As I come of age in a divided America, I try to make sense of the attack on the United States Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. One year after an attempted insurrection due to the spread of false claims of fraud in the 2020 presidential election, I am encouraged to see that speeches were given, columns were written, and podcasts were recorded to reflect upon the first anniversary of Jan. 6.
I feel that the Jan. 6 attack is a uniquely difficult topic to broach because it is a national shock that we all experienced, but from different partisan frames. Despite all the emotions and shocking images of that day, we need to talk about Jan. 6 and what that day signifies for the future of American democracy.
I believe that how we label events is how we remember them. What I find challenging about the aftermath of Jan. 6 is how people dispute the facts of what happened that day depending on their political party affiliation. According to a NPR/Ipsos poll, Republicans prefer to frame Jan. 6 as a “riot gone out of control” while Democrats view it as “an attempted coup or insurrection.” I believe these two framings are not mutually exclusive — Jan. 6 was both an out-of-control riot and an insurrection that attempted to disrupt the certification of presidential electors. I’ll continue to refer to it as an “attack” on the Capitol.
Similar to how COVID-19 has changed us, the attack on the Capitol has changed many young Americans. According to a fall 2021 Harvard Youth Poll, a 2-to-1 majority of 18- to 29-year-olds believe that American democracy is “in trouble” or “failing.” As a constructive patriot, I acknowledge that the federal government is not functioning properly, and in alignment with the majority in the Harvard Youth Poll, I believe that political leaders need to embrace compromise, even at the expense of political preferences.
I recognize that college students cannot single-handedly save American democracy, yet I believe that our opinions and our actions matter, especially since we are future leaders. After seeing rioters breach the Capitol on Jan. 6 on television, I felt conflicting emotions: a duty to serve in defense of democracy and a sense of hopelessness about the future of the federal government.
On the bright side, the Penn community has overcome divisive times before, such as the Civil War, the Great Depression, global wars (WWI, WWII, Vietnam), and more. As voters and advocates, we have a responsibility to discuss the state of American democracy. By engaging in dialogue events like the SNF Paideia Program’s Red & Blue Exchange, we can become more comfortable with having civil political discussions.
Here’s one conversation I had recently about Jan. 6. On Jan. 7, 2022, I sat in an airport waiting for my flight back to Philadelphia. As a pragmatic liberal, I called a close friend who identifies as a religious conservative. Despite our different political beliefs, we were able to have a civil conversation. We found common ground in worrying about some Americans’ eroding trust in election integrity.
I shared my fear of politicians invalidating and overturning future election results that are unfavorable to their political party. My friend critiqued President Biden’s Jan. 6 remarks for using a quote of scripture (John 8:31-32) out of context. He argued that the line “the truth will set you free” refers to the teachings of Jesus, so it was inappropriate for Biden to use it to refer to his 2020 election win. I saw his point, which was something I did not consider when I watched the speech.
By listening to someone else’s perspective, my understanding of Jan. 6 expanded beyond myself, which helped me find meaning in that challenging day.
Of course, discussing Jan. 6 does not need to be an anxious exchange. We can discuss reforms we would like to see happen in the future. As Penn students, we may not be able to legislate yet, but many of us can vote for candidates and priorities that we think will preserve American democracy.
We can also stay tuned with the findings from the U.S. House Select Committee on January 6th. Regardless of one’s party affiliation, gathering evidence about the attack is both patriotic and wise in order to set an accurate historical narrative of Jan. 6 for future historians and Americans to analyze.
Let’s show the world that America is willing to have difficult conversations about its recent history. Let’s choose to address the evolving legacy of Jan. 6, 2021.
JADEN CLOOBECK is a College fourth year from Laguna Beach, Calif. studying psychology. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.