Jan. 6 marked a rupture in our country’s history: The peaceful transfer of power was threatened and our Capitol – the seat of American democracy – was attacked by fellow Americans.
Three years have passed since that day, but the danger to our democracy has not. To respond to this challenge, Americans of all political stripes must stay grounded in our love of country and work to safeguard our democracy.
When George Washington refused to run for a third term, he made clear that the new republic would be grounded in the peaceful transition of power. Over time, our country built a civic and electoral system that supports campaigns of passion and purpose while also recognizing that the ultimate results of the election are final.
Candidates understood that the winner would need to heal the divisions and move forward in order to govern, and the loser would need to accept the results, knowing that they could stay involved in our democracy, and even choose to run for office again.
Since Washington’s time, our country has, of course, had moments of great division and turmoil, the most dangerous of which was the Civil War. But even then, Abraham Lincoln refused to give up on his belief in our democracy and the American people.
Lincoln rejected calls from some members of his administration to cancel the 1864 presidential election – a re-election campaign many thought Lincoln would lose. Lincoln reportedly told his cabinet that to cancel our elections would be tantamount to allowing the Confederacy to win, and that our democracy itself would be lost.
He also pledged to work with his opponent, George McClellan – who would likely make peace with the Confederacy – in the event that McClellan won. And despite criticism, Lincoln continued with plans for a transcontinental railroad and the completion of the new Capitol dome as the war raged, demonstrating that a nation “of the people, by the people, for the people” can withstand anything, as long as its core is protected.
That core, of course, is free and fair elections and the agreement by all Americans to accept their results.
My dad, a World War II veteran who survived the Battle of the Bulge, reminded our family often that “democracy is the alternative to violence.” Other political systems rely on force and intimidation to stay in power, or offer constant chaos as rival factions use violence to obtain power.
Our system is a whole, whole lot better. Dad was adamant: freedom is our most important priority. And our freedom depends on each and every American being free to cast a ballot, knowing that it will be counted and accepted.
The preservation of freedom also relies on those running for office to understand that the country’s survival depends on the acceptance of whatever the ultimate election results may be, regardless of the outcome.
I first ran for office in 2002 and lost. I still remember standing at the polling place in my hometown, holding campaign signs with other candidates and supporters from both political parties, energized by the day – knowing that democracy was on the move, hoping that our candidates were winning, but sharing a love, regardless of party, for the process that we were witnessing.
In 2004, I ran for the same office, and defeated the candidate who had beaten me two years earlier. I would lose re-election to him six years later. During that time, I had no doubt, and neither did my opponent, that we would continue to disagree about policy and politics. But we also knew that we could respect the decision that the voters had made.
So, what does this mean, three years after Jan. 6, 2021?
Since Jan. 6, we have made important bipartisan progress tackling a variety of challenges facing our country, including rebuilding our infrastructure and strengthening American manufacturing. When we are able to focus on what we have in common, we are able to achieve great things.
Just as Lincoln insisted that we still build a transcontinental railroad even in the midst of Civil War, we can follow his example and ensure that our democracy continues to address the needs of our people, even in polarized times.
Our ability to continue this progress depends on whether we can truly make Jan. 6 an aberration in our country’s history – and to do that, we must have a common understanding as Americans that former President Trump’s refusal to accept the results of free and fair elections, which ultimately culminated in the Jan. 6 attack, threatened the bedrock of our nation.
If our democracy is to endure, it will require that both Democrats and Republicans say in a unified voice that we will uphold free and fair elections, and reject partisans who refuse to accept election results.
Our country can survive changes in policy, but our children will not live in a democracy if violence and chaos replace the ballot box and rule of law. We simply cannot let Jan. 6 or anything like it ever happen again.
In the middle of the Civil War, Lincoln wrote a letter to Congress, reminding Americans that it was up to us to “nobly save or meanly lose this, the last best hope of earth.”
Surely, we did not survive a Civil War, a Depression, two World Wars and countless other trials to build a country where Capitols are stormed and elections overturned; instead, we can choose to protect that last best hope once again, by putting partisanship aside to protect our very democracy.