I’ve been thinking a lot about anniversaries this month.
A few days ago, my husband, Richard, and I marked twenty-five years of marriage. The milestone prompted us to remember what was surprising and good in our time together and to look ahead and consider what we’d like to do in the next decade or two. Anniversaries are like that. Part memory exercise, part imagining the future.
But that’s not the only anniversary on my mind.
I’ve also been thinking about the first anniversary of January 6, the Insurrection at the Capitol. It may seem odd to put these anniversaries together in this reflection, given one celebrates love and the other recalls a violent political event. But anniversaries, whether commemorating something joyous or painful, invite us into the same two movements: remembering what has been and considering what might be.
And so, prompted by the unwanted anniversary of January 6, I’ve been ruminating on democracy — its past and its future.
Movement 1: REMEMBERING DEMOCRACY
The most significant memory I have of democracy is having no memory of it. Democracy was just what was. I took it for granted. It was always there, and it would always be there. Sort of like Jesus, “the same yesterday, today, and forever.”
Some of my earliest memories are political ones — mostly of John F. Kennedy and of the Civil Rights Movement. Between the two, I learned that democracy was a hope-filled possibility and that it wasn’t perfect. Indeed, it wasn’t complete. It was a project. There were people who couldn’t vote because of the color of their skin. There were people who didn’t have certain rights because they weren’t men. There were people who couldn’t publicly proclaim who they loved because others considered them deviant. There were those with no access to democracy because they were poor or marginalized or went unnoticed.
How to fix these things, make the project work?
Democratic shortcomings were addressed by better democracy. In the middle of the twentieth century, people fought to widen democracy’s reach, to establish the dignified participation of everyone in voting, and to guarantee equity under the law. The federal government must stand as a protector of democracy for all citizens, no matter an individual’s political party, class, or creed. Indeed, many Americans shared a sense of democratic responsibility for people across the globe who were seeking a fairer, more just, and humane existence. Democracy was a worthy project, and it was a bright birthright, our political North Star.
In addition to being an incomplete project, it seemed pretty obvious there were problems with democracy, too. People guessed there were rigged elections (I’m still convinced that my junior year student council election was fixed) and demagogues of all sorts. And democracy has always had violent impulses — its discontents quick to threaten and even kill dreamers and reformers. White middle-class people — the people who raised me — tended to see the misuse of democracy as aberrations, “mistakes,” to the genial progress of history. We eschewed the Joseph McCarthys of the world, were horrified by the Bull Connorses and George Wallaces on the news, and could barely believe President Nixon would lie to us but held him responsible when he did. It was different for others (I know that now) who warned that mistakes were purposeful and that abuse might be baked into the system. But, oddly enough, most of them appealed to democracy to fix it, too.
My upbringing not only took democracy for granted, but we also thought it inevitably progressed. It would grow, move forward, and win the world. Democracy would triumph.
Truthfully, however, democracies move in fits and starts. They leap forward with utopian fervor; they lurch backward when those in charge fear a loss of status and power. In most American schools, we celebrated the leaps forward and minimized the backward lurches. Because we believed in the triumph. We loved a “chicken in every pot,” “morning in America” and a “place called Hope,” but we cower from whirlwinds and storms. That means that we’re mostly unprepared for the backlashes when they come. And, in a democracy, they always come.
Democracy, the rule of the people, is a political system based on us. The rule of the people can be as inspiring as the greatest human impulses, as fickle as human nature, and as devious and deluded as human beings can be. In this way, “democracy” isn’t an ideology. You can’t put an “ism” on the end of democracy. Indeed, it is a practice of being a person in community, a polity based more on faith in the commons than a systematized doctrine. You can’t really believe in democracy. Instead, democracy asks us to trust that we belong to one another — all of us — and that together we can behave more justly and learn that liberty and happiness are possible.
If you have a political polity based on the rule of the people, however, it can’t be anything but messily human — sometimes shining like the sun, sometimes still or scatterbrained, sometimes stuck in a sinkhole of sin.
I think of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr writing on the irony of American history — in effect, the irony of democracy — in the early days of the Cold War:
Our dreams of bringing the whole of human history under the control of the human will are ironically refuted by the fact that no group of idealists can easily move the pattern of history toward the desired goal of peace and justice. The recalcitrant forces in the historical drama have a power and persistence beyond our reckoning. Our own nation, always a vivid symbol of the most characteristic attitudes of a bourgeois culture, is less potent to do what it wants in the hour of its greatest strength than it was in the days of its infancy. The infant is more secure in his world than the mature man is in his wider world. The pattern of the historical drama grows more quickly than the strength of even the most powerful man or nation.
Niebuhr would go on to say, “Meanwhile we are drawn into an historic situation in which the paradise of our domestic security is suspended in a hell of global insecurity; and the conviction of the perfect compatibility of virtue and prosperity which we have inherited from both our Calvinist and our Jeffersonian ancestors is challenged by the cruel facts of history.”
He never imagined that the “paradise of our domestic security” would become paradise lost. That’s why the first anniversary of January 6 is so significant. The cruel facts of history came home when armed Americans, deceived by an American president, destroyed a proud tradition of the peaceful transfer of power and attempted a coup to overturn the results of an election — all in a corrupted notion of actually saving democracy.
January 6 proved there’s no escaping the insecurity that roils the globe. There is no domestic paradise. There’s no Kansas to go home to. Somebody stole the freaking ruby slippers. And we’re stuck in a this brilliantly colored world with poisoned poppies and flying monkeys. We’re going to have to figure out how to live here.
Remembering democracy is more than nostalgia. It isn’t a couple on their anniversary toasting their success saying, “Isn’t it great? We did everything perfectly!” No. Remembering is a bittersweet task, involving honesty, confession, regret, and the deep knowledge of how much we did wrong. And yet the central promise remains — love, commitment, partnership, building a life together no matter what.
Remembering democracy is like that. It is memory with layers of irony on ironies, while understanding that democracy is the only thing that can correct all the problems of democracy. The central promise remains — a polis where every person really matters, building a society together no matter what.
Movement 2: CONSIDERING THE FUTURE
These memories shape how we contemplate the future of democracy. More than anything else, we need to be fully alert to the perils of what might be.
January 6 was backlash on steroids. Backlash to a Black president. Backlash to marriage equality. Backlash to women’s rights. Backlash to the widening of democracy over most of our lifetimes — a widening that saw democracy reaching to include all sorts of people who had been excluded, a democratic correction of the flaws and misuses and mistakes of democracy past. January 6 wasn’t just about Donald Trump or the Big Lie. It was backlash to four decades of democratic progress that had been, by any historical account, extraordinary.
Thus, the backlash was a dramatic, violent, and dizzying demonstration of what Niebuhr warned: “The recalcitrant forces in the historical drama have a power and persistence beyond our reckoning.”
In some ways, January 6 echoed other violent backlashes in American history. But it was also singular because it was an epiphany of sorts — it revealed that among us are those who don’t believe that democracy is the way to fix a democracy. Rather, less democracy, even violence, even a paramilitary and quasi-religious coup, is the path some have embraced for the future. The rule of fake histories and lies. The rule of people with guns. The rule of “Jesus Saves” and a gallows.
As much as we might not want to remember January 6, we must remember it. For we need to ask: Where do we go from here? Was this the last act of “recalcitrant forces” against a democracy that opens its arms wide, as inclusive and pluralistic as its implicit promises? Or was January 6 the first act of the end of a democracy that most of us too often took for granted? What kind of future do we want? What future can we commit to make?
* * * *
And that’s sort of what I feel every year on the wedding anniversary. Remembering opens us to recommit to core principles — to the health and well-being of our relationship and family. The anniversary reminds us not to take things for granted and to consider the future we continue to make together.
Most years, a wedding anniversary is a happy rehearsal of remembrance and consideration of the future. January 6, however, will forever mean recalling and sorting through grief and trauma. That’s not easy. Human nature would rather, I suspect, push it aside and lessen its shocks.
We can neither diminish nor deny January 6 — its memory is foundational for whatever happens next. So, don’t give up. Let’s practice the future of democracy. Starting from today. Starting wherever and however we can start. We’ve got work to do repairing and saving this messy, ironic, and imperfect project of government by all the people and for all the people.
What are your memories of democracy? What shaped your earliest understandings of politics?
How do we practice democracy when democracy itself is threatened? Why should people of faith care about democracy? What might replace democracy if it is truly lost?
What can you do today to strengthen democracy? What is your dream for the future of democracy?
You aren’t alone in your questions or fears. Share what you are thinking with the community.
Under stress, an unexercised heart will explode in frustration or fury. If the situation is especially tense, that exploding heart may be hurled like a fragment grenade toward the source of its pain. But a heart that has been consistently exercised through conscious engagement with suffering is more likely to break open instead of apart. Such a heart has learned how to flex to hold tension in a way that expands its capacity for both suffering and joy.
― Parker J. Palmer, Healing the Heart of Democracy
Across the wall of the world,
A River sings a beautiful song. It says,
Come, rest here by my side.
Each of you, a bordered country,
Delicate and strangely made proud,
Yet thrusting perpetually under siege.
Your armed struggles for profit
Have left collars of waste upon
My shore, currents of debris upon my breast.
Yet today I call you to my riverside,
If you will study war no more. Come,
Clad in peace, and I will sing the songs
The Creator gave to me when I and the
Tree and the rock were one.
Before cynicism was a bloody sear across your
Brow and when you yet knew you still
The River sang and sings on.
There is a true yearning to respond to
The singing River and the wise Rock.
So say the Asian, the Hispanic, the Jew
The African, the Native American, the Sioux,
The Catholic, the Muslim, the French, the Greek
The Irish, the Rabbi, the Priest, the Sheik,
The Gay, the Straight, the Preacher,
The privileged, the homeless, the Teacher.
They hear. They all hear
The speaking of the Tree.
They hear the first and last of every Tree
Speak to humankind today. Come to me, here beside the River.
Plant yourself beside the River.
. . . Lift up your faces, you have a piercing need
For this bright morning dawning for you.
History, despite its wrenching pain
Cannot be unlived, but if faced
With courage, need not be lived again.
Lift up your eyes upon
This day breaking for you.
Give birth again
To the dream.
— Maya Angelou, from “On the Pulse of the Morning,” on the occasion of Bill Clinton’s inauguration
The great enemy of freedom is the alignment of political power with wealth. This alignment destroys the commonwealth — that is, the natural wealth of localities and the local economies of household, neighborhood, and community — and so destroys democracy, of which the commonwealth is the foundation and practical means.
― Wendell Berry
The fault was not in our Constitution but in ourselves, that checks stopped checking and the balances became unbalanced. Nothing that is written by man or woman cannot be erased by time, neglect, indifference, artifice, or design . . . if the failure was ours, where exactly did we go wrong?
— Rep. Adam Schiff
What I've found is that trauma can steal from you everything that is most precious to you, everything that is most beloved to you. And so it upends your whole world. But at the same time, it connects you to other people in a really profound and deep way that you could never see before.
And there's a lot of trauma in America, and a lot of grief and a lot of sorrow. And suddenly, Sarah and I and our daughters, our whole family, are connected to it. And you know, we've got to see this through. I've got a friend named Norman Sandridge, who is a professor of classics. And I asked him very early on whether there was a Greek God of trauma. And he said, no, that there wasn't. So he said, why don't we imagine one? And we imagined the Greek God of trauma that looked in two directions, kind of like Janus. That looks to the past and the future at the same time. And the god of trauma steals everything from you, and leaves you completely bereft and destitute.
But at the same time, it connects you in extraordinarily powerful ways to other people, and makes you grow in wisdom.
— Rep. Jamie Raskin
Note for the paid subscriber book club, The Cottage Bookshelf: This month’s book is Adam Schiff’s Midnight in Washington: How We Almost Lost Our Democracy and Still Could. In the next week, you’ll get more details about our discussion.
A few of you asked about Jamie Raskin’s new book, Unthinkable: Trauma, Truth, and Trials of American Democracy. If you’d like to read that, please do! We can discuss both of the books in the group — and bring insights from both to our discussion.
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Beautifully written. I sorely needed to hear, again, that democracy requires participation by all of us.
As is often the case in your articles, there is much to ponder think, and act on. I have often wondered what I can do at my age, to beging to heal this deeply wounded democracy that I grew up in and in someways took for granted that we would heal our mistakes. This is the sentence that stands out to me as a call to action, "A polis where EVERY person really matters building a society TOGETHER NO MATTER WHAT." I have been taking some medical tests -outpatient- lately inside a hospital with strict mask protocols. One day, I decided I would smile and say hello to others waiting or just walking down the hall employees. It was an amazing experience for me. I got responses I think from everyone. But, I noticed especially older people sitting alone , hunched over waiting for their turn to be spoken to by me. What a fun connection making time! It may be a small thing, but it is a start toward healing my soul and perhaps others. I have done it again in various ways both at clinic and elsewhere. "One small step"/voice for humankind. Thank you again for giving me framework and thought provoking material.