I Never Expected to See It Here

Democracy is under attack, and we need to protect it.

An illustration of an American flag on a black screen.
Getty / The Atlantic

About the author: Ilhan Omar is a Democratic congresswoman from Minnesota.

As I sat in my Capitol Hill office two weeks ago, watching a violent mob storm the symbol and seat of our democracy, I was reminded of my distant past. As a child, I saw my birth country of Somalia descend from relative stability into civil war, overnight. The spaces where people felt most secure—their homes and workplaces—suddenly became battlegrounds, torn by gunfights and bombings. Violent targeting of political leaders—once unheard-of—became commonplace.

I never expected to experience a direct assault on democracy in the United States, one of the oldest, most prosperous democracies in the world.

But if there is any lesson we can draw from the past four years, it is that it can happen here. If we are to address the root causes of this insurrection, we have to understand, deep within ourselves, that we are human beings like other human beings on this planet, with the same flaws and the same ambitions and the same fragilities. There is nothing magical about our democracy that will rise up and save us. Building the democratic processes we cherish today took hard and dedicated work, and protecting them will take the hard and dedicated work of people who love this country.

Our shared story of America often begins and ends with the founding—the truths we hold self-evident in our Declaration of Independence, the carefully crafted system of checks and balances enshrined in our Constitution. But in truth, our republic did not arrive overnight.

America in its early days was not a full democracy by any stretch of the imagination. The institution of chattel slavery remained a bedrock of our society, and much of our economy. The violent, forced seizure of Native American land was a cornerstone of the American ideal of “manifest destiny,” codified into policy through laws like the Indian Removal Act.

It took a literal civil war to quash a violent white-supremacist insurrection, and then to extend basic rights to the formerly enslaved.

Even then, it would take decades of organizing to guarantee women the right to vote—and later basic reproductive freedom. It would take a labor movement to outlaw child labor, institute the 40-hour work week, establish a minimum wage, and create the weekend. And it would take a civil-rights movement, a century after the Civil War, to end legal segregation and establish basic protections for Black people in this country.

The genius of our Constitution is not that it was ever sufficient (the Bill of Rights was not even included at first), but that it was modifiable—subject to constant improvement and evolution as our society progressed.

Our republic is like a living, breathing organism. It requires attention and growth to meet the needs of its population. And just as it can be strengthened, it can be corrupted, weakened, and destroyed.

At every point in our history, revolutionary change has been met with counterrevolution. The Reconstruction amendments were followed by decades of domestic political terrorism. The civil-rights acts of the 1960s were followed by the presidency of Ronald Reagan, the “southern strategy,” mass incarceration, and deep cuts to the social safety net. The rich got richer, the military-industrial complex became more powerful, and unchecked corporate cash placed an ever-increasing stranglehold on our politics.

Donald Trump was not elected in a vacuum. Inequality, endless wars, and the corruption of unaccountable elites are all common precursors to either violent revolutions or dramatic expansions of democracy.

President Joe Biden has been tasked with bringing us back from the brink. He will govern a country whose citizens no longer share the same basic reality. He will govern a country that has deep, unhealed wounds and layers of unresolved traumas. We must all work with him and with one another to heal those wounds and to resolve those traumas. The insurrection on January 6 tells us that we are almost out of time.

The question now is which path we will take. Will we follow Trump and his co-conspirators down the path of democratic breakdown, or choose instead the arduous route of democratic reform?

Reform requires full accountability and justice for everyone who led a violent insurrection against our democracy, however powerful they may be. The very survival of our democratic government relies on the peaceful transition of power. Those who plot, plan, or incite violence against the government of the United States must be held fully accountable. That includes not just conviction of the former president by the United States Senate, but removal of any lawmaker or law-enforcement officer who collaborated with the attackers.

But we can’t stop there. We are doomed to repeat this cycle of instability and backsliding if we do not make a bold effort to reimagine our democracy—from our elections on down. We need to end the dominance of unchecked corporate money in our politics, remove the substantial barriers to voting for low-income communities and people of color, ban gerrymanders, and give full voting rights and self-government to the voters of Washington, D.C. January 6, though, demonstrates that we must go further. We must remove the antidemocratic elements from our system, including by eliminating the filibuster in the Senate, reforming the courts, abolishing the Electoral College, and moving toward a ranked-choice voting system.

We also cannot fall into the trap of making policies guided by fear, and therefore treating the symptoms of our illness without addressing the root causes. We must act on our disgust at the double standards employed against white protesters and Black ones, and against Muslims and non-Muslims. But at the same time, we must resist the very human desire for revenge—to simply see the tools that have oppressed Black and brown people employed more broadly. The answer is not a larger security structure or an omnipresent police state, but a system of justice that respects everyone’s rights and essential dignity.

If I learned anything as a survivor of civil conflict, it is that political violence does not go away on its own. Violent clashes and threats to our democracy are bound to repeat if we do not address the structural inequities underlying them. The next Trump will be more competent, and more clever. The work to prevent the next catastrophes, which we should all be able to see coming, starts now.