On January 6, the U.S. Capitol was breached and an attack on the foundation of our democracy was live-streamed. The attackers were U.S. citizens who intended to thwart—with violence, if necessary—our democratic processes. The former president of the United States himself gave the insurrectionists their marching orders, encouraging them to threaten lawmakers as they counted votes for President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris.
It was enough to make the most ardent believer in America’s resiliency feel disillusioned. But throwing up our hands is not the way forward. With President Biden at the helm, we have good reason to be hopeful that we can move forward and make real progress. In November, the American people chose a president with character, dignity, competence and respect for our country’s ideals and institutions. A servant-leader who is actually interested in governing and enacting realistic solutions to our country’s challenges. The American people also granted him a Senate and a House he can work with without constant obstructionism.
Crucially, Biden and Congress can now remind the American people what a functional government looks like. They can show disillusioned Americans – those who have lost trust in our leaders—that elected officials acting in good faith can make people’s lives better. An organized, effective government can mitigate this pandemic, save lives and get us back to normalcy sooner. It can expand and protect our health care and get our economy back on track. Strong leadership can quell the unrest in our streets by sowing unity instead of division and addressing the concerns of every American.
But even the strongest political “dream team” can’t right this ship alone. The American people will always have the most important role to play in maintaining our democratic ideals. We all know people who say, “I don’t care too much for politics.” But we can no longer shirk responsibility for our own democracy or pretend that our institutions will be fine without us all watching over them.
So how do we start?
First, we must acknowledge our reactions to the images flowing out of January 6—the outrage at seeing broken glass in the marble halls, the shame of seeing a Confederate flag fluttering in the rotunda, and the despair at the senseless violence and deaths. Don’t become immune to that outrage because this can, and will, happen again if we don’t act as our democracy’s caretakers.
But then we must let our gut reactions and any desires to make this about “us” versus “them” subside in order to focus on the next right step: reimagining America. Is the America we want a divided, polarized nation, one that can be easily exploited by opportunistic, narcissistic leaders? Or is it a nation that recognizes her flaws and constantly seeks to address them? A nation that grows stronger and more resilient by including and drawing many in, rather than excluding and shutting out?
In a reimagined America, as citizens, we each have a role.
Some of us will be charged with accountability. There are people still in power who failed this country by fueling the conditions for an insurrection. But if we are to rebuild a strong and healthy democracy, we must hold those political leaders who enabled this attack accountable. For former president Trump, impeachment now. For those officials who took part, censure now, and defeat at the ballot box later.
Some of us will be charged with reform. For citizens, this means electing new leaders from diverse cultural, racial and generational backgrounds so our representatives in government truly reflect the makeup of our nation. For Congress, this should include campaign finance reform and term limits. For our justice system, this means acknowledging the racism baked into our structures, and then proactively replacing those structures with ones rooted in fairness.
Some of us will be charged with championing the truth. For our government this means protecting the freedom of the press and the safety of journalists. For business, it means examining the role they play in allowing disinformation to be spread or violence to be incited. For our citizens this means checking our facts and being responsible in how we share information. For our education system and for parents, it means ensuring our children can think critically and recognize when they are being manipulated with falsehoods.
And lastly, all of us are charged with reminding each other that we do have the power to change the trajectory of this country. In fact, we are the only ones who do. This presidential election, the American people chose reason, empathy and progress over derision, division and anger. It was a vital first step. Now the real work begins.
Amy McGrath is a retired Marine Corps officer and F/A-18 pilot who rose to national prominence while running U.S. House and Senate races in Kentucky.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own.