Democracy is fragile.
Its stability depends on the acceptance of its principles by the population as a whole, the resilience of the institutions that support it, an independent judiciary, a free press, free and open elections and, in the United States, the foundation laid by the Constitution.
The struggle to balance those critical pillars has been waged across the globe in modern times. Despite the terrible lessons of the last century, we see the basic principles supporting democracy under attack, and the ascendency of authoritarian and dictatorial governments around the world.
Few Americans have believed, until perhaps Jan. 6, that the fabric of our democracy could be stretched in a similar fashion and that we might follow a similar path.
And yet here in the greatest democracy that the world has ever seen, we saw a violent attempt to interfere with the peaceful transfer of power determined by the voters in a national election.
The stress on our democracy has been building for some time. A president who knew he would lose the election, proceeded to undermine its legitimacy before a single vote was cast. Then when he lost, he lied about the results and proceeded to try and undermine the electoral process.
This sustained attack on democracy culminated with a physical assault on the core of our government, our Congress. This assault was deliberate and deadly. It was planned and executed with the intent not only to overturn a legitimate electoral process and deprive the nation of its right to choose its President but also to destroy the foundation of that process and our democratic constitution.
Americans are used to assuming that checks and balances will allow for a robust political dialogue while ensuring a smooth, peaceful political transition in keeping with the Constitution. On this occasion we are witnessing — in real-time — an attempt by a sitting president to formulate an insurrection and impose on the nation a form of dictatorship seen elsewhere in the world.
These attempts will fail. But they will fail not only because of the bravery of those overseeing the elections in battleground states, or the barriers put up in courts around the nation where facts matter, but because the attempt was so blatant and obvious that suddenly the real intent of a President who had been supported by so many for so long, was revealed in stark relief.
The want-to-be emperor has no clothes. Stripped naked, the lies, the malign intent and complete lack of compassion were laid bare. Instead of a leader who had been given the mandate to lead the nation in 2016, and who could have built so much, we saw what has been seen in so many other lessor nations. We saw the raging of someone who never cared for the nation, surrounded by sycophants and glory seekers, attempting to overthrow democracy.
Elected leaders, who should know better, did not take action to stop the insurrection. Indeed, while the mob attack was ongoing, a few leaders in the Senate and many members of the House continued to fan the flames – spreading the myths and lies of an illegitimate election.
It was a brutal and disgraceful display of cynicism, craven political cronyism and unthinking fealty.
Instead it was left to brave, outnumbered and ill-equipped individual police officers to protect the Capital. It is they who mitigated what could be one of the greatest terror attacks in our history.
Have egged the mob on to attack Congress and then throughout this terrible episode as mayhem unfolded, as with the horror and devastation by COVID-19, the president remained silent. When, hours later, he released a video telling the mob to “go home,” he continued to repeat his lies about a stolen election and called members of the crowd “very special people.”
Not a word of care was spoken by the President about the Vice President and his family, who may well have ended up on a gallows erected in the Mall, exactly as the crowd who stormed Congress made clear was its intent.
This was a display worthy of the worst excesses of nations ruled by despots.
But despite this, there is hope. Our nation has reacted in horror. Business leaders have reacted by cutting off donations to those who persist in politically supporting the president’s lies and insisting that the election was “stolen”. Importantly, Twitter, Facebook, Google, Amazon and others have finally stepped forward. They are preventing some, but not all, of the lies and propaganda that are being spread as insidious as a cancer across the psyche of the American population.
It’s a start.
What we witnessed leading up to and including this last week was not a dispute between Republicans or Democrats. It was a clash between democracy and demagoguery. Dictatorship and freedom.
We need legal consequences for those who incited, and participated in, this dangerous attack on America.
It will be painful, and some will make political arguments against accountability. But it’s a necessary first step toward protecting and strengthening our cavalierly maligned democracy.
Once the insurrection has been put down, we will need to heal the fractured relationship between the parties and those who know that together, as a country, we are stronger. If we do not do so, many abroad will take advantage to diminish and / or harm our nation. Some have started to take advantage of the perceived turmoil — including Russia, North Korea, Iran and China.
In the face of this, our allies in Europe, Asia and elsewhere need to feel confident of our support. We will have much work to do to stabilize the erosion of global confidence in America and rebuild its credibility, economic strength and political standing around the world.
More importantly, we have rebuilding to do here at home. We need to ensure that the domestic terrorists who, encouraged and egged on by the delusions of a president who refuses to except facts and persists in lying, are not able to continue to incite violence, and that they are no longer able to undermine institutions of democracy which we all count on.
The strongest way to do this is for our leaders to acknowledge the pain and anguish the nation is experiencing economically, politically and medically. Each is a huge challenge. All pillars need to be strengthened at all levels and across all social and racial groups. We know we are stronger together.
The healing that needs to take place now will need to happen against the backdrop of the miasma and horror of the COVID-19 pandemic. But there is hope at the end of this tunnel. The biopharmaceutical industry united to tackle the onslaught of the virus, delivering in record time vaccines which will stop the pandemic in its tracks. That example of pivoting, uniting, and focusing on solving an existential threat is one that our political leadership can, and hopefully will, emulate.
I believe we should hope and expect of our leaders come together to forge a stronger, more robust democracy out of the chaos and mayhem.
But let us make no mistake, if our leaders cannot find common ground, then what we saw on Jan. 6 is not an instance of horror and despicable behavior but the beginning of what has been seen in so many other nations — the dissolution of a dream. To prevent that, there can be no compromising at all with the behaviors that led up to the insurrection. There must be an absolute guarantee that those who involved themselves in this despicable act of insurrection are prosecuted fully.
At the end of the day, I believe the American dream is stronger than anything we have witnessed over the last four years and in the immediate last six days. Ours is a nation built to stand tall and strong: because of the fundamental good nature and values of the vast majority of our citizens we have the capacity to be even stronger. And we will be.
Jeremy M. Levin is the chairman and CEO of Ovid Therapeutics, and chairman of the Biotechnology Innovation Organization.