‘The Most Urgent Question of Our Time’
Biden is right to focus on democracy—even if some of his fellow Democrats worry that voters don’t care enough about it.
EVEN AS THE COUNTRY marked the grim anniversary of January 6th this weekend—with newly released footage of rioters threatening members of Congress, new reporting on how Donald Trump relished the violence and refused to mitigate it during those fateful 187 minutes, and the looming possibility of his return to office as the GOP prepares to endorse him en masse within weeks—some Democrats think it’s time to move on from championing democracy.
President Joe Biden disagrees. In a speech Friday at Valley Forge in Pennsylvania, he kicked off his re-election campaign on the third anniversary of January 6th, saying the question of whether democracy is still “America’s sacred cause” is “the most urgent question of our time.”
Biden noted how autocrats around the world are robbing their citizens of “freedom of speech, freedom of press, freedom to assemble, women’s rights, and LGBQ rights,” and said “Democracy means having the freedom to speak your mind, to be who you are, to be who you want to be. Democracy is about being able to bring about peaceful change. . . . If democracy falls, we’ll lose that freedom. We’ll lose the power of ‘We, the People’ to shape our destiny.”
On the eve of the speech, Democratic strategist James Carville told ABC News: “It makes sense on January 6th, but don’t kid yourself. On January 8th and 9th, Americans will still be going to the grocery store. People live in the economy and experience it many times a day. They don’t live on January 6th.”
Two days before Biden’s speech, former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said on CNN that their party needs to make democracy a pocketbook issue, and she tried—awkwardly—to suggest how it could be done:
So all of these things are related. And what happened on January 6th was a manifestation of an assault on the personal freedoms that we have because it assaulted the Congress, the Capitol, the Constitution of the United States. But it isn’t all of [Biden’s] message. His message is about what we need to do as we go forward. And freedom gives us that opportunity. The kitchen-table issues are our motivation and our mobilization to get the job done, win the election.
It’s not that Pelosi, whose life was threatened and office invaded on January 6th, doesn’t appreciate the substance of Biden’s pitch. She also wrote an essay for the Atlantic about the anniversary in which she concluded “the threat to our democracy is real, present, and urgent.” But Pelosi, like other Democrats, is clearly worried voters focused on the cost of eggs will tune out a message about democracy because they only want to think about themselves.
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Of course Biden, and all Democratic candidates running this year, must tell voters how they plan to strengthen the economic recovery and lower prices while being specific about which policies or reforms they plan to pursue should they win this November.
But Democrats are spooked by new polling that finds less than a third of voters are satisfied with the way democracy is working, and that the gaslighting among Republicans about the insurrection has not only shifted sentiment on the right about January 6th, but in the middle as well. The Washington Post/UMD poll released last week underscored the power of the Big Lie: Compared to two years ago, 6 percent fewer independent voters now believe Biden was legitimately elected. The poll also found that as Republicans have whitewashed the insurrection 25 percent of Americans now believe that it is “probably true” or “definitely true” that the FBI instigated the attack on the Capitol.
As Biden said in Valley Forge, by abandoning truth, Republicans are abandoning democracy. Without objective truth in a rules-based system, we will have anarchy and tyranny.
Any Republicans who endorse Trump this year and lies about the 2020 election, or about January 6th, are not just complicit in spreading his falsehoods—they are also helping to perpetrate an ongoing attack on the rule of law and our constitutional system, because Trump will demand they lie about the next election also. On Sunday Rep. Elise Stefanik refused to commit to accepting the results of the election. “We will see if this is a legal and valid election,” she said on NBC.
Failure of Democrats to highlight that to voters, and to warn of the danger of it, would be an abdication.
Liz Cheney doesn’t feel any hesitation. In New Hampshire last week, she told voters there, “tell the world who we are with your vote. Tell them that we are a good and a great nation.” Last month, she said, “a vote for Donald Trump may mean the last election that you ever get to vote in,” because “there’s no question” that Trump would not leave the White House at the end of a second term.
Indeed—in filling out his forms for ballot access in Illinois Trump refused to sign a voluntary pledge not to overthrow the government that he signed twice already in 2016 and 2020. Why?
While many Americans know about January 6th, far fewer of them are aware of just how hard Trump worked to overthrow the government before any protesters arrived in Washington. Democrats should make sure before the next election that voters are familiar with the two months Trump spent orchestrating a failed coup: pressuring state legislators and governors to refuse to certify their election results, pressuring members of Congress to object to the certification of those results once their states did, pressuring his vice president to violate his constitutional oath by refusing to count those electoral votes certified by those states, and either directing, or approving of, plans to submit false electors.
To win next time Trump wants his supporters to patrol polling stations to make sure people they don’t like the looks of can’t vote. Over the weekend, he said:
You should all stay in those voting booths. You should stay there and watch it. If you see bags of crap coming into the voting areas, you’ve got to stop it. You can’t let it happen, because these guys are crooked as hell. They know how to cheat.
Democrats must explain to voters what the United States will become if our government gives up on a system of rules, and the laws that protect our freedom. It is highly unlikely most voters know Trump has promised to invoke the Insurrection Act on day one nor what that would involve. Democrats should be explicit about what a system controlled by one man would mean, and how it would change the country forever. Books are being banned now. Women are being denied care from doctors who fear criminal penalties now. Election workers nationwide are being harassed and threatened to the point that most of them are quitting their jobs now. What would Trump do without checks and balances?
Abortion will play a significant role in that conversation. Voters need to contemplate whether they want to live in a country where politicians track—and criminalize—their travel from one state to another.
Democrats must paint pictures of the unthinkable in order to make voters think. Most voters, if they appreciated the stakes of a second Trump term, simply would not choose it. And in reality, the terror of autocracy, for the voters who ultimately integrate it, will overwhelm their preferences on Medicaid policy or mortgage rates.
Are voters unhappy with democracy because they thought a constitutional right for more than fifty years would never be taken away? Or because they don’t want a rematch between two old white men? Or is it because their government has not done anything to prevent them from living with the fear of being shot anywhere, anytime and has done little to address the threat of climate change? It’s not clear that Americans who have lost trust or faith in democracy want dictatorship.
Voters could use some help appreciating just what democracy means, which is why Biden’s speech should be a starting point.
Biden and the other Democrat on the ballot this year have to reach those voters. They have to motivate those Americans who are frustrated about inflation and immigration but who appreciate the threat to democracy to get out and vote. The fragility of democracy won’t bring everyone to the table, but it can inspire enough votes on the margins where it matters.
Americans who better understand, come November, that this could be their last vote, will be more likely to cast it.