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A Split-Screen View of Democracy — at Its Best and Its Worst

As the president honored 14 ordinary Americans who defended democracy, Republicans in Congress engaged in a silly game to elect a speaker of the House. The contrast could not have been greater.

President Joe Biden awards the Presidential Citizens Medal to the parents of U.S. Capitol Police officer Brian D. Sicknick.
President Biden awards the Presidential Citizens Medal to the parents of U.S. Capitol Police officer Brian D. Sicknick. Sicknick, who was among law enforcement officers defending the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, died the next day after suffering two strokes.
(Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)
One by one they walked to center stage to receive the Presidential Citizens Medal. They were everyday people who looked like America: Black, white, old and young. They were police officers, election workers and public officials, as well as widows and grieving parents. They were Democrats, Republicans and probably independents too.

President Biden awarded the medals to 14 brave Americans: nine police officers who fought the mob storming the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, displaying bravery and determination that cost three of them their lives, along with five state and local officials and election workers who were subjected to threats of personal violence but resisted pressure to undermine the 2020 elections.

Some of them we have seen or heard testify before the House Jan. 6 committee. Their heroic but tragic stories humanized the events of the failed coup and allowed us to better understand the physical and psychological impact on those who were on the front line.

As I watched the medal ceremony unfold live on cable news, the network provided split-screen coverage of the House of Representatives’ multiple attempts to elect a new speaker in a pathetic display of performative politics by the extreme right wing of the Republican Party. The contrast between the two events could not have been greater.

On one hand we had President Biden thanking relatively obscure Americans who risked their lives but felt duty-bound to do their part to protect the voting rights of every American and to protect the U.S. Capitol, members of Congress and their staffs. On the other hand, we witnessed a string of elected officials who the public entrusted to protect its democratic norms and represent its highest ideals engaged in a silly game of seeing how far they could go exacting concessions and thereby weakening the role of the speaker.

In the wee hours of the night on the morning of Jan. 7, after 15 roll-call votes, this spectacle came to an end. The majority Republicans finally elected Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California speaker of the House. McCarthy is the same public official who initially denounced the violence on the floor of the House that dreadful night two years earlier but went on to vote against the certification of presidential election results from several states and later kowtowed down to Mar-a-Lago to kiss the ring of Donald Trump and beg his forgiveness.

This is the America we live in today, one where about half of the voters appear to be fine with a party that had no better alternative than to offer up McCarthy in the first place and then to concede more power to its extreme right wing — its Marjorie Taylor Greenes — for him to win the speakership. It is frightening, disheartening and embarrassing to see what political leadership has devolved to in U.S. politics. What we are facing in this country is not just a crisis of leadership; it’s a crisis of democracy.

If there is an upside to what happened last week, it resided in what occurred in the East Room of the White House, where 14 legitimate American heroes were honored for their courage and heroism. The fact that it occurred at the same time that the majority party in the House of Representatives was showing the nation just how disorganized and ill-prepared it is to govern may have been just unfortunate timing, but it certainly was revealing.

As I listened to the stories of the medal recipients, it was difficult not to be moved: Caroline Edwards, a U.S. Capitol police officer, was identified as the first law enforcement officer injured by the rioters. She testified that she was knocked unconscious but regained awareness and continued to defend her post. Harry Dunn, a Capitol Police officer who faced racial slurs and harassment in addition to mob violence, has spoken out publicly about mental health issues among law enforcement officers, including those arising from having to cope with racism in the line of duty.

Ruby Freeman and her daughter Shaye Moss work the polls in Fulton County, Ga., where I vote. In the 2020 elections they had to endure threats against themselves and their families as they became targets of the election deniers’ campaign to discredit the presidential voting outcome in Georgia. Freeman says she instilled in her daughter at an early age that voting is a sacred right and civic responsibility. This ideal was under attack in the tense, tumultuous wake of the election.

The split-screen coverage of the two events last week in our nation’s capital city should have allowed us to clearly see the options before us: Are we going to continue to elect our political representatives from a pool of well-known and connected politicians who come with the backing of the major parties, lobbyists and corporate supporters? Or are we going to broaden the pool from which we recruit candidates to raise the chance for someone like those on the list of presidential medal recipients to get nominated? I assure you that there is a world of difference between Caroline Edwards and Marjorie Taylor Greene. And that difference goes way beyond the images on the split screen.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
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