We Must Bring Democracy Back From the Brink

Opinion January 22, 2021

We Must Bring Democracy Back From the Brink

There are a handful of days in our history that reverberate across generations, defining the story of America. January 6, 2021–the date insurrectionists attacked the heart of our democracy to stop the orderly peaceful transfer of power–will be one of those days. But what will that date mean to our children and grandchildren? Will it be the moment when we finally recognize that what unites us as Americans far outweighs our divisions, or will it be when we are overcome by all the hate, partisanship and dysfunction.

We belong to different political parties, but we share a commitment to ensuring that January 6 is a turning point in this history of America, not a harbinger of more to come. And we believe that will only be possible if we begin to address the underlying issues of how we got here in the first place.

There is no doubt that President Donald Trump is directly responsible for inciting the assault on the Capitol. Over the last two months, he chose to fan the flames of hate and mislead millions of voters through lies and conspiracy theories rather than face the reality of his own defeat.

But this unprecedented attack on our democracy could have gained traction only in a nation where so many have stopped believing that democracy still works for them. President Trump lit the match on January 6 after pouring gasoline on our divisions for four years, but America has been piling up the tinder for a long time.

Americans across the political spectrum are profoundly disillusioned. Public trust in the federal government is at record lows. Just 20 percent of U.S. adults say they trust Washington to “do the right thing,” down from nearly 80 percent before Watergate. The current distrust in the integrity of our elections is just a symptom of this much wider crisis of distrust.

This trend coincides with a dramatic increase in congressional gridlock, which has risen dramatically over the last few decades. When the nation’s leaders fail to deliver, the American people stop believing Washington is working for them. For some of the most alienated Americans, this void has been filled by online conspiracy theories about “the deep state,” QAnon and demagogues who take advantage of public frustration for their own political power.

Political incentives drive this all in the wrong direction. Campaign donations, social media likes and press attention flow to figures most adamantly opposed to working across the aisle, creating a vicious cycle of gridlock and dysfunction.

We understand that the damage done to our democracy cannot be undone overnight. But if gridlock provided a foundation for extremism, problem solving can start to chip away at the root problem. If sunlight is the best disinfectant for corruption, bipartisan progress may well be the salve for despair.

After January 6, Americans can no longer afford to treat the political disarray in Washington as just a passing irritation. It is not just a threat to our economy, our national security and our standing in the world. It is a threat to our Constitution and our democracy. It is not just another issue. It is the issue.

Each of us—especially those who hold elective office—have a choice to make. We can show those who feel forgotten that we actually can deliver solutions to the serious problems that face us, or we can continue to perpetuate this toxic politics, rabid tribalism and hatred.

We can either face the truth or be destroyed by lies. We can either descend into chaos and rancor, or we can rise above and meet this test with real courage and patriotism.

Those who were responsible for the violence in Washington need to be held to account. But we can’t stop at demanding justice. We need to demand that our elected leaders address the gridlock that’s poisoning our politics in the first place. Though partisan warfare may be more politically expedient in the short-term, recent events have proven that the status quo has put our democracy on the brink. And if January 6 proved anything, it’s that all of us will ultimately pay the price for that failure.

Governor Larry Hogan is the governor of Maryland. Former Senator Joe Lieberman served as a U.S. senator from Connecticut.