Restoring democracy demands justice not retribution

Our national civic health needs justice every bit as much as our public health needs the vaccine.

This article is part of a series of thinking examining modern media and our civic life including my new book For ALL the People coming Feb 23, 2021.

The Obama Administration came into office during a historic crisis. Avoiding a global depression became the justification for all decisions and political risk calculus. And in the chaos of crisis, holding people accountable and reforming systems and regulations that created the crisis took a backseat, and justice for the millions of Americans harmed by greed and exploitation was set aside for the sake of the recovery. Our trust and belief in democracy as a system of law and a tool for justice never recovered.

The Biden Administration is taking office during two historic crises. Avoiding further unnecessary loss of life and avoiding a global depression are going to rightly occupy attention and focus, but the pandemic is only the first crisis. Our civic crisis is just as acute, and we cannot afford for it to be diminished by the broader context. If those who have aided and abetted the undermining of our democracy, who’ve callously held the door open for grifters and criminals exploiting Americans for political gain and the maintenance of power are not held to account and the anti-democratic systems that make it easy are not reformed, we may survive the pandemic, but our democracy may not.

In any other time, either of these challenges could be all-consuming for a new Administration. President Biden has to confront both with conviction not only because both are potentially threatening to the survival of the country, but also because our ability to deal successfully with either of them depends on our success in dealing with both of them. People need to trust the institutions discovering, validating, approving, and distributing vaccinations for them to be administered effectively and fully. People need to be able to leave their homes and work together in their communities for our democratic processes to be restored.

We must protect people AND rebuild trust by focusing on justice and the health (no pun intended) of the systems and institutions that make our democracy possible. These efforts cannot and must not be about political retribution or feeding our desire to punish others for our pain but centered on the resilience and capacity of our democracy to meet this moment and carry us toward the 22nd century. Provide clear national leadership and guidance on public health standards. Nationalize and accelerate the vaccination program by leveraging both the Defense Production Act and military planning and logistics capacity. Aggressive, sweeping government ethics form including rules around information health. Relieve struggling Americans with wage protection at 100% of wages not one-time stimulus checks that benefit economy more than people. Expand John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to include broader reforms to elections processes including non-partisan primaries and ranked choice voting for all Federal offices. Constitutional amendment to modernize the Electoral College. Modernize the federal judiciary. AND censure every Federal elected official who has trafficked in misinformation and disinformation regarding 2020 election. Increase FEC penalties for promoting misinformation and disinformation. Expel, not just censure, House and Senate members who continue to undermine trust by trafficking in misinformation and disinformation and who fail to meet new ethics standards. The key to these actions (and others like them) is to fight for our democracy, to reclaim moral leadership in America, and to rebuild the moral foundations of our civic life — not to punish political opponents.

In a democracy, power is borrowed. And when it is not wielded for the benefit of the people, there must be real consequences. The callous, self-serving abuse of power must be de-normalized — especially when those abuses explicitly encourage or tacitly endorse violence. We cannot allow the tyranny of the urgent — and the righteous work to save American lives — to crowd out our need for justice and accelerate the rise of actual tyranny.

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