Americans are worried about the battered condition of this country’s experiment with democracy. They know that, as President Biden stated in his address Thursday, one year after the January 6 US Capitol attack, “We are in a battle for the soul of America, a battle that by the grace of God and goodness of this nation, we will win.”
What they’re unsure about is how the defenders of democracy will secure that victory.
“This is a hot-button issue,” said Summer Lee, a Pennsylvania legislator who is talking to voters a lot these days as she campaigns for an open US House seat representing the Pittsburgh area. “You hear it on the ground. People are worried about democracy being under attack, about Congress failing to act on these issues. People are wondering what we are going to do to make sure things don’t erode.”
As the country turned appropriate attention to the first anniversary of the insurrection in Washington, I turned my attention away from the nation’s Capitol and toward Pennsylvania’s Allegheny County, where Lee is mounting a progressive bid for the seat of retiring US Representative Mike Doyle, a veteran Democrat. I had seen the CBS News/YouGov poll that found 66 percent of its respondents believe American democracy is threatened. But I was interested in how democracy issues were playing in a contested congressional race in a battleground state.
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In Washington, there’s a lot of speculation about how democracy debates will influence 2022 midterm elections. But Lee is on the front lines of the fight to defend the right to vote—and to give people something to vote for. An outspoken advocate for economic, social, and racial justice, who is campaigning for Congress with endorsements from the Justice Democrats, the Working Families Party, Democracy for America, and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, the Pennsylvania activist and legislator has earned a reputation for having her finger on the pulse of grassroots voters—and potential voters.
“We can’t un-know or un-see January 6,” Lee told me. “What we are seeing is kind of a strange reckoning, that our country could descend to this point.”
Lee’s a Democrat, and she has seen the democracy battles up close in a state where Trump and his lawyers unsuccessfully challenged election results after the 2020 presidential vote—and where the former president and his allies continue to make unproved claims about “voter fraud” in Philadelphia and other urban areas. Not long after the insurrection last year, she found herself battling in a Republican-controlled legislature against GOP efforts to enact what she decried as a “disastrous constitutional amendment to gerrymander and functionally impeach elected judges, disenfranchise voters, and erode checks and balances to their benefit.”
Yet she suggests that there is more to going on than the Republican embrace of Trump’s big lie about the 2020 election. There is also the challenge of getting Democrats to respond effectively to the extreme stances and actions of the GOP.
“I think January 6 showed the vulnerability of the Democratic Party as a whole as it relates to the Republican Party,” she explained. “The Republican Party has taken a path. They have committed to a path. The way that we respond to it will determine how far they get.”
Lee is not alone in this recognition. Across the country, some of the most dynamic Democrats running in the 2022 midterms were, on the anniversary of the insurrection, proposing to ramp up the fight for democracy. They’re not looking away from the crisis, or proposing to compromise in the struggle to defend democratic values. They want to amplify the messages of progressives who are in the House and Senate, and to go bigger.
“We know the insurrection on 1/6 wasn’t a tourist visit,” said former Kentucky state Representative Charles Booker, who is challenging Republican US Senator Rand Paul. Booker is devoting all of this week, which he has declared “Democracy Week,” to explaining why patriotic Kentuckians cannot forgive or forget the actions of Trump apologists like the incumbent. “They knew it was an insurrection. They knew is being fueled by a lie. They knew hate and racism was being weaponized to snap the thread on democracy,” he argued. “They may act like all of this was a tourist visit. But that’s a damn lie.”
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In Wisconsin, State Treasurer Sarah Godlewski, one of several Democrats hoping to take on Republican Senator Ron Johnson, has launched a sophisticated digital advertising campaign that highlights the scandal-plagued incumbent’s claim that insurrectionists were “people that love this country, that truly respect law enforcement, would never do anything to break the law.” She’s also waging an “End the Damn Filibuster” campaign, which calls out cautious Democrats with a chilling message: “If Republicans take back the Senate, Mitch McConnell and Ron Johnson won’t hesitate to end the filibuster and take over our elections. Democrats shouldn’t hesitate either. It’s time to end the filibuster, restore voting rights, and save democracy. We won’t get another chance.”
Lee expressed frustration over the caution of many in Congress when it comes to describing not just what happened when supporters of Trump stormed the Capitol but also what motivated the seditionists.
“The fundamental flaw, to my view, is that Congress has not responded to the roots of what happened in January 6, to get to the heart of the matter,” said the Pennsylvania lawmaker. “We can’t confront something if we won’t call it by its name.”
The name Lee uses is “white supremacy.” She’s not alone in this regard. Biden said in an October address at an event celebrating the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington that the “violent, deadly insurrection on the Capitol nine months ago, it was about white supremacy, in my opinion.”
Yet, while some Democratic leaders in Congress and the White House have acknowledged the roots of the insurrection, they have not taken the necessary next step of holding allies and supporters of the attack accountable, even as these allied legislators continue to advance their racist strategy to disenfranchise people of color at the ballot box.
“Throughout our history, we have coddled white supremacists. We have handled white supremacy with kid gloves,” she explained. “We have to see it for what it is. We have to see where these things are coming from. And we have to respond based on that understanding.”
In particular, said the 34-year-old Howard University School of Law graduate, it is vital to call out double standards. When working-class people of color are accused of even minor misdeeds, she noted, they face harsh penalties Yet powerful political figures whose words and deeds encouraged a deadly attack by insurrectionists on the Capitol are still sitting in Congress.
Lee tweeted in response to the insurrection last year on the morning of January 7, “If a Black man should be permanently disenfranchised for a drug conviction, surely anybody supporting, inciting, and/or participating in insurrection to overthrow legal & democratically achieved election results should prob be disenfranchised and barred from ever serving again.”
When we spoke, she elaborated on that message.
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“This idea that our elected servants or our public servants are held to a lower standard is wrong. They should be held to a higher standard,” said Lee. “It’s dangerous to have folks who would so blatantly defy what our democracy stands for, who would defy what our Constitution stands for, and still be allowed to serve in public office. If we are going to protect the democracy that we have in this country, we’re going to have to be serious about it.”
To that end, she supports a proposal by Representative Cori Bush (D-Mo.), which calls for the House Ethics Committee to determine “whether any and all actions taken by Members of the 117th Congress who sought to overturn the 2020 presidential election violated their oath of office to uphold the Constitution or the Rules of the House of Representatives, and should face sanction, including removal from the House of Representatives.” Lee, as a member of the House, would join the 54 cosponsors of Bush’s plan.
Lee would also add a sense of urgency to debates about whether the federal government should intervene to prevent extreme gerrymandering, voter suppression, and attempts to overturn election rules and results. The Pennsylvanian pulled no punches in arguing that Democrats must fight harder for democracy.
“That we have a majority and a majority cannot act is wrong,” said Lee. “I’m out talking to people, and I can tell you, they don’t want excuses. They want action.”
John NicholsJohn Nichols is a national affairs correspondent for The Nation and the author of the new book Coronavirus Criminals and Pandemic Profiteers: Accountability for Those Who Caused the Crisis (Verso). He’s also the author of The Fight for the Soul of the Democratic Party: The Enduring Legacy of Henry Wallace's Anti-Fascist, Anti-Racist Politics, from Verso; Horsemen of the Trumpocalypse: A Field Guide to the Most Dangerous People in America, from Nation Books; and co-author, with Robert W. McChesney, of People Get Ready: The Fight Against a Jobless Economy and a Citizenless Democracy.