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COMMENTARY: We made it through 2021, and that means we can make 2022 a better year

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It seems impossible that the year 2021 is only 365 days long.

Yet, as trying as it’s been for our communities collectively and for ourselves, our neighbors and our families individually, there is hope for the future as we look back at the year that was.

A deeply divided Congress is showing the world a very unsettled view from the U.S. Capitol: Rather than a national crisis that pulls the country together, the deadly riot on Jan. 6, 2021, only seems to have pushed lawmakers further apart.Some members are planning to mark the anniversary of the Capitol insurrection with a moment of silence. Others will spend the day educating Americans on the workings of democracy.And still others don't think the deadliest domestic attack on Congress in the nation's history needs to be remembered at all.Where they stand on remembrance can be largely attributed to their political party, a jarring discord that shows the country's lawmakers remain strikingly at odds over how to unify a torn nation.The president who had been fairly and legitimately defeated, Donald Trump, told his followers to "fight like hell" to stop the certification of Joe Biden's election and said he would march with them to the Capitol, though he did not. The result was violence and mayhem that left five people dead in the immediate aftermath, hundreds facing charges and millions of dollars in property damage.But the lack of bipartisan resolve to assign responsibility for the siege or acknowledge the threat it posed has eroded trust among lawmakers, turned ordinary legislative disputes into potential crises and left the door open for more violence after the next disputed election.It all sets Congress adrift toward a gravely uncertain future: Did Jan. 6 bring the end of one era or the start of a new one?"One thing that people should consider when thinking about Jan. 6 is ... people should think about the fragility of democracy," said Joanne Freeman, a professor of history and American studies at Yale, whose book "Field of Blood" chronicles violence and bloodshed in Congress in the years before the Civil War.Seeing few historical parallels, Freeman warned, "We're at a moment where things that people have taken for granted about the working of a democratic politics can't be taken for granted anymore."The aftermath of Jan. 6 hangs heavy over snow-covered Capitol Hill, in the relationships that deepened between lawmakers who feared for their lives that day and those that have frayed beyond repair.The Capitol, before the riot a symbol of the openness of American democracy, remains closed to most visitors in part because of the coronavirus pandemic public health concerns, but also because of the escalated number of violent threats against lawmakers. Representatives are required to pass through metal detectors because Democrats say they cannot trust their Republican colleagues not to bring firearms to the House during floor proceedings.Democratic Rep. Jamaal Bowman of New York said every time he leaves his office he scans the hallways for potential threats a feeling he said that, as a Black American, is familiar, but one that he never expected as a member of Congress."The lack of freedom of movement without fear is not there at the Capitol. And I'm a member of Congress," Bowman said.Bowman has asked President Biden to declare Jan. 6 a National Day of Healing.But Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas has no plans to memorialize the day, and he doesn't think others should, either."This thing has already become way too politicized, and that would just further exacerbate it," he said.Trump's false claims of voter fraud have continued to foment division, met mostly with silence from Republicans in Congress unwilling to contradict his version of events.Some two-thirds of House Republicans and more than a handful of GOP senators voted against certifying the election results that night, after police had battled the rioters for hours, sometimes in hand-to-hand combat. That the Republicans would carry on with their objections, after all that, stunned Democratic colleagues. Views hardened.Sen. Josh Hawley, a Missouri Republican who went forward with efforts to block the certification after the riot, brushed off questions about it, saying he's talked about it enough.Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas said he had no second thoughts about his vote to block certification."I am proud of leading the effort to defend voter integrity," Cruz said. He decried the siege as "unacceptable," a "terrorist attack." But he also said the insistence by Democrats and the media of no mass voter fraud "only inflamed the divisions we have."An investigation by The Associated Press found fewer than 475 cases of voter fraud among 25.5 million ballots cast in the six battleground states disputed by Trump, a minuscule number in percentage terms.Unlike past national traumas including the 2001 terror attacks the country has emerged from Jan. 6 without an agreed upon road map for what comes next.Democratic Rep. Mikie Sherrill, a former Navy helicopter pilot whose New Jersey-area district recently marked the 20th anniversary

The year began with a right-wing faction, spurred by some Republican politicians, trying to overturn the results of the presidential election they lost in the Jan. 6 Washington, D.C. insurrection. 2021 ends with Republicans still trying to sabotage election results with stunts like a sham election inquiry and passing legislation to undermine access to the ballot box.

Yet, the efforts of some politicians to undermine our freedom to vote have not succeeded. We still have our votes to make our voices heard on issues important to us.

In a year where the COVID-19 global health pandemic keeps exacting a heavy toll worldwide, we are lucky enough to have easy access to vaccinations to help provide a defense against the worst of the disease. And as we continue to struggle together to get back to normal, we have seen how leaders willing to invest in us helped keep small businesses afloat, families make ends meet, safely open our schools and keep delivering critical community services.

This year we saw gut-wrenching inequality and racism. Then we saw people come together to demand we do better to live up to the ideals of freedom we espouse. In Wisconsin, when we saw some politicians seek to divide us on issues of race in a local school board recall election that received national attention, we saw a community overwhelmingly reject their tactics.

We are at the end of a difficult year. It was also a year in which we showed our resilience and saw we can do so much better by our fellow Wisconsinites, no matter where they live or what they look like.

So let’s build on the good, to take on the challenges of the new year.

We need to come together to protect our freedom to vote and demand passage of the Freedom to Vote Act and the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act in Washington, D.C. Here in Wisconsin, we must stand with our dedicated election officials, who make it possible for us to vote and have a say in our communities.

We need to help those who are struggling to make ends meet. It means help with the things that cost and matter the most — a roof over our heads, childcare for our kids, healthcare for our families — that are out of reach for too many as wealthy corporations and billionaires keep our wages down and rake in record profits. We must demand our elected leaders reduce the cost of housing, childcare, prescription drugs, and healthcare, because that’s how we afford all that we need for our families.

We need to be vigilant against the real and significant attacks on reproductive freedom as the U.S. Supreme Court considers a case opening the door for politicians to impose new restrictions on people’s freedom to control their own bodies. This is a wake-up call to come together to protect and support our friends and family members’ ability to decide if or when they become a parent.

We need to continue to demand our elected leaders make smart, bold investments in helping small business build back, helping workers get jobs that support families and invest in rebuilding our aging infrastructure from roads and bridges to broadband internet. And we need to call out and hold accountable those who stand in the way of our progress.

The good news is, we made it through 2021. And if we were able to do that, we can make 2022 a better year.

Chris Walloch is the Executive Director at A Better Wisconsin Together, a state-based research and communications hub for progressives. The opinions are the writer’s.


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