It has been just over a month since the attacks on our nation’s Capitol and elected representatives. It has also been one week since the military in Myanmar blocked a democratically elected parliament from convening, and seized absolute power. On the same day, America commenced our first Black History Month since last summer’s national Black Lives Matter protests, among the largest in our nation’s history.
Our top shared priority must remain defeating this global pandemic. But there has also never been a more urgent time to revive our democratic energies, and to rethink how we can best help democracy emerge for everyone in our world’s many diverse and unequal communities.
A month ago today, I released this statement on the Capitol attacks. Lest we forget, these attacks were openly aided and loudly abetted by the President and his staunchest supporters. They knew full well that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris had won the presidential election fairly and legally. Nevertheless, they stirred up implausible conspiracy theories of massive electoral fraud, willfully inciting a violent insurrection against Congress to prevent it from confirming the will of America’s voters.
Obviously we have deep differences and disagreements as Americans. This is perfectly natural, even healthy. But trying to overturn the people’s will through fraud and force, whether in America or in Myanmar, is not an expression of difference. Nor is it a statement of disagreement. It is an act of disgrace. As a scholar of both democracy and history, there is little doubt in my mind that everyone involved in cynically fanning the fraudulent flames that ignited the Capitol attack will be disgraced in our public memory.
The dust kicked up a month ago will not soon settle. Here in Michigan and around our nation, calls for fact-finding and accountability still echo. I applaud the democratic spirit that animates these appeals: unity must not be built on impunity, and the future must not be built on amnesia. We cannot begin to move beyond this sorry chapter in our nation’s history unless we distance ourselves decisively from the lies and incitements that fueled the disgraceful acts of January 6th.
As America moves past the presidential transition and returns to the daily grind of polarized partisan politics, there can be no single recipe for reviving democracy. But there are certain minimum requirements. There must be no more falsely denying the legitimacy of democratic election results. No more fearmongering over voting processes in predominantly African-American communities as a pretext for restricting our fellow citizens’ right to vote. No more denigrating critics who call for accountability as un-American. No more dismissing evident truths to gain partisan advantage. And no more peddling in conspiracies to vilify political opponents.
As director of WCED, I remain committed to contributing to the cause of democratic revival, in my admittedly small way, by continuing my leadership of our center’s work. All of us here at WCED will persist in exercising our full academic freedom to better understand and hopefully foster democratic emergence at home and abroad, across our nation and on our campus.
A virtue of the academy, paralleling a virtue of democracy, is that we must always expose our ideas to disagreement and falsification. We all have to be brave enough to be called and proven wrong. Democratic dialogue in highly polarized times is not easy. But what is necessary rarely is.
In that spirit, I warmly invite the entire U-M community to join us in our endeavors. WCED’s next public roundtable on March 9th, on “Reviving Democracy, Globally and Locally,” should be an ideal occasion for collective democratic discussions. For everyone interested in engaging in open dialogue on how to make our campus, state, nation, and world a more meaningfully democratic place, I hope to see you and hear from you there.
Director, Weiser Center for Emerging Democracies (WCED)
Professor of Political Science