The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The big, ugly truth that Biden cannot conceal from the world about the U.S.

President Biden will host a Summit for Democracy later this week. (Oliver Contreras/Pool/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
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When President Biden addresses the international summit on democracy this week, he will face a vexing problem: How can he rally the world’s democracies with our own in such an ailing state?

Biden’s advisers are grappling with this problem. But judging by an illuminating new Politico report on Biden’s preparations for the summit, they’re not adequately wrestling with the precise dimensions of it.

If Biden tells the truth to the world, it might sound like this: Our homegrown threat to democracy comes primarily from a dangerously radicalized right wing and from the cynical, antidemocratic accommodation of it by only one of our major political parties, the GOP.

Biden would say his own party has proved utterly unable — or even unwilling — to take the actions necessary to safeguard against that threat. And he would admit the problems are also structural: That safeguarding is frustrated by anti-majoritarian features of the system itself, and his own party is failing to correct those as well.

How much of this should Biden say? That’s not easy to answer. Such domestic nuances might be lost on the Summit for Democracy’s international audience.

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But that only throws the problem into sharper relief. What good will it do for the cause of democracy, and how can Biden offer the United States as an example, if he’s simultaneously seen ostentatiously papering over our own struggles and our failure to deal with them?

The Politico piece, by James Traub, reports that Biden advisers believe acknowledging our problems is critical. As Secretary of State Antony Blinken told Traub, this will give the United States “real credibility.”

But something essential is missing here. When Traub asked Blinken if U.S. democracy itself could benefit from the summit, Blinken said:

“There is a call-to-action aspect of this that also is part of our summoning of our better angels, which the President strongly believes continues to resonate powerfully with most Americans. Things have gotten lost along the way. This is a moment to try to refocus our fellow citizens on what makes us exceptional. It does speak to something that continues to unite us, and that people aspire to, even despite the frustrations.”

This treats the problem as a failure of persuasion, as opposed to a failure grounded in inaction.

No amount of “summoning of our better angels” or “refocusing” on what’s “exceptional” about U.S. democracy will change what’s happening. This seems to presume Republicans can be persuaded to reverse their current course, whether by Biden’s soaring rhetoric or by public pressure that would materialize from it.

Is that likely? No. It’s not even clear from this that Biden will describe the problem itself with any clarity.

Right now, much of the GOP has decided that an effort by its own leader, Donald Trump, to overthrow U.S. democracy through corrupt pressure on many government actors, and then through mob violence, doesn’t require a national response.

Many Republicans are vying for positions of control over our election machinery for the all-but-openly declared purpose of subverting future losses. Republicans calling on the GOP to stand down from this madness, and who resisted the last coup effort, face primaries and censure.

And Republicans are entrenching voter suppression everywhere. They are justifying all this by feeding GOP voters lies about the integrity of our election system, inviting them to tell themselves antidemocratic tactics — or even subverting election losses — are their appropriate recourse.

We could be protecting the system from these threats. But we are not.

Yes, Democrats are stymied by the opposition of two Democratic senators to ending the filibuster. Yes, the Supreme Court has gutted existing protections for voting rights, further constraining action.

But here again, this only throws the dilemma into sharper relief. As Brian Beutler argues, Democratic leaders could respond to this by clearly enunciating what they will do if enough Democrats are elected to make ending the filibuster possible.

They could pledge that the party will end the filibuster, then pass voting rights protections, revise the Electoral Count Act against a future coup, install new safeguards against political manipulation of law enforcement, expedite judicial processes to disarm the stonewalling of congressional oversight, and even reform the Supreme Court.

Putting aside whatever blame Democratic leaders deserve for failing to prevail on filibuster holdouts, it’s simply not clear how committed they are to this sort of far-reaching structural reform over the long haul.

What does this mean for the summit? The point is not that Biden should give a point-by-point diagnosis of these problems. Rather, it’s that other countries see that U.S. democracy is in trouble, with political violence rising and openly autocratic currents surging, that it appears paralyzed from fixing itself, and that airy, abstract “admissions” along the lines of, “Yes, we also need to get our house in order,” can’t make this less glaringly obvious.

To be clear, Biden can accomplish constructive things. He wants to signal that the United States won’t coddle dictators or write off human rights abroad, as his predecessor did (though our current posture will complicate this). And as Farah Stockman explains, the summit could break ground in protecting open societies from globalized threats like cyberwarfare.

But as Blinken says, a key goal is to lead in the “struggle of our time” between “autocracy and democracy.” How can Biden be persuasive on this if he is seen fudging the true nature of the autocratic threat at home and evading the real reasons for our own failure to safeguard against it?

Admittedly, the answer to this isn’t obvious. But casting the problem as a failure of persuasion — as if Biden need only find the magic words to tamp down domestic autocracy or inspire a popular mobilization to overwhelm the threat — may only facilitate this dodge, giving Biden something public to say, enabling further evasion of the need to commit to forceful action against it.