Commentary

What we need to do to keep the birthplace of our democracy from becoming its graveyard | Opinion

There is a clear and present danger to our democratic institutions, and it is taking root right here in Pennsylvania

Capitol police try to hold back rioters outside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. (Photo by Alex Kent for the Tennessee Lookout)

By Chrissy Houlahan 

I remember Jan. 6, 2021 as a paradoxical combination of crystal clear memories and long, indistinguishable expanses of time.

Knowing Pennsylvania’s electoral votes were going to be contested, our team prepared for different scenarios.

As the proceedings on the House Floor began, I remained in my office a short distance away and continued to prepare my speech in anticipation of upholding Pennsylvania’s electoral votes. My written remarks referenced the historical lessons of that brutal 1777-1778 winter Washington’s troops endured in Valley Forge, just miles from my home, and the divisiveness experienced generations ago.

Then came the Capitol Police alerts, the lockdowns, and the death and destruction that ensued.

I spent the following 14 hours barricaded in my office sending messages to my family and staff, letting them know I was safe. I talked with fellow veterans about the ache we felt watching the country we swore an oath to defend being torn from the inside by Americans misled to believe dangerous lies—some of whom swore that same oath.

We all watched in horror as the symbol of the free world was attacked: over $1.5 million in damages140 police officers physically assaulted, and a lasting mental toll to law enforcement and congressional staff on the frontlines of the attack.

As the tear gas dissipated and the Capitol complex was deemed safe thanks to the bravery of the U.S. Capitol Police, D.C. Metropolitan Police, and National Guard, it was time for me to head to the House Floor to lift up the voices from our community— Republican, independent, and Democrat — at last.

At approximately 1:30 a.m., I joined my colleagues in the Pennsylvania delegation and as our community’s elected representative, I stood up against the lies; lies that are repeated even today by some of the very members who represent our commonwealth.

And these were indeed lies.

As Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said in a speech on the Senate floor: “The mob was fed lies. They were provoked by the president and other powerful people, and they tried to use fear and violence to stop a specific proceeding of the first branch of the federal government which they did not like.”

Here’s what’s happening in D.C. on the Jan. 6 anniversary

Trump’s own former secretary of defense and four-star Gen. James Mattis issued a powerful rebuke: “Today’s violent assault on our Capitol, an effort to subjugate American democracy by mob rule, was fomented by Mr. Trump. His use of the presidency to destroy trust in our election and to poison our respect for fellow citizens has been enabled by pseudo political leaders whose names will live in infamy as profiles in cowardice.”

Which brings me to why I’m speaking about this today: There is a clear and present danger to our democratic institutions, and it is taking root right here in Pennsylvania.

Too many of our state’s current and aspiring elected officials continue to spread these lies and foment division. And I’m not sure which scenario gives me greater pause: officials who ignore the facts and truly believe the Big Lie, or officials who know it’s a lie, but continue to push it for personal gain.

Our history is a source of pride and is found in every corner of our Commonwealth, not just Valley Forge. And like those early days of fragile democracy, we must remain vigilant; we cannot become paralyzed by inaction.

If we don’t act, we could hold the dubious and horrifying distinction of being both the birthplace and the graveyard of our cherished Republic.

Here’s what we must do, for starters.

First, we must reject those attempting to rewrite the history of Jan. 6. Every state and federal representative who voted to overturn the 2020 election must be held accountable for hiding behind baseless “election integrity concerns” they themselves helped fabricate.

We needn’t look any further than the fact they rejected our lawfully elected president, but deny any wrongdoing in their own elections. And this includes preventing future members of Congress from seeking to rewrite states’ certified election results, which we can do by updating the Electoral Count Act of 1887 to make clear that Congress has no business in overriding states’ constitutional responsibility to choose our president.

Second, we must pass voter protections. The restrictive voting laws we’ve seen proposed and enacted across the country are not a response to voter fraud – which has time and again been disproven by independent analysis – but fears of increased turnout. State lawmakers in Harrisburg are attempting to enact broad and restrictive new voting laws — laws that make it harder for workers, new citizens, and marginalized communities to make their voices heard at the ballot box.

With the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, we have the chance to take the same approach for future elections and continue the progress and promise of an engaged electorate by permanently improving voter registration procedures nationwide, enhancing election security, and breaking down the institutional barriers to voting.

Third, we all must recommit ourselves to civility and decency. The constant barrage of hate, intimidation, and violent threats against public servants — from the college-aged interns answering phones in my and other congressional offices, to the election officialsschool administrators, and health officials doing their best to serve the public under the extraordinarily difficult circumstances this last year has brought to all of us — represents an extension of the physical violence we saw one year ago.

A strong democracy requires respectful disagreement, debate and compromise, not constant and automatic fear and disparagement of decisions or people you may not agree with.

If we are not able to have respectful conversations with someone with different political views, take steps to engage with other viewpoints, and fact check before assuming the worst in your fellow American. And if you have the time, thank a local, state, or national public servant for their service.

So as we reflect on today, the one-year anniversary of Jan. 6, join me in recommitting to the promise of our nation. May we stand together and ensure our great nation and the values it represents live on for generations to come.

U.S. Rep. Chrissy Houlahan, a Democrat, represents the Chester County-based 6th Congressional District. She writes from Washington D.C. She is a U.S. Air Force veteran. 

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