In defense of democracy

Published 1/12/2021  |  American Rivers
US Capitol | Photo by John Meyers/Getty Images

I watched the raging mob pouring into the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021 with a mix of horror, disgust, and anger.  This felt personal.  I’ve spent more than 30 years working in Washington, D.C. and on Capitol Hill to protect the environment, including serving on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee staff in the early 1990’s.  I know my way around the Capitol, from its maze of tunnels to the magnificence of the Rotunda.  It is literally and figuratively the heart of American democracy.  And on January 6, it was defiled by a motley aggregation of conspiracy-mongers, white supremacists, and neo-Nazis, all at the behest of an unhinged President Trump, who would not accept the undeniable fact that he lost the 2020 election.

Think about those words.  The President of the United States incited a violent insurrection against Congress in its seat at the Capitol.  In my spare time, I like to read, especially books on American history.  If I had ever read about a lawless President unleashing an equally lawless mob to retain power, I would have thought I was reading outlandish fiction – until now.

The immediate damage of the attack on our government was tragic.  Capitol Police officer Brian Sicknick was killed, and other officers injured defending our freedom.  Four members of the attacking mob also lost their lives.  Damage to the Capitol was extensive.  But the longer-term damage to our democracy could prove to be even greater unless, as Americans, we demand that those responsible for this heinous act be held accountable.  And make no mistake, our ability to protect rivers and clean water requires a functioning democracy in which disagreements remain peaceful and compromise is possible.

So, what must happen now?  Congress and the courts must hold President Trump accountable for inciting an insurrection against the government of the United States, whether through removal from office under the 25th amendment, impeachment, censure, or criminal prosecution.  Similarly, members of Congress who enabled Trump by amplifying his lies about the election must also be held to account, through censure, expulsion, or resignation.  And all those who invaded and desecrated the Capitol must be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. The hateful and deadly actions of those who stormed through the Capitol waving Confederate and neo-Nazi flags, wearing anti-Semitic messages on clothing, and looking to kidnap and kill Vice President Pence and Speaker of the House Pelosi cannot be ignored or tolerated. Only a strong response like this will make clear that this must never happen again.

In addition, there are steps each of us can take as individuals to strengthen our democracy.  We must denounce white supremacy and bigotry, examine how it permeates and poisons our institutions, and work for justice and equity in all aspects of our society, including in the conservation movement and in our own organization.

We should strongly support the rule of law and demand that our elected officials do the same in word and deed.  We should participate in democracy by voting and respecting the outcome of the elections even when our candidates lose.  And we should make our voices heard, peacefully and effectively, on issues of river conservation and any others we care about so deeply.

In an oft-told story, as Benjamin Franklin emerged from Philadelphia’s Independence Hall in 1787 at the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention, he was asked what type of government we would have, a monarchy or a republic.  Franklin was said to reply, “A republic, if you can keep it.”  The deadly insurrection on January 6 was a frightening reminder that it is the responsibility of each of us to help keep our republic safe.

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