Toward a Fresh Start
Americans, friends and colleagues around the world, and the international students and scholars who want to study in the United States might ask, which America will prevail?
On Wednesday, January 6, 2021, an insurrectionist mob invaded the U.S. Capitol building in a brazen assault on our democracy and the republic that expresses it. The attackers, enflamed by the president’s rhetoric, sought to replace the rule of law and debate among duly elected leaders with the will of the mob and fealty to one man.
The significance of the moment was symbolized for me by the live television images of an invader trying to lower an American flag and raise an alternative banner stamped with the name of the incumbent president. They prefer the dictates of one man to the choices of elected representatives. Through years of coddling extremists and condoning hate, the president has fueled dangerous groups that divide the world into “us” and “them” and has sought to eject voters from the political process. Having gained a platform for leadership, the president used it to sow division.
The invasion of the Capitol further revealed disparities in our society. In the June 2020 issue of this magazine, I wrote, “We see again how far the United States is from the ideal of ‘Equal Justice Under Law.’” As I noted then, “Police used tear gas to break up the gathering of peaceful protestors in Washington, D.C.’s, Lafayette Square to facilitate a presidential publicity stunt.”
In a bitter contrast, 6 months later, perpetrators energized by the rhetoric of another presidential publicity stunt invaded the Capitol and threatened lawmakers, but were not immediately arrested when they strolled out of the Capitol building and off the Capitol grounds. In subsequent days, however, law enforcement officials have arrested a some of the perpetrators, with the help of the public, which has used the many video images, often boastfully shared by the perpetrators, to identify them.
The Changing Face of Leadership
Just as important is what happened the day before.
On Tuesday, January 5, in an historic election, Rev. Raphael Warnock, a Black person, and Jon Ossoff, a Jewish person, were elected as the next senators from the state of Georgia.
Not all diversity is about demographics, but their election is still a milestone along the road to a more inclusive democracy. Over the past decade, dedicated leaders and organizers in Georgia registered hundreds of thousands of citizens to vote. Those newly registered voters, many from underrepresented groups, turned to the ballot box to express their views.
The two newest U.S. senators will serve in the very chamber that was invaded by the mob.
Ironically, when one of those now newly elected senators, who is Black and a pastor, led a peaceful prayer of protest in the U.S. Capitol building in 2017, he was arrested on the spot.
The face of leadership is changing. On January 20, the U.S. will inaugurate a new president, Joe Biden, and the country’s first female vice president, Kamala Harris. Biden and Harris seek to widen our understanding of “us” and “we” to build a more inclusive society. They use their leadership to encourage greater political participation.
What Lies Ahead
The United States is a mix of many currents, and its history crashes ashore in waves. The trends we see in the United States today have been with us throughout our history, though they are not unique to our country. The stresses of changing economic and social conditions, compounded by the devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, have sharpened social divides in countries around the world.
Amid this tumult, observers may ask, “Where is the United States headed?” It is not a new question.
Years ago, when I was still teaching, I had a famous quote from Benjamin Franklin taped to my office door. When the Constitutional Convention was meeting in Philadelphia in 1787, Elizabeth Willing Powel is reported to have asked him, “Doctor, what have we got? A republic or a monarchy?” Franklin replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.”
Can we make a fresh start in 2021? I think we can. The ballot box is still more important than violent outbursts of an angry mob. There are deep divisions in American society, but most want to manage them peacefully as we continue to realize the American Experiment. •
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