January 6 was a very bad day for President Donald Trump and a very good day for American democracy. The dead and wounded will be remembered as a tragic outcome of the president’s violent rhetoric. But what happened that day – and I’m not just referring to the takeover of Congress by Trump’s supporters – could very well mark the beginning of an important period of renewal and strengthening of American democracy.
On January 6, the laws, institutions, and norms that limit presidential power in the United States were stress tested. Fortunately, they survived Donald Trump’s attempt to stay in the White House despite losing the election.
This is not to say that American democracy has passed through this crisis unscathed. It had already been weakened, and although the coup failed, Trump and his accomplices have left the country even more vulnerable and divided. What’s more, the blow to America’s international prestige is enormous.
On a day that was full of surprises we also got a letter and a speech that changed the course of history
But, as we have seen, Trump, along with some Republican members of Congress and the anti-democratic forces that actively participated in the coup attempt, were discredited even more. The seizure of the Capitol building by violent rioters incited by the president was, obviously, a historic event. Something like this hasn’t happened since British forces set fire to the Capitol in 1814. Fortunately, this time the occupation was short-lived.
But other very important things happened for US democracy on January 6. That morning we learned that the two Senate candidates running for office in the state of Georgia – Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff – had defeated their Republican rivals. Warnock will be the first black senator from Georgia – a southern state with a long history of segregation and racial discrimination. Jon Ossoff, 33, will be the first Jewish senator elected in a southern state since the 1880s and the youngest senator in the Democratic Party since Joe Biden was elected half a century ago.
The electoral wins of these two candidates mark a milestone that goes beyond the historic nature of their election. With those two additional votes, the Democratic Party, which already has a majority in the House of Representatives, will also have a majority in the Senate. This hasn’t happened since 1995. Control of Congress will give Joe Biden more freedom and accelerate the appointment of government officials that require Congressional approval and that of the federal judges whom the president proposes and the Senate can approve or reject. Of course, Biden also has much better chances of initiating meaningful and long-lasting economic and political reforms.
Perhaps for the first time in four years, Mike Pence put his country’s democracy before Donald Trump’s personal interests
On a day that was full of surprises we also got a letter and a speech that – albeit not as dramatic as the televised occupation of the Capitol – changed the course of history.
Mike Pence, who as vice-president also serves as president of the Senate, sent a letter to his fellow senators. In the letter, the until-then submissive, obedient, adulating and, surely, long-suffering Mike Pence, informed senators that he would rigorously comply with the limited duty mandated by the Constitution in the process of certifying the electoral college votes for the president and vice-president. What Pence did not say in his letter, but everyone knew, is that this was not what his boss, the president, had ordered. Trump publicly reiterated that he expected Mike Pence (“who owes me so much”) to support the electoral fraud that he had mounted in collusion with Senators Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley and other Republican operators. Perhaps for the first time in four years, Mike Pence put his country’s democracy before Donald Trump’s personal interests. Had the opposite happened, the coup would have had a better chance of success.
The other surprise was the speech by Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader of the Senate. For four years McConnell had loyally supported Donald Trump. On January 6, he stopped. When the counting of the electoral votes began in the Senate, and before the invasion of the Capitol prevented further debate, McConnell gave a devastating speech that exposed, and effectively defeated, the coup that Trump and his allies were trying to perpetrate. If McConnell had aligned himself with the coup-plotters that day, we would now be speaking in a different tone about American democracy.
The defects of this democracy are in plain sight, as are all the challenges it faces. The reforms it urgently needs are also known. But will they be implemented? Will they be successful? We don’t know. But we do know that January 6, 2021 will likely go down in history as the day the United States began to reshape its democracy.
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