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Op-Ed: A year after the Capitol attack, democracy itself is on every ballot

A flag reflected in a smashed glass window
Damage in the U.S. Capitol after the Jan. 6 attack on the transfer of power.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

“Please grab a mask!” a Capitol Police officer shouted from the House floor on Jan. 6, 2021. Rioters had entered the building and the police had been unable to expel them. We were told to prepare to don gas masks and get down on the ground.

In the months after the 2020 election, I had suggested to Speaker Nancy Pelosi that we form a small group of members charged with anticipating anything that might go wrong during the Jan. 6 joint session of Congress when the electoral votes would be counted. We thought of dozens of possibilities, but never this — never a violent attack on the transfer of power, the first in the nation’s history.

Shouting matches had broken out around me. One of my Democratic colleagues yelled at Republicans, “This is because of you!” The reply was no less acrimonious: “Shut up!” Recriminations spread as we braced ourselves for the doors to be breached.

“You can’t let them see you,” one of the Republicans told me, evidently concerned that I was at particular risk of violence from the insurrectionists. At first, I was touched, but then I was livid: GOP lies about the election had led to the violence all around us. Couldn’t they see that?

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In the hours and days after the insurrection, it seemed like the GOP leadership might finally come to grips with what President Trump had wrought with his big lie about massive election fraud.

“The president bears responsibility for Wednesday’s attack on Congress by mob rioters,” Republican House Leader Kevin McCarthy acknowledged. For his part, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told the Senate, “There’s no question, none, that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of the day.”

And for a brief moment, we had a chance to turn the corner on a disastrous period of our nation’s history. We had a chance to repudiate the immoral grifter who led our country for four years, and weaponized people’s worst fears and anxieties to the point of violence against our capitol. We had a chance to turn back from one party’s grim flirtation with authoritarianism. We had a chance to move forward, still fragmented, but together as a country and a democracy.

And then, just like that, the opportunity was gone. Fingers to the wind, McCarthy, McConnell and state and local GOP leaders decided that Donald Trump really could, if not shoot someone in the middle of the street with impunity, at least incite a violent attack on our democracy and retain the support of his base. Lacking the courage of their convictions, guided by nothing more than their ambition to regain power, the GOP leadership buckled again to the former president.

Doubling down on Trump’s big lie, GOP officials used it to usher in a new generation of Jim Crow laws around the country, bent on disenfranchising people of color. Equally insidious, they have used false claims of voter fraud to strip independent election officials of their duties and given those duties over to partisan legislatures; they’ve run technocratic local election officials out of town, often with death threats.

The lesson Trump and his enablers seemed to have learned from their failure to overturn President Biden’s election appears to be this: If they couldn’t get the Georgia secretary of state to “find” 11,780 votes that didn’t exist in 2020, they will make sure to have someone in that position and others in 2024 who will.

They will prevent people from voting if they can. If that does not succeed, they will prepare the ground to overturn the next election. Never, in our lifetimes, has the threat to our democracy been so grave. We thought democracy to be inexorable. We were wrong.

Democracies do not always die by violent overthrow. More often, they die through atrophy, through the slow degradation of institutions, through the use of democratic means to bring on authoritarian ends. This is the model that Hungarian Prime Minister — and wannabe dictator — Viktor Orban has used to march his country toward autocracy, and it is the model that Republican thought leaders, like Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, admire and promote.

It is not too late to save our founders’ cherished legacy — a government of, by and for the people. There is no simple legislative solution to our present predicament, and our best statutory protections are stymied by the slavish devotion of senators to an archaic Senate custom — the filibuster. If the last four years have shown us anything, not even the Constitution can protect our democracy if the men and women sworn to uphold it will not live up to their oaths.

What is required on the anniversary of Jan. 6 is nothing less than a national awakening, and a national movement, to save our democracy. We must rally around our local officials — Republicans as well as Democrats — who put the sanctity of our elections first. We must resist, and if necessary, overcome, any new impediments to voting. In each and every election to come, we must act as if democracy itself were on the ballot, for surely, it is.

Democrat Adam B. Schiff is a member of the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol. He represents California’s 28th Congressional District.


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