American democracy is not dead yet, but it is getting there
When Joe Biden was a presidential candidate, he published a book on comparative international politics by two Harvard professors, “How democracies die, ”From 2018, to explain the urgency of his campaign against Donald Trump. He touted the book in an interview with my colleague Evan Osnos, marked up passages with notes and observations, and even, one of the book’s authors told me this week, recommended it to a stranger at chance he met while riding his beloved Amtrak. Now that he is president, Biden has characterized his efforts to restore American democracy as part of a global struggle against resurgent autocracies, in places like China and Russia. “This generation is going to be marked by competition between democracies and autocracies,” Biden said in April as he pressured Republicans to back his massive, multi-billion-dollar infrastructure bill. “Autocrats are betting that democracy cannot generate the kind of unity needed to make decisions to enter this race. We cannot afford to agree with them. We need to show the world – and, more importantly, we need to show ourselves – that democracy works, that we can come together on the big things. He ended with a flourishing typical of Biden: “This is the United States of America, for the love of God. “
United, we are not. A month later, the prospects for Biden’s ambitious legislative agenda remain uncertain, state legislatures in GOP-controlled states pass measures that will make voting more difficult for many Americans, and the White House may not be. just days away from abandoning bipartisan discussions on infrastructure. bill, which has never been close to a deal. Far from accepting Biden’s call for unity, Republicans remain in the grip of the diatribes and electoral conspiracy theories of their defeated former president. As a result, Congress is at such a partisan deadlock that it cannot even agree on a commission to investigate the Jan.6 attack by a pro-Trump mob on its own building.
Before leaving town for their Memorial Day recess, in fact, Senate Republicans were to use legislative obstruction for the first time this session to block the proposed bipartisan panel. Their declared arguments against a commission range from the implausible to the insulting; the real explanation is political cynicism in the extreme. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has so far honored his pledge to focus “one hundred percent” on blocking Biden’s agenda, even claimed an investigation was pointless because it would not be successful. to “no new fact”. John Cornyn, a close ally of McConnell from Texas, was at least more honest admitting, in Politico, that the vote was intended to deny Democrats “a political platform” from which to make the 2022 midterm elections a “referendum on President Trump.” For his part, Trump has announced that he plans to run for re-election in 2024 – and rejoiced in polls showing a majority of Republicans continue to believe his false declarations of fraudulent elections and that nothing untoward only happened on January 6. . It goes without saying that these are not signs of a healthy democracy ready to fight the autocratic tyrants of the world.
“It turns out that things are much worse than we expected,” Daniel Ziblatt, one of the authors of “How Democracies Die” told me this week. He said he never envisioned a scenario like the one that has played out among Republicans on Capitol Hill in recent months. How could he? It’s hard to imagine anyone in America, even when “How Democracies Die” was published, a year after Trump’s term, seriously considering a US president who would start an insurgency in order to steal an election he has clearly lost – and who still commands his party’s support after doing so.
Three years ago, it was still conceivable, if not likely, that Trump and Trumpism could be kicked out by a crushing result at the polls or by a clear indictment and expulsion from public life. But Ziblatt and Steven Levitsky, his co-author, never thought that would happen. Instead, they pointed to a more realistic possibility: that Trump’s electoral defeat would not stop the continued polarization, disregard for political norms, and the escalation of “institutional warfare” in America – leaving the country with ” democracy beaten without solid guardrails ”which would constantly“ hover ”on the brink of crisis. The crisis, however, turned out to be even more existential than they had predicted; the present is “much more disturbing,” Ziblatt told me. In contemporary Germany, he said, an incitement to violence of the type deployed by Trump and some of his supporters might be enough to ban a political party. But, in America’s two-party system, you can’t just ban one of the two parties, even if it takes a terrifying detour to anti-democratic extremism.
This is the disturbing essence of the question. In an alarming survey released this week, nearly thirty percent of Republicans endorsed the idea that the country is so far “off track” that “American patriots may have to resort to violence” against their political opponents. You don’t need two Harvard professors to tell you that this kind of reasoning is just what could lead to the death of a democracy. The implications? Consider Judge Amy Berman Jackson’s blunt words in a ruling on a case involving one of the Jan.6 rioters on Capitol Hill, issued even as it became clear that Republican senators would take action to prevent the Jan.6 commission. to investigate what had caused the riot:
It should be noted that Jackson released the decision this week, the same week Trump issued statements calling the 2020 vote “the most corrupt election in our country’s history,” boasting “the real one.” president, ”and warning that the US elections are“ rigged, corrupted and stolen. ”
As bad as it may be, it’s too early to say that Biden’s approach has failed. For starters, there’s the argument, from Ziblatt and others, that rhetoric reduction might actually work. Biden, almost certainly for this reason, doesn’t talk much about January 6 or Republican obstructionism. The words “Donald Trump” rarely, if ever, cross his lips. “He’s out of balance,” Ziblatt told me, trying to take some of the “anger and animosity,” the heat and rage, out of American politics. This is more or less the path recommended by “How Democracies Die”, although it is infuriating for Democrats who want a stronger crackdown on the daily outrages generated by a Republican party that has put it all on outrage as strategy.
Politically, Republicans seem increasingly frustrated that they haven’t yet managed to attack Biden in a way that sticks out. The new president, a longtime centrist with decades of votes to prove it, does not appear to be a “radical socialist” or a culture warrior of cancellation. Even the GOP’s not at all subtle efforts to demean him as an old man driven into extremism by his staff or by leftists in Congress have not really stuck. Indeed, Biden’s approval rating, like Trump’s before him, has remained remarkably consistent, a virtual straight line, regardless of attacks on him: The FiveThirtyEight poll average had Biden at 54% this week, which was exactly the same as a month ago, two months ago and three months ago. This average is not only consistent in a way that suggests the ebb and flow of the Washington news cycle makes little difference to voters – it’s also a significantly higher baseline for Biden than for Trump and slightly better than George W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
Biden took office promising to focus on the pandemic and the economy. Both are fine. Thanks to successful government mobilization, more than half of America’s adult population has now been vaccinated; in many states, more than seventy percent of adults have had at least one injection. Coronavirus infections and deaths have fallen sharply. The country is reopening. “We have turned the tide on a pandemic that was occurring once in a century,” Biden said in a speech Thursday in Cleveland – at a site where a campaign rally was supposed to take place last March, before he becomes the first to cancel due to the coronavirus; he never did another rally. “To put it simply: America is coming back. America is on the move. “
Biden, as expected, did not say anything about Trump or the political fury sparked by the Jan.6 commission. He did not accuse his opponents of trying to ruin the country or calling them names. But there has been one change – noticeable – from the Biden of previous months. He no longer spoke of unity. There were no hazy paeans to bipartisanship. Instead, there was a list that Biden pulled off his papers and waved in the middle of his speech, an early salvo, perhaps, in the blame game for several years to come. The list, Biden said, was made up of congressional Republicans who bragged about the benefits to their constituents of Biden’s $ 1.9 trillion. COVID– relief bill, which was passed without a single Republican vote. “Some people have no shame,” Biden said, then the president and his audience laughed. Before returning to Air Force One for his trip back to the White House, Biden was asked to comment on today’s news, which was not his speech in Ohio but the dysfunction back in Washington. “I can’t imagine anyone voting against the creation of a commission on the biggest assault since the civil war on Capitol Hill,” the president told reporters. “But anyway. . . “
It all reminded me of a scene from my time as a correspondent in Moscow. I was at a conference where Grigory Yavlinsky, a leading figure in the democratic opposition, was asked about the alarming state of Russian democracy under its then new president, Vladimir Putin. He responded with an old Soviet joke about an ambulance driver picking up a critically ill patient and deciding to drive him straight to the morgue. The patient protests that he is not dead, to which the ambulance driver replies: “We are not there yet.” Hopefully we don’t see the slow-motion death of American democracy. At least not yet.