The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion We survived Jan. 6 locked in the House chamber. Will our democracy survive, too?

Rep. Jason Crow (D-Colo.), center, comforts Rep. Susan Wild (D-Pa.) in the House chamber on Jan. 6, 2021. (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images)
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Jason Crow, a Democrat, represents Colorado’s 6th Congressional District in the U.S. House. Susan Wild, also a Democrat, represents Pennsylvania’s 7th Congressional District.

A year ago Thursday, along with dozens of our colleagues, we were trapped in the gallery above the House floor making what we thought could be our final calls to our loved ones.

We will never un-hear the sound of a gunshot just outside the House chamber, the mob trying to break down the doors, or the fear in our loved ones’ voices on the phone. We scrambled to find gas masks under our seats, and we can still recall the masks humming loudly around the chamber as members tried to put them on their heads.

We saw brave officers desperately pile chairs and benches into a barricade. Members who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan prepared to dust off skills honed on the battlefield to protect their country, not from foreign enemies but from homegrown terrorists.

Several checked to make sure the many doors to the chamber were locked; others gathered together in clusters on the floor to defend themselves in case the mob broke through. Lawmakers removed their lapel pins to be less identifiable as members of Congress. For many of us, the day resurfaced old wounds of trauma.

We weren’t special. Other Americans won’t forget that day, either — whether they were frightened citizens watching as extremists pulled down American flags outside the Capitol, journalists who risked their safety to report the story in real time, or heroic police officers who held back the mob long enough for lawmakers to escape.

We were afraid — not just about what the mob might do to us, but what they were planning to do to our democracy. We knew this violent attempt to overturn an election was unlike any threat our nation had faced — because it was coming from within.

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Yet, in the hours after we escaped and made it to a safe room, we also felt decidedly, perhaps strangely, hopeful. Members of both parties sheltered in place together. At that moment, despite all of our disagreements, we had something in common: We experienced the vicious and unrestrained outcome of President Donald Trump’s campaign to overturn the 2020 election. For a moment, it seemed as though we might be able to stand together to defend our Republic, just as generations of lawmakers before us had done in the face of tangible threats.

Unfortunately, that moment was fleeting. To their credit, a handful of our Republican colleagues have put country over party throughout the past year. We still disagree with them — and they with us — on important policy matters, but they’ve broken with the de facto leader of their party to put our democracy first. But those courageous colleagues are the exception rather than the rule.

Just hours after the mob was cleared from the Capitol, 147 lawmakers voted against certifying the election, thereby breathing new life into Trump’s “big lie.” In the months that followed, Republican-controlled state governments have doubled down on structural and legislative changes to make it harder to vote and easier for politicians to overturn elections.

In the past few years, the United States has witnessed substantial growth in a domestic extremist movement committed to using violence to overturn our democracy. The warped ideas that motivated the insurrection — the demonization of our fellow Americans, the unwillingness to accept the results of an election unless your side wins and racially motivated conspiracy theories — are growing. Astonishingly, recent polling suggests as much as 34 percent of Americans would condone the use of violence against the government for political purposes.

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We must respond to this threat with strength and unity.

This begins with a commitment to a new type of American patriotism, one rooted in a humility and honesty that recognizes our faults. We will overcome our challenges as a nation only by recognizing the problems of our past and how they shape our future. This requires an unrelenting commitment to the truth.

And that starts with protecting the right to vote. In 2021, the House of Representatives passed bills to protect voting rights, ensure those votes are counted, and make fair and free elections more difficult to overturn. In 2022, we need the Senate to pass those bills so that President Biden can sign them into law.

In the coming year, every American will have the opportunity to protect the Republic from authoritarian rule.

First, our country needs volunteer poll workers to help our elections run fairly and smoothly. It needs people committed to democracy to run for the local offices that administer elections to ensure that every eligible American can cast a ballot and have it counted.

Second, Americans must get involved in local organizations and show our capacity for honest, respectful discussions and our ability to bridge divisions between neighbors. Ultimately, our democracy must be reinvigorated on main streets, diners, school meetings and neighborhood barbecues — not in Washington, D.C.

American democracy is not inevitable. It exists because, throughout our history, Americans have stood up and fought for it. Now, it’s our turn. We could have lost it last year. This must be the year that we save it.