Editorial: The democracy that is at stake in Congress Wednesday
Today is a defining moment in the history of the American experiment.
This day brings a threat to democracy that few of us ever thought possible. Always, we have assumed that the will of the people would be followed. Always, we have assumed that if our system of self-government were ever to be imperiled, it would be from an outside aggressor, not from within.
Yet here today we are, with our most basic liberty hanging in the balance.
It is a simple question that both Houses of Congress will address.
Will the presidential election of Joe Biden by a margin of more than 7 million votes -- with an electoral split of 306 to 232, as certified by the states without any repudiation by the courts -- be affirmed?
Or is the will of the people to be supplanted by demagoguery, misinformation and discredited conspiracy theories that have been rejected even by former Attorney General William Barr.
"I could never have imagined seeing these things in the greatest democracy in the world," said Sen. Mitt Romney, onetime Republican presidential standard-bearer. "Has ambition so eclipsed principle?"
Many have offered a reassurance that this attempt to overturn the election is doomed to failure, a reassurance steeped in trust that our institutional safeguards will hold.
But that it has gotten this far, with so many members of Congress lining up to object to the electoral vote tally, must give all of us pause.
President Donald Trump has vowed that his followers "will never forget" those Republicans who cross him, and we suppose that's a real concern for GOP officeholders.
But those who would cross the democracy would do well to understand that it is history that would never forget their complicity.
How any members of Congress might think that siding against democracy would further their political aspirations is beyond our comprehension.
"This issue is bigger than anyone's personal ambitions," said Sen. Ben Sasse, a Republican from Nebraska. "Adults don't point a loaded gun at the heart of legitimate self-government."
One of the earliest concession speeches we remember was delivered in 1972 by George McGovern, spoken with a muted voice and a poignant smile.
After getting trounced by the electorate, McGovern recited poetry and Biblical passages in offering warm congratulations to Richard Nixon while encouraging his disappointed followers to join him in playing "the proper role of the loyal opposition."
It is a superb phrase, "loyal opposition," perhaps the reason we remember McGovern's concession so well.
"Opposition" because an opposing point of view is central to a functioning democracy. It is the check on power that affirms our freedom and differentiates us from autocracies.
But "loyal" too because loyalty to the country supersedes all else. That loyalty to country is the point of the opposition, after all, but even more, it is that loyalty that matters most.
For all of our lifetimes, we have witnessed presidents who won and loyal opponents who did not. We cannot remember a previous election when we didn't.
As Americans, we are not loyal to one person or to one party or to one outcome.
As Americans, we are loyal to America.
That loyalty to country requires us to accept the outcome of elections, to embrace even sometimes in tears the will of the people.
That, only that and all of that, is what is at stake in Congress Wednesday.