America on the brink

Our Republic has always depended on the decency of the men and women who lead it — yesterday was no exception

Dear Readers: I don’t anticipate writing a lot about politics this year. But as I’ve written in the past: we live in the world. And I don’t like those writers who try to stay above it all, who ignore politics completely, suggesting it is somehow beneath their attention. It’s not. Yesterday was a moment of consequence for everyone and the world, and so I offer this:

Yesterday was a sad day, a dark day. America was on the brink. Maybe still is.

And yet, yesterday evening I watched Senators from both parties, nearly all of them, affirm their commitment to foundational tenets of the American experiment, the ideas that make America America: respecting the results of a free and fair election; a peaceful transition of power; the rights of states to hold elections and then determine their own electors; and, perhaps above all else, the idea that we are a nation of laws, and not of men.

It was a lesson on civics. It was a display of catharsis. It was a a moment for history. And, it was instructive. I hope the kids were watching.

All those things the Senators affirmed: they’re just ideas. We invented them. Born out of the Enlightenment, informed by the failures of republics which had come before, taken up by a handful of revolutionaries and enshrined in a Constitution they had no reason to expect would last, and — this is the crucial point — affirmed by decent men and women when and where decency was most needed. Because when it comes down to it, when rubber hits the road, they are just words inked on an old piece of paper. But those words still have power.

I get that most of the Republican Senators in that room last night played significant roles in enabling us to get to this dark moment. At key times they enabled and abetted a would-be tyrant, a child, a clown, a narcissist, a serial assaulter of women, and — most relevant here — a man who does not believe in any of the ideas which make America America. A man who believes only in money, power, himself.

Their words matter and I hope their enabling actions will be remembered. I’m talking about Mike Pence. Lindsey Graham. Mitch McConnell. And many more. Practically the whole lot of them. But then, last night, Pence, Graham, McConnell and more affirmed their commitment not to the cult leader, but to the American idea. Yesterday, the rubber truly did hit the road.

America was on the brink, as it has been a handful of times in the past. And, as in those handful of times, America continued on the strength and decency of a few good men and women, guided by and upholding ideas that earlier decent men and women invented.

Just imagine for a moment if it had been the other way: an attorney general who could have decided to aid the serial liar’s attempt to overturn state election results; a vice president who, presiding over the Senate, could have asserted he did have the power to throw out individual electors; a Senate majority leader who could have whipped his caucus even more cynically than he has in the past, only this time to keep a member of his own party in the White House indefinitely; or even a sympathetic military leader who could have decided to take it upon himself to march troops into the Capitol in order to enforce the overthrow of the American idea.

Yet none of that happened. Just the mob, incited by the man who had his Twitter account suspended. The mob — also warned against by the founders. Defacing statues. Stealing lecterns. Breaking windows. Waving the flag of the Confederacy. Disrupting the people’s business, but not, ultimately, stopping it.

Because yesterday there were enough men and women in power who still believed the rule of law should preside, that the courts should be respected, that the election results should be respected, that a peaceful transfer of power is the goal, that it was either those ideas — or the end of it all.

Yesterday, separation of powers wasn’t just a history lesson. Nor was the idea that states should decide how to run their own elections, and choose their own electors. We can thank the founders for a great many errors when they drafted the Constitution (or things which look like errors today, but were in fact political compromises back then) — but we must also credit them for a good deal of wisdom and foresight, both of which have had reverberations through centuries, to yesterday.

Meanwhile, six U.S. Senators and many more Representatives should be considered as having tried to overthrow this Republic, and so too should the mob. They are seditious in the same way that Southern secessionists attempting to preserve the institution of slavery were seditious. In the same way that anyone taking action to overthrow our Republic should be considered seditious.

Anyway. Yesterday we witnessed the American experiment being tested. And if there is a lesson to take from what happened, it's this: nothing about this Republic, of, by, and for the people, can or should be taken for granted. It's on us to keep it. Our decency is what holds it together. Always has been.