The threat to democracy is not over 

Experience shows need for long-term strengthening of its foundations 

AS I WRITE these lines, it is not clear who is in charge of our country.  

Beware of anyone who would have you believe that we are going to get out of this crisis unscathed because we are exceptional. Beware of anyone who tries to convince you that all is back under control and in a couple of weeks all danger to our democracy will be behind us. Beware of those who seem to believe that democracy is a matter of counting votes. Beware of those who would advise you to keep on going with your life and leave matters in the hands of our elected officials.  

The closer you get to the truth, the more uncomfortable it gets. Ours is a great country, but it is not exceptional, it has its share of sins against humanity. If this is not already clear to you, demand that the school curriculum in your city be revised and educate yourself. Know that the passage of time does not guarantee progress or advancement. In fact, it might facilitate regression. Democracies, no matter how strong, will weaken and die if they are not sustained, nurtured and defended by their citizens. History books and documents are full of evidence and examples that support these claims.  

If books are not enough to persuade you, then perhaps you will consider personal experience. I was here before. I saw a mob of armed men burst into Congress, point their guns towards elected officials and members of the government while they were voting to elect a new prime minister. The entire democratically elected government was held hostage for 18 long hours. Journalists were forced out of the debating chamber.  

It was February 23, 1981, in Madrid, Spain, and it caught everyone by surprise. Fortunately, there were no casualties and eventually reason prevailed. Yet the process of recovering from the wreck caused by the insurrection was not a matter of hours, or days, or months. It took decades, it cost lives, and required long, difficult, and arduous political, cultural, and economic processes that were painful and affected several generations.  

In the end, the country had to build (not simply recreate) democracy. It was regular citizens, hardworking folks, well intended people of all ages and walks of life who saved the country from falling into the precipice of intolerance and hate. They led their elected officials not vice versa. So, they took to the streets, in every town, village and city chanting, singing, sometimes in complete silence. Walking peacefully side by side, covering each other’s back, they found courage in their solidarity and their commitment to freedom without hate. Though they represented a multiplicity of political factions their alliance coalesced around one single truth: They had chosen democracy and its consequences, and would choose it again, and again.  

Facing the truth about our current circumstances after last Wednesday’s insurrection at the US Capitol is uncomfortable. For one, we cannot “restore” democracy as if we were restoring electric power after a storm. In the United States, our system of power has been sabotaged from within by some citizens and elected officials (including the commander in chief) for the past four years. It was not suddenly assaulted by foreign agents, and we cannot simply plug democracy in again. Its power lines have been wrecked. 

Experience tells me that the days, months and years ahead of us are fraught with the dangers and opportunities of change. Beyond history and experience, tradition can serve to shed light on truth.  

Consider a folktale about truth and reality. Remember the story about the emperor parading naked across his kingdom? His subjects and government officials were too afraid to tell him the truth for fear of losing their power. It was a little boy who finally declared, “But he doesn’t have anything on!” After which, all others shouted: “He has nothing on….”  

I bet you thought this was the end of the story, because it is the point where truth seems to be revealed. Far from it. Here is the end of Hans Christian Andersen’s tale: “The emperor shivered, for he was certain that they were right; but thought, ‘I must bear it until the procession is over.’ And he walked even more proudly, and the two gentlemen of the imperial bedchamber went on carrying the train that wasn’t there.”  

Meet the Author
The closer you get to the truth, the more uncomfortable it gets. Yes, the emperor is naked, but be aware, the procession is not over yet.  

Reyes Coll-Tellechea is an American by choice, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston, and a member of the Boston Human Rights Commission.