Remember your eighth-grade civics class? You learned what a democracy is — a government run by the people. You learned what a republic is — a government that uses representatives to express the will of those people. And while we can make nuanced arguments about the effectiveness of our systems and institutions, or the original intent behind them, the fact remains that the United States is a republican democracy.
Well, America, you almost lost both of them. And just because Trump has slunk off to Mar-a-Lago, don’t think you can rest easy. It’s not over.
Four years. That’s all it took to go from a stable government to a shaky, uncertain government. An insurrectionist mob of angry Whites storming its capitol to undermine a legal election showed how fragile the government is.
Of course, it didn’t just take four years. One can argue that White anger has been brewing since 1980 when a cynical Republican administration began burying the remains of 1960s and ’70s optimism under “trickle-down” economics, corporate deregulation, and tax cuts for the wealthy.
The middle class began to buckle. It was hard to see, masked by Baby Boomers riding the cresting wave of opportunity their parents set in motion after World War II. But it was buckling nonetheless.
Jobs that 50 years ago would have put someone squarely in the Middle Class now barely break even. One-income families are no longer the norm. Two- or three-income families are, with side gigs to stitch up the gaps.
Wrongly, many of the dissatisfied Whites blame not faulty economic policies for their situation, but rather minorities taking their jobs. That’s been a common refrain of White America for decades. It despised Chinese immigrants for doing jobs at low wages; it feared a post-Civil War Black migration to the North to take traditionally White work.
The people who stormed the capitol thought that by violently expressing their anger against the symbol of American democracy they could get what they want. They thought rallying behind a faux politician who told them lies would get them what they want. They thought getting behind goofy conspiracy theories would get them what they want.
And their fearless leader thought signing executive orders with a Sharpie pen could get him what he wanted — an authoritarian state with sycophants doing his bidding and corrupt institutions feeding his wallet.
But they were all wrong. It was not pretty, but the center held. The courts that Trump stacked ruled against him. Career federal employees dug in and sometimes even exposed his schemes. And voters, the backbone of any democracy, turned against him — in 2018, in 2020, and the Georgia run-off in 2021.
No matter how Trump, his halfwit legal surrogates, and his cosplay army tried — the center held.
But don’t get complacent. It may not hold a second time. What will happen if a skilled politician — one who knows how American government works — comes along and wants to create an oligarchical fascist state? What will we do?
Clearly, there is a lot of work to do. President Joe Biden knows there is a lot of work to do.
In his inaugural address, President Joe Biden targeted systemic racism. He knows Trump didn’t rise out of a vacuum. An ancient system of segregation and racism set the stage for him. Even though Trump is playing a perpetual round of golf now without his Twitter bullhorn, the scaffolding that supported him remains. Don’t expect White superiority to give way easily. It’s cornered, and it will fight viciously.
I know people who say that the institutions of American government are so corrupt, so tainted by the ideas of corporate entitlement, that they cannot be rehabilitated. That generational racism is too engrained in American society to disappear.
I don’t consider myself a sunny optimist, but that view is too pessimistic for me. Maybe we can’t fix everything, but we have to keep trying.
Seriously, look at where we are. The worst president in American history is sandwiched between the first Black American president and the first Black, Indian-American woman vice president. Things are changing.
But there is much to do.
The Trumps of the world thrive on ignorance, complacency, and apathy. We’ve all been there. We get tired and frustrated and throw up our hands. But that’s what they count on.
We all have to stay alert and active participants in the American experiment. Remember the oft paraphrased quote “be the change you wish to see in the world?” That implies action. Sitting and hoping someone else saves democracy won’t cut it.
You need to stay informed; critically consume accurate news; learn about the tenets and history of our government; vote; help others vote; canvass neighborhoods for candidates or issues you support.
And not everything you do has to be political. It can be social or environmental. It can even be self improvement.
The Brookings Institution has a wonderful list of things you can do to boost civic engagement.
Public awareness and active participation will reinvigorate American republican democracy. It will take time and we may never get fully there, but we have to steadily move toward the future and society we want.
We have to try.