenge is in how we respond. We can either engage in collective amnesia about what we have just lived through, and leave an unaccountable government in place, or we can rise to meet this moment by fixing the broken social compact. Defeating Trump was not enough. Meaningful progress on health care, racial justice and the economy requires aggressive action on voting rights, partisan gerrymandering and campaign finance.
One of the first steps must be an overhaul of the Senate filibuster, which has long been wielded as a cudgel against the needs of millions who struggle. Today, the parliamentary trick creates a more sinister threat to our nation: the ability of a minority of senators, who represent 41.5 million fewer people than the Senate majority, to block progress favored by most Americans.
Democrats in Congress must fully embrace their mandate to fast-track democracy reforms that give voters a fair fight, rather than allowing undemocratic systems to be used as tools and excuses to perpetuate that same system. This is a moment of both historic imperative and, with unified Democratic control of the White House and Congress, historic opportunity.
The agenda to restore democracy also includes passing the For the People Act to protect and expand voting rights, fight gerrymandering and reduce the influence of money in politics; the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to restore the full protections of the 1965 Voting Rights Act; and the Protecting Our Democracy Act to constrain the corruption of future presidents who deem themselves above the law. These landmark bills have broad-based support, and would have passed long ago were it not for obstructionist leaders who fear losing their own influence if the American people have more power of their own.
Further, fixing our democracy requires we finally allow our fellow Americans in D.C. and Puerto Rico, the vast majority of whom are people of color, to have full access to our democracy. That means D.C. statehood and binding self-determination for Puerto Rico. In the District, as white extremist mobs destroyed the Capitol, murdered a police officer, and threatened the lives of elected officials and residents, Washingtonians were left defenseless because D.C. is not a state and its chief executive had no authority to deploy the National Guard.
Time is short. The forces standing against a democracy agenda seek to preserve and expand paths to power by shrinking the voting pool rather than winning voters over. In reaction to the historic turnout of 2020 and Democratic victories in places such as Georgia, already this year more than 100 bills have been put forward in state legislatures seeking to restrict voting access. Those efforts will not end without a fight.
We don’t know how many chances we will get to reverse our democracy’s near-death experience. We must not waste this one. We must go big — the future of democracy demands it.