The Fragility of Democracy and the Responsibility of Hope
On 6 January 2021, President Trump’s supporters stormed the Capitol building, where elected officials were in full session certifying the votes of the 2020 presidential election. They smashed windows, pounded on doors, and went through the building unimpeded, making their way to the Senate floor, rummaging through the desks hastily abandoned by the senators who had been evacuated in an unprecedented emergency.
It is clear that the protesters felt that the election is compromised and the result is false: the Trump campaign, factions of the media, and the President himself have done everything to convince supporters that their votes were stolen, without reflecting on the consequences of their lies or their inflammatory language. As a result, the behavior of the crowds sent another message to the rest of the country, that had nothing to do with emotional hyperbole or with rightful grievance: “Keep Trump in power or else we will achieve this by force, the same way we are defiling the building where the work of government takes place.” The implications of this event are disturbing: the American democracy–the system that allows citizens to make their choice of a president by casting their vote–is in great peril.
31 years ago, when my family and I arrived in America as political refugees from communist Romania, having endured years of persecution dealt by a cruel dictator, my father said: “My 12 years of torture in prison are rewarded. I brought you to a free country. Now you go live in peace.” As my children were watching the desecration of the seat of government on national television, I understood that everyone, including me, has a civic duty to speak against complacency, and against the vulgarity of public language: democracy is just as fragile here as anywhere else, and we all have a role to play in safeguarding it.
The events of 6 January, which are a culmination of four years of a destructive presidency based on lies and distortions, make it imperative to restore a sense of dignity to language, and invoke a responsibility to hope. Without a kinder language and the sentiment of hope, we will sit helplessly and watch brute force, and brutish greed, take over our lives.
It would be a mistake to dismiss those who put their feet on desks and tore through offices while waving the TRUMP flag as simply “the mob”: they represent a large segment of the American population who voted for Trump and they were empowered by an erratic, law despising president and his corrupt supporters to the point that they are not able to distinguish truth from lies. They created chaos, fear, and put many in danger. We cannot sweep the events of yesterday under the rug.
Though more than half of the country is ashamed and horrified at the vandalism that took place in Washington, those who descended on the capital represent division, anger, and ultimately a massive loss of values. The loss was incremental and is the result of a deep-seated arrogance in society. The idea that “bad things will never happen here, because we are the greatest on earth” runs deep and unchecked: we need to see the reality around us and do the hard work of admitting that our lives will not improve as long as we trade fact for fiction, reason for destructive emotion, and straightforward language for manipulative slogans.
Can Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, the lawfully elected leaders, make a reality of their promises for racial equality, social justice, care for the environment, education and health? It is both too soon and too late to question them. But one thing is for certain: they cannot make good on their promises by themselves, they cannot make a better America simply by willing it. There must be a commitment from the rest of us, those sitting on the margins, those feeling merely shocked, disheartened and depressed, those who prefer to remain “apolitical”, and those who profit by demagoguery. Today’s public language matches the vulgarity of feelings that is perfectly evidenced in Trump’s speeches.
America needs to seek a different prosperity: one that has to do with the soul and will animate the very language which brings us together as human beings living with one another. When we will find the calming words that will help us sit down together to understand our grievances, voice our hopes, and admit to our fears, we will be able to trust our institutions again and preserve democracy. We must find the words that mean what they say and say what they mean.
What does it mean to have a responsibility to hope? What does “the responsibility of hope” mean? For me it means that I must find a way to see very clearly the lives of my children unfolding in peace, and in trust that their civic duties and their civic rights are in place to help them negotiate the difficulties ahead. I must hope a responsible hope. Freedom, trust in society, a fulfilled life are not things simply given to us by people in power. They are given by the values that help us elect our leaders. My children’s understanding of power and governance should not be shaped by the images of yesterday, when law, order, and respect for the election process were shattered with the windows and stomped on. The hope we need now must border on stubbornness: against the mob, against a derailed democracy, against corrupted and corrupting language—the kind of hope that validates the trust in ourselves to discern right from wrong.
The Italian writer Giani Rodari wrote a book called Tante Storie Per Giocare (Many Stories to Play With) which my children received as a gift from their grandmother some years ago. The stories are short and have several endings from which the reader can choose and discuss. In the light of current events, I offer a story of our own time and place, written in a similar form:
Once there was a man who was elected to the presidency of a big and powerful country. When the first term came to an end four years later, people chose another president. The man refused to accept defeat and called his supporters, who vandalized the seat of government, sending fear and anger everywhere.
What happened next?
First ending: the violence was so shocking, everyone, including the president, realized that things went too far, and the new president took his office peacefully. A great lesson was learned.
Second ending: it was the beginning of a long civil war.
Third ending: everyone decided to think about something else. Almost no one voted in elections since.
Discuss your choice of the ending.