Modeling the Spirit of Democracy


By Ben Jealous

Some things are unthinkable—until they happen.

For Jamie Raskin, a congressman and father, the first unthinkable thing was the loss of his beloved son Tommy to suicide on New Year’s Eve 2020. As a father myself, my heart breaks when I imagine the grief experienced by Raskin and his family.

The second unthinkable thing happened less than a week later. Enraged supporters of the defeated President Donald Trump attacked the U.S. Capitol and hunted for members of Congress to prevent them from affirming the results of the presidential election.

Raskin was at the Capitol that day—the day after his son was buried—to do his duty. And that meant he and the family members who were there to support him had to live through the terror of the attack and evacuation.

After all that, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi asked Raskin to lead an effort to impeach Trump for his role in the insurrection. Raskin said yes. He did a brilliant job. It was a remarkable show of strength and resilience. The House did vote to impeach Trump for a second time, though most Senate Republicans refused to convict him.

Raskin wrote a book about that 45-day period between the loss of his son and the impeachment of Trump. “Unthinkable: Trauma, Truth, and the Trials of American Democracy,” is powerful and surprisingly hopeful.

I recently had a chance to talk with Raskin when he spoke with People For the American Way’s new online book club. I asked him about the grounds for his hope. How, given the rising threats to freedom and democracy, does he continue to consider himself a “constitutional optimist?”

What makes the U.S. exceptional is not that we are somehow immune to the erosion of democracy, he said. What makes us exceptional is the progress we have made together. We can take hope and strength from our own history, and the example of courageous people around the world.

“We are not the first generation to face authoritarianism.”

He reminded all of us that the spirit of freedom and democracy lives in people’s hearts even in the face of repression and attempts to snuff it out—and efforts by far-right strategists to smother it.

Raskin has modeled that spirit of democracy as a member of the House Select Committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection and all that led up to it. In the face of every effort by Trump and his allies to stall, stonewall, and shut down the investigation, Raskin and his colleagues refused to back down. They have dug out evidence and presented it to the American people.

Without the committee’s investigations, we would know far less about the effort by Trump and his henchmen to overturn the election. Without the committee’s truth-telling, there would be no hope for holding them accountable.

The threat to democracy is real. Conspiracy theories are helping drive a right-wing turn away from democratic values and toward repressive authoritarian rule.

At this moment, Americans face a choice: do we go back to the worst of the past, to voter suppression and political violence fueled by racism? Or do we move forward, building on the progress we have made in becoming a multiracial, multiethnic, multireligious democratic society?

It’s up to us. As Jamie Raskin reminded us, “Democracy is always unfinished.”

Ben Jealous serves as president of People For the American Way and Professor of the Practice at the University of Pennsylvania. A New York Times best-selling author, his next book “Never Forget Our People Were Always Free” will be published by Harper Collins in January 2023.