Michael Bennet: Recommitting to our democracy
One year ago Thursday, Americans violently stormed our Capitol to stop Congress from certifying the 2020 election.
After being evacuated, the Senate and the House returned that night to fulfill our Constitutional duty. On Jan. 20, 2021, Joe Biden’s inauguration marked the 45th peaceful transition of power since John Adams succeeded George Washington.
There was little reason for suspense that day. President Biden won Arizona by more than 10,000 votes, Georgia by more than 11,000, Wisconsin by more than 20,000, Pennsylvania by more than 80,000 and Michigan by more than 150,000. His margin in all these states except Arizona was greater than President Trump’s in 2016. And unlike the former president, who lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by 3 million votes, Biden won by more than 7 million.
Nevertheless, President Trump claims the 2020 election was stolen. He has never produced any actual evidence of fraud (his own Attorney General said there was none). Judges across the country, including some Trump appointees, have thrown his lawyers out of more than 60 courtrooms for failing to provide evidence.
Last week, another expensive “audit” determined that dead people voted in Georgia: Out of nearly 5 million Georgians who voted, four were dead, including one likely for Trump. Since the election, the Associated Press reviewed every potential case of voter fraud across the six states President Trump challenged and determined that disputed ballots represented just 0.15% of Joe Biden’s combined margin of victory in these states. Despite this reality, President Trump has seized on the Jan. 6 anniversary to double-down on his claim the election was stolen.
If President Trump can “stop the steal” with no evidence of theft, what election would ever be secure? As Americans, we cannot disregard our Constitution just because we don’t like an election’s outcome. Elections are how we transfer power peacefully — from school boards to the presidency. Our Founders knew that throughout history, the alternative to peaceful elections is political violence — as we saw at the Capitol one year ago. Surrendering the peaceful transfer of power would end the exercise in self-government our Founders designed over 230 years ago and deal a crippling blow to freedom and the rule of law.
We should ask what future the “stop the steal” movement imagines for our country. I understand many Americans’ frustration with government, but are we really prepared to trade our constitutional rights for the tyranny in Russia, China or Turkey? Will we be the first Americans to give up self-government because we think the work is too hard, our leaders are too corrupt or our grievances with each other are more profound than our common commitment to democracy?
A year after Jan. 6, we should ask what we owe generations of Americans that have fought to make this country live up to our founding creed. What do we owe to each other, the record 158 million people who voted in 2020 for President Trump and President Biden? What do we owe our children and our grandchildren?
The answer is clear: We owe them a stronger democracy that works better for all Americans and an economy that works for everyone — not just those at the very top. Our democratic example has always shined brightest when we stood for both freedom and opportunity; one idea cannot meaningfully exist without the other.
At a moment when we seem so divided, how do we begin? By remembering the Founders did not expect us to agree with each other. Far from it. They understood that, in America, no king or tyrant could tell us what to think. Our freedom to think gives us the freedom to disagree. They trusted that from our disagreements, we would create more imaginative and durable solutions than any tyrant could discover on his own. I think our Founders were on to something, because the worst decisions I make are the ones made alone in my basement or workshop not contending with someone else’s viewpoint, perspective or experience.
We are not the first generation of Americans to disagree, but we are the first to suffer the effects of disagreements as they are stoked by giant social media echo chambers whose business model addicts us (and our kids) by making us angry at each other. We are the first generation to witness the near collapse of trusted print and local journalism because of the same business models. More important, we are becoming the first generation since WWII to have shorter lifespans, worry that our kids are going to be economically worse off than we are and contemplate the possible eclipse of America’s global leadership by an authoritarian China.
We can escape this future, but only if we recommit to our democracy and show the world that, out of our disagreements, America can still make decisions for the benefit of the next generation. Start by distrusting any politics that asks you to treat a neighbor with a different perspective as your enemy or an enemy of America. Reject politicians escaping accountability by attacking the free press, enshrined in our Bill of Rights. And, concerning rights, celebrate Colorado’s extraordinary (and fraud-free) voting and work to ensure all Americans have similar access to the polls.
If last week’s Boulder County fires demonstrated anything, we need each other: the first responders who warned over 30,000 people out of harm’s way; the Coloradans who housed their neighbors so fewer than 300 people spent the night in shelters; the journalists whose reporting throughout the night gave families some sense whether their home had been lost or spared; local officials who have helped Colorado rebuild better after floods and fires, now turning their attention to yet another disaster; and the Federal Emergency Management Agency — because if ever there were a reason to be “one nation under God,” it’s to deal with natural disasters.
We must seize this moment to restore our democratic covenant with one another. If we fail to fulfill our responsibilities as citizens, we will unleash a disaster of our own making and earn condemnation from generations of Americans. If we succeed, as Lincoln said, we will have “nobly save[d]…the last best hope of earth.” Do we really have any choice?
Michael Bennet has represented Colorado in the United States Senate since 2009. This column originally ran in the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel.
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