My father, a Navy veteran of World War II, just celebrated his 94th birthday. He is one of the estimated 300,000 living veterans of that war and he is healthy, mobile and active, with a wicked sense of humor. His memories are sharp, his voice raspy, and he offers colorful reflections on almost a century of American life.
Last weekend, I asked what the country was like when he was in college during and after the war. If you were in uniform and hitchhiking on leave, he said, drivers stopped and said they would take you wherever you wanted to go. In a bar, you couldn’t pay for a beer or a meal. The country was united and he was so proud.
Then he paused. When he watched the events at the Capitol, he said, suddenly grim, he wished he was still in uniform. He wanted to be there to defend our democracy, to repel and punish those who would attack it. His voice was choking.
My heart ached. His pain and anger were palpable, even over Zoom. Yes, it was about the sordid events at the Capitol. But it was also about how much the fabric of the country had unspooled in his lifetime.
Like many, I watched members of Congress forced to evacuate after a failure by law enforcement to create a sufficiently secure perimeter around them or put a visible and well-equipped anti-riot force in place, as had been done before a thoroughly peaceful anti-racism protest the Rev. Al Sharpton led on Capitol Hill last summer. This double-standard must be investigated.
Eventually, last week’s violence was ended. Debate resumed. Objections were heard, the separate houses debated. After courts had dismissed more than 60 lawsuits claiming fraud, after states conducted recounts that produced no different outcomes, Congress affirmed that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris had the necessary electoral votes to be sworn in next week.
For my money, the democratic process held. The perpetrators who committed violent acts and brought lethal paraphernalia are being hunted down, arrested and charged. I disagree with those who breathlessly proclaim our democracy is fragile. In the face of ceaseless legal, political and procedural challenges culminating in this violent disruption, democracy looked pretty sturdy.
But what does seem fragile? The institutions that mediate and control the American people’s relationship to our democratic republic. Here I refer to the two dominant political parties, the massively over-endowed and overreaching mechanisms of the exercise of political power.
Full disclosure: I’m an independent. I dislike the political parties and what they breed. They are dedicated to the proposition that their self-preservation, separately and together, is equivalent to the national interest. There are moments of upheaval where those can appear to be the same thing, but that is momentary.
This is part of the terrible pain of the moment. The vacuum in political leadership in America is wrenching. After a brutal election season – in which $15 billion was spent by both sides getting Americans to hate and fear each other – 41% of the electorate chose to identify with neither party. Declaring oneself a political independent is their statement of noncompliance with a wretched culture.
The House decided that an unprecedented second impeachment was the best way to sanction Trump, and 10 Republicans joined the Democrats to charge him with “incitement of insurrection” Wednesday. I sorely wish that partisan Democrats hadn’t used the impeachment gambit once before, and with an almost totally party-line outcome.
It would have been better to tie the president’s hands for his final days in office by having Vice President Pence and the Cabinet (what’s left of it) invoke the 25th Amendment – followed by Pence, Nancy Pelosi, Mitch McConnell, Chuck Schumer and Kevin McCarthy standing together to promise a peaceful transition of power.
But I don’t get to decide. I’m only one citizen, one who’s sick and tired of being force fed a toxic brew every time something happens.
Trump, in his infinite narcissism, did more than incite a riot. He handed the Democratic Party a golden goose: the chance to ring the bell for democracy, to transcend the gamesmanship they helped to create.
In an Ipsos poll taken last weekend, 58% of independents said Trump should be removed from office before his term ends – surely the most nonpartisan view on that question. But the same poll found only half the country believes Democrats can be counted on to protect our democracy. Many independents are asking whether Democrats will champion the necessary political reforms to reverse the incentives driving partisanship. I have not seen evidence they will.
Meanwhile, Republicans are deservedly in chaos. Those high-minded government officials turning in their resignations have me laughing. Someone once said, when government officials talk about principles, hold on to your wallet. I just locked mine in a drawer. The GOP is assessing a vote to convict Trump in the Senate followed by a vote to bar him from any future office. A healthier option would be opening all the 2024 presidential primaries to all voters. Independents voted against Trump by 13 points in November, delivering the Democrats the White House and, later, the Senate. Trump could not survive an open primary in four years. The American people would be the deciders.
Perhaps the worst thing is that it’s so hard to know what anything means. The 18th century philosopher Bishop Butler opined that everything is what it is and not another thing. Wishful thinking? Did the Democratic leadership pursue impeachment because it has the votes to stay Trump’s hand? Or does it want to force the GOP to cast damaging votes? Are the resignations an “every man for himself” act of desperation? Or an act of conscience? Was the scene at the Capitol an actual insurrection or a crazed display of deformed defiance, with criminal acts that should be prosecuted?
Are all these events, and so many others, only one thing?
America is in crisis. Where do we go from here? The widening gulf between the positive traditions of our democracy, however flawed, and the current culture of partisan politics will have to be engaged. We can’t continue as we are. This we know because we feel it in our gut.
Jacqueline Salit is president of Independent Voting, which works to promote the political clout of unaffiliated voters, and the author of “Independents Rising: Outsider Movements, Third Parties, and the Struggle for a Post-Partisan America.”
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