By Manu Meel
There is a deep tension between what I know to be true of the United States and her people and what we have become accustomed to in the last 20 years.
I am a son of immigrants beyond grateful to have been afforded the opportunity to live in the greatest country the world has ever known. Simply put, I would not be who I am today without the United States of America.
Yet, at the age of 23, my lived history of the United States includes the worst attack on the American homeland since Pearl Harbor, two of the longest and costliest wars in American history, a recession only second to the Great Depression, the largest mobilization of racial justice protests since the 60s, and a pandemic that has cost 800,000+ American lives.
And on January 6th 2021, I witnessed the most brazen attack on our democracy.
While my spirit brims with a deep sense of patriotism, optimism, and love for our American story, reality forces me to consider cynicism and skepticism.
I was deeply saddened by the events of January 6th, but I was not surprised. We as Americans pride ourselves on being an introspective bunch. So, let’s be honest with ourselves: most young people my age know a 20-year history battered by failures, not a democracy defined by boundless progress.
On January 6th, people chose division over empathy, violence over deliberation, and politics over democracy. On that day, Americans justified their assault on the symbol of the most ambitious democratic experiment in the history of humanity with patriotism, civil disobedience, and allegiance to one man.
But these choices were not just confined to January 6th. Every day, we as Americans are choosing to be our own worst enemy. We give in to our impulse for tribal conflict. We choose to live in a world of absolutes. And we prioritize sensational rhetoric over nuanced disagreement.
Now, let me be clear: those who attacked the Capitol on January 6th were Donald Trump supporters and they should be held responsible. But we would be foolish to assume that the events of that day exist in a vacuum. We as a country must reckon with the fact that if we continue on our path of absolutism, polarization, and social media driven politics, January 6th will not be the last, but one of many dates that will live in infamy. And Donald Trump will not be the last, but the first of many leaders on both the Left and the Right who will exploit popular anger for electoral gains.
As a young person, all I ask of those in charge is to be honest. Be honest with yourselves. Be honest with the American people. And most importantly, be honest with the spirit of the Constitution and our Founding.
Our Founders built a deliberative democracy because they rejected absolute truths and prided themselves on intellectual humility. They believed in equality, liberty, and opportunity as north stars. And they recognized that our American story rests on a passion for reasoned and vigorous, yet constructive disagreement.
We do not need to rediscover how we right the ship; our Founding has all the answers.
If we as a people truly want to overcome the setback that our democracy suffered on January 6th, we must be intellectually humble, willing to listen beyond our own beliefs, and restore our appetite for being disagreeable. If our citizenry reflects empathy, humility, and constructive disagreement, not even the most brazen of politicians will be able to tear us apart.
Ultimately, the fundamental unit of our democracy is people- us. We decide who is elected. We decide which laws are passed. And we decide what type of information on social media to read. The next time we complain about the state of our union, we better be ready to criticize our own actions because we are at fault for where we are as a democracy.
While the reality of my short-lived history sometimes challenges my strong faith in the American story, I choose not to succumb to the cynicism of the moment. I actively make that choice because the American story has always been defined by a boldness in spirit that has overcome the longest of odds. I do not have the evidence to explain away the skeptics. Nor am I certain which policy prescriptions are needed to strengthen our democracy. But I am certain that if we give in now, we are ceding ground to those who want to divide.