Passing of Rep. Elijah Cummings: Envisioning an Intact Democracy

The passing of Rep. Elijah Cummings on October 17, 2019, undoubtedly left a hole in our nation. Known to be a true champion of democracy and of every disadvantaged community across the country, Rep. Cummings is sorely missed as a commanding voice that called out all kinds of corruption and injustice, including the current one in the government. In recent months, his steadfast belief in functional democracy made headlines during his exchange with Michael Cohen, Donald Trump’s former personal attorney. In one of his most powerful lines, he said, “when we are dancing with the angels, the question will be asked, ‘in 2019, what did we do to make sure we kept our democracy intact?’” The question was directed to Cohen, but it had a wider implication: Trump has broken the norms of our government, and in doing so, risked the future of American democracy. 

During Rep. Cummings’s funeral, Congress was united in extolling his accomplishments and honorable character. Former presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi were among many of the speakers, and listening to their eulogies reminded me of what America is supposed to be: united, compassionate, and respectful. In his eulogy, President Obama called Rep. Cummings “never complacent, for he knew that without clarity of purpose and a steadfast faith, and the dogged determination demanded by our liberty, the promise of this nation can wither.” Secretary Clinton then commended Rep. Cummings for “push[ing] back against the abuse of power. He was unwavering in his defense of our democracy. He had little tolerance for those who put party ahead of country or partisanship above truth.” Speaker Pelosi remarked, “By his courage he fought for what is right. By his brilliance, knowledge and legal prowess he made a difference in so many ways fighting for gun violence prevention, expanding opportunity for everyone.” Mark Meadows, a Republican representative from North Carolina, had given a eulogy the day before, during which he remembered Rep. Cummings as a “dear friend” who consistently sought cooperation across the aisle. 

In today’s divided America, people long for bipartisanship, for a united front that works to improve the lives of all Americans. However, political gridlock and bickering have paralyzed Congress, and we rarely see unity in the government. When most Americans favor legislations that tackle gun violence, climate change, and broken immigration policies, and yet Congress does not respond to these needs, it is no wonder that its most recent approval rating was 18% (The Gallup Poll). In fact, the approval rating has not hit 30% in 10 years (CNN). When Rep. Cummings talked about a democracy that is intact, he envisioned one that worked for everyone, regardless of the zip code in which they live. As he often said, the next generation is the living messengers we send to a future we will never see. He was not able to see what lies ahead, but we are his living messengers, and it is my hope that we are inspired to carry on his legacy of advocating for underserved people, wherever they are.

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