Look Homeward, Joe

Picture by Hilary Stone Ginsberg

Democracy, like charity, begins at home. Before we Americans lecture others about democracy, we must secure our own democratic institutions. If we are to be, as John Winthrop said on the founding of the Massachusetts Bay colony in 1630 and President Ronald Reagan often cited, “as a citty [sic] upon a hill [for] the eies [sic] of all people are upon us,” then we must, in fact, be that city on a hill. 

Citizens of democracies around the world no longer see the United States as a beacon of freedom. In a recent poll from the Pew Research Center, 57 percent of people in 16 democratic countries once thought America was a “good” democratic model, but now only 17 percent believe the United States “is a good example for other countries to follow.” Our warts are on display. 

The idea of America as a democracy comes to mind as President Joe Biden hosts this week a virtual “Summit for Democracy.” There has been much quibbling over who was and was not invited. The U.S. State Department cites the governments of Pakistan and the Philippines as responsible for “unlawful and arbitrary killings,” but both countries were asked to attend. Hungary, a member of the European Union and NATO, and Turkey, also a NATO ally, did not make the cut. Both deserved to be excluded, but there is a question as to whether the standards for invitations were evenly applied. 

Democracy is in retreat around the world. Freedom House reports that 2020 “marked the 15th consecutive year of decline in global freedom. The countries experiencing deterioration outnumbered those with improvements by the largest margin recorded since the negative trend began in 2006.” Freedom House says nearly 75 percent of the world’s population live in countries where freedom is waning. As Ann Applebaum headlined in a recent article in The Atlantic, “The Bad Guys Are Winning.”

Those bad actors may be winning at home, too. It is certainly a plus for the fate of democracy that the occupant of the White House today is Joe Biden, not Donald Trump. But, Trump has damaged, and continues to damage, American democracy. Abroad, his coddling of dictators — including North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, with whom Trump “fell in love” and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, whom Trump believed over the American intelligence community — hardly encouraged democratic movements in countries with authoritarian regimes. America now has a president willing to call out dictators. Biden may be shy, unfortunately, in condemning human rights violations by countries with whom the United States wishes to have good relations (Saudi Arabia, that means you), but he has acted against China with a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics and warned Russia about provocative moves against Ukraine. 

But, it is the damage Trump has done to America’s democratic institutions that caused Freedom House to say that freedom in the United States declined by 11 points, placing America among the 25 countries that have suffered the largest declines in the decade between 2010 and 2020. To be fair, the erosion of democracy in the United States has been ongoing for decades — Freedom House cites political corruption and punitive immigration policy as two factors in the decline of freedom in America, both of which did not begin with Trump — but the Trump presidency certainly accelerated the trend.

Trump continues to threaten democratic stability while out of office. His efforts to overturn the 2020 election and influence future elections weaken America’s constitutional foundation. The violence of the January 6 insurrection to prevent the peaceful transition of power, the praising of violence and intolerance among Republicans, the refusal of a vast majority of Republicans to confront their party’s threat to democracy, and the continuing efforts to suppress voting in many states along with the empowering by Republican state legislatures of Republican election officials to tamper with voting outcomes all jeopardize democracy at home and undermine Washington’s ability to influence democracy abroad. 

Biden and his fellow Democrats know all this to be true, but they seem hesitant to take strong actions to preserve American democracy. Biden gave a speech in July at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia about the need to safeguard the right to vote, which he labelled “fundamental” to the protection of democracy. He attacked Trump for promulgating the “big lie,” and cited numerous instances of current assaults on voting rights. Biden ended by saying, “We’re facing the most significant test of our democracy since the Civil War. That’s not hyperbole…. I’m not saying this to alarm you; I’m saying this because you should be alarmed.”

It sounded like a clarion call, but a clarion call the president has not answered. Nor has the bulk of the Democratic Party, which continues to refuse to abolish or amend the filibuster, the single most significant obstacle to Congress passing substantive voting rights reform to guarantee every American’s right to vote. The possibility that more than two centuries of self-government in America might be at an end ought to move the president and his congressional allies to action. But, they seem paralyzed in the face of the palpable danger.

Certainly, Biden is busy trying to secure his agenda. The passage of the infrastructure bill occupied much of his attention until it passed Congress. Biden is now focused on the continuing fight to enact the vast measure to extend the American social safety net, now tied up in the Senate. But, all of these pale in importance before the onslaught by the American right on American democracy.

The current president must take effective measures to protect American democracy — starting with guaranteeing every American the right to vote — to insure that the former president does not use his vast army — I chose that word deliberately — to undermine American democracy. So, President Biden, please preserve and protect our American democracy. Only then can you legitimately and credibly  further democracy abroad.

Posted December 10, 2020