After the Insurrection: Accountability, Reform, and the Science of Democracy

January 8, 2021 | 7:13 am
Charlie Riedel/AP
Andrew Rosenberg
Former Contributor

I have led the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists since 2012 when it was formed. We came into being because UCS believes that science and scientists have a critical role to play in our society and because of the urgent needs to strive for a “healthy planet and a safer world.”

When we are witness to the events of this week—and indeed the last four years—it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that those who support the role of science in American constitutional democracy must also defend and strengthen that democracy in order to achieve our aims. We, as the UCS community, can not stand by as our very democracy is attacked by President Trump, his henchmen in Congress, and his rioters attacking the Capitol.

There are many organizations working on civil rights and democracy reform. What UCS brings to the battle is a connection to the science of democracy, elections, and fair representation—and the critical importance of fair voting and broader representation to achieving virtually all of the policy reforms UCS advocates for across our issue areas. Our supporters, based on science as well as the urgent need for civil rights, advocate for the changes we need as a country to combat disinformation. Together we fight to institute policies that secure fairer representation, safer elections even in times of pandemic, and policies that serve the interests and needs of all of the public.

Make no mistake that we, as the voice for science, have a unique role and responsibility in the movement for a healthy democracy and fair representation. Just as science is needed to ensure that policies are effective, a healthy democracy is needed to ensure that they are fair—and the success of both hinge on people’s right to vote and fair representation. Simply put, we cannot realize the role of science and evidence for achieving a healthier and safer society until we can ensure our government is serving and accountable to the people.

Four people died during the violent invasion of our National Capitol incited by President Trump, encouraged by some elected officials in Congress, and fueled by false claims about our recent election and our constitutional democracy. Ostensibly, their criminal actions and those of the president were based on outright lies about the election, that it was somehow “stolen” from the president. Let’s not say “unsubstantiated” claims, because that implies they might be substantiated later. Let’s not say “lack of evidence” of voter fraud, because all of the exhaustively gathered investigative objective evidence shows that the vote was untainted by any fraud. These claims are pure fabrication.

And let’s not lose sight of the fact that the lies about voter fraud come from a long history of racism. These lies are squarely aimed at disenfranchising voters of color, under the unspoken and abhorrent premise that Black voters, Indigenous, Latinx voters, and other voters of color are second-class citizens who are unfit to participate in our democracy. Whose very votes are suspect.

The overwhelmingly white crowd of domestic terrorists that broke into the Capitol were surely aware of that fact. That’s why they were there. Because they couldn’t accept that Americans who don’t look like them have a right to an equal say in our constitutional government.  Some waved the disgraced Confederate battle flag, honoring past violent insurrection to maintain white supremacy. And many waved flags with President Trump’s name. After all, he incited this riot. He is their acknowledged leader in a campaign of racism and lies.

This is not the first or last time we will see dissent from angry white mobs (e.g., Charlottesville, the so-called anti-mask “demonstrations” in the past year, the plot to kidnap the Michigan governor). The response to Black protestors and protestors from Latinx, Indigenous, and other non-white communities calling for justice has always been violent. In contrast, the response to white mobs and rioters who seek to “take back” a country that was “taken” from them featured no police dogs, no rubber bullets, no water hoses.

A few (52) of the thousands of criminals were arrested on Wednesday. Others were gently helped down the steps by law enforcement officers. Others were happily smiling as officers took selfies with them. This was an event openly planned for weeks, but the response to the criminal behavior and violence was diametrically opposed to the law enforcement response to the peaceful, legal protests against racial violence last summer in Washington and around the country. By comparison, the assault on the Capitol was treated as a town picnic, despite the clear intention to disrupt the electoral process by force.

The actions of President Trump are cause for immediate removal from office by the 25th Amendment or impeachment. To put it plainly, he incited a riot to overturn an election and hold power over the objection of the voters and the rules set out in the Constitution. Appointed members of his administration, from cabinet secretaries and their political staffs to ambassadors, should resign as a matter of conscience. The House and Senate members who enabled and supported this treason should be censured, and in some cases expelled. They all grossly violated their oath of office. The attack that we saw is not just an attack on a small subset of the country—it was not just an attack on D.C. or the Capitol Building—it was an attack on every inhabitant of this country.

The new administration of President Biden has a huge set of challenges ahead. Lost in the horror of violent attacks on the Capitol was the fact that nearly 4,000 people in the US died of COVID-19 that same day, a new daily record at the time. Systemic racism is still a malevolent force throughout our society. The global warming disaster is upon us. And our public health, safety, and environmental protections are frayed. We need to advocate for real change. That doesn’t mean transferring anger onto the new administration, but mustering technical and political support for the changes we need.

UCS and our supporters need to advocate for the democratic reforms that will improve elected representation of all people in this country. To further break down barriers to voting and overcome racist voter suppression tactics. We are working to fight racism and white supremacy in all our society and institutions, including our own. And we are advocating for policies that squarely attack environmental racism and inequity in our society.

We are one organization among many, but we do speak on behalf of many people who care deeply about the role of science and verifiable evidence in our society. The poisonous lies and enablers of sedition will remain even after Trump leaves office. Remember that those in Congress—including Senators Cruz, Hawley, and their sedition-supporting colleagues—will remain in power. The  disinformation campaigns to lie about our elections and government, or about the terrible consequence of climate change for that matter, aren’t going away unless we fight them.

The new president and Congress have the chance to begin to right many wrongs. But they need our strength to hold them to task. To hold them accountable for resetting the norms, actions, and policies of our government. As a constitutional democracy, we the people are not bystanders. Scientists can not be bystanders. Our voices, our ideas, our knowledge, and our constituency are all critical to the making the changes we need.