Defending democracy requires both unity and accountability

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Calling the inauguration of President Joe Biden “a new day in America,” AFT President Randi Weingarten told participants in a livestreamed discussion of American democracy, “I have never been more welcoming of the traditions and rituals [of our democracy] as I was today.”

town hall on defending democracy

Noting the unprecedented security measures in place as a result of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, Weingarten said, “Even though it took 25,000 National Guard, we actually did have a peaceful transfer of power.”

The inauguration evening “Defending Democracy” discussion was livestreamed on Facebook and YouTube. Panelists were:

  • Nikol Alexander-Floyd, associate professor of political science at Rutgers University-New Brunswick and a member of the Rutgers AAUP-AFT executive council.
  • Adrian Reyna, an American history teacher at Longfellow Middle School in San Antonio and vice president for organizing of the San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support Personnel.
  • John Nichols, national affairs correspondent for The Nation magazine, an advocate for labor rights and the author of several books, including the upcoming Guilty Men, which examines U.S. officials’ failed response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The discussion followed a day that saw Biden sworn in as president and Kamala Harris taking the oath to become the first woman, first Black person and first Asian-American to serve as vice president.

Weingarten and the panelists praised Biden’s inaugural address, with Weingarten calling it the “best speech I have ever heard him give.” Biden, she said, didn’t ignore the Jan. 6 insurrection—he talked about it.

The new president made clear “the essential need for truth and for fact as a basis for democracy, and the need for racial justice,” she said. “He met the moment today.” And then, Weingarten added, Biden and Harris “started doing the work that’s needed,” signing executive orders on Jan. 20 ending the Trump administration travel ban on several Muslim-majority countries, rejoining the Paris climate agreement, implementing a mask mandate on federal property to reduce the spread of the coronavirus, extending eviction and foreclosure restrictions, and continuing the pause on student loan payments and interest.

The next day, on Jan. 21, Biden moved to expand COVID-19 testing, establish clear safety standards and implement other mitigation efforts that will allow schools and businesses to reopen safely.

Turning to the panel members, Weingarten asked Nichols to explain his call for Biden to “dial up the FDR” in his inauguration speech and “think big”—as President Franklin D. Roosevelt did when he was elected in the midst of the Great Depression.

“This is a time to talk about going forward in bold, transformational ways,” Nichols said.

Biden “did remarkably well” in his speech, Nichols said. It was brief and did not overwhelm people with deep detail. Biden’s core theme was democracy in the wake of the mob attack on the Capitol, Nichols said—quoting the new president’s words: “At this hour, my friends, democracy has prevailed.”

“That summed it all up,” Nichols said.

Noting that he has covered Biden for years, Nichols added, “I know how good he is at healing and unity. He is a remarkable man in this regard.” There was a lot of pressure on Biden, Nichols said, to focus solely on that.

“But we have deeper crises—racism, the climate crisis, access to healthcare and others—that all came into urgent focus and were made more clear as a result of the pandemic.” He also pointed out that Biden immediately took action to address those problems, including racial justice and immigration.

“Biden did more major actions in his first six hours than any president in history,” Nichols said. “I hope he doesn’t slow down.”

Weingarten asked Alexander-Floyd about her statement on Jan. 6 that Black Americans were not surprised by what amounted to an attempted coup.

“We have to understand Jan. 6 in context,” Alexander-Floyd said. “We had a sitting president who openly stated he would not acknowledge the outcome of the election unless he won a second term. Not only Trump, but the entire Republican establishment signed on to Trump’s effort to stay in power.”

Borrowing from a sentiment often expressed by Martin Luther King Jr., she said that while forging a new national unity is important, we shouldn’t “let moderates get comfortable with a lack of tension. This is not the time to step back from those big-picture items.”

Alexander-Floyd said the Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol provided another example of American inequalities. Those who attacked the Capitol, she said, drew a much more subdued response in comparison with the aggressive police actions directed at Black Lives Matter protesters around the nation following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. “People were treated very differently because of ideology and race,” she said. “I’m grateful that President Biden didn’t shy away from talking about that directly today.”

When these events and issues find their way into our classrooms, Reyna said, “we should always remember why we’re there—to help students understand who they are and the power they have.” He said he has never seen his students more engaged in the details of democracy than they are now.

“Educators must understand what it is they are teaching,” Reyna said, “and do it in a way that is actually relevant to the students in the classroom”—noting that “students of color don’t always see themselves in our history.”

The mission of educators, he said, is “not really to tell students what to think, but to teach them how to think.”

Weingarten and the panelists concluded the discussion talking about the importance of accountability in the functioning of any democracy. She asked how we should address the situation in which millions of Americans still believe that Trump was cheated in the election. She pointed out that 40 percent to 60 percent, or more, of Republicans continue to accept this “big lie” about a stolen election.

Nichols said, “If you don’t address the big lie, we’re not going to get any of the rest of what we want.” Without accountability, he said, those who accept Trump’s election fraud fantasy will block federal policy reforms “because they will say policy changes reward the election theft.”

The answer, he said, is to prioritize conducting the Senate trial on Trump’s second impeachment for inciting the mob that attacked the Capitol. “If you cheat that trial, then you are saying that this was all just politics.”

It wasn’t, Nichols said. “A president of the United States incited insurrection and sent a white supremacist mob into the Capitol of the United States with nooses and all sorts of other images designed to terrify the Congress and to prevent the certification of the results of the presidential election.” If that isn’t enough for impeachment and conviction, “then we might as well throw out the Constitution,” he added.

Alexander-Floyd agreed: “We can do the impeachment trial and still handle issues with the virus and help people and businesses get through the pandemic.”

She also said the nation must focus more attention on those who promote falsehoods about the American political system. “We need to move to counteract the forces that have been [pushing] and continue to push these lies and try to undermine our democracy—and it’s urgent,” she said. “This is going to be a protracted struggle.”

Americans should be looking more closely at the role of “white Christian nationalism” and “those persons responsible for leading people in thinking about the big lie,” she added.

Reyna agreed that accountability “cannot wait—not holding people accountable will send a very clear message to a lot of kids across the country.”

And going forward, he said, we should remember that one of the most important elements of our democracy is dialogue. “Our democracy rests on an informed and educated and engaged populace,” he said. The dialogue on the issues we face should be guided by “love, humility and faith in each other.”

Weingarten said one lesson to take away from the conversation is that “we have to find ways of aggregating and integrating several concepts together. We can have both opportunity and justice,” she said. “We can have both holding people accountable for what happened at the Capitol, but also dealing with the pandemic and multiple other crises.”

As the discussion concluded, Weingarten said, “We talked tonight about what we need to do to get to that more perfect union. This is righteous work that builds the freedom to thrive.”

[Tom Lansworth]