That has set the tone for his presidency, an administration that has determined to be about first-order things, shoring up the foundation of the nation’s principles and ideals.
“We have never fully realized that aspiration of our founding,” he said, “but every generation has opened the door a little wider, and every generation has opened it wider and wider to be more inclusive, to include those who have been excluded before.” That idea of an ever-expanding democracy is not just ahistorical; it overlooks the real danger of democratic retrenchment in this era.
He described a steady expansion of democracy in the United States, but that simply isn’t so: before the Civil War, Black men were stripped of their right to vote and then of their citizenship. The expansion of democracy that followed that war rapidly contracted after about a decade through a chillingly effective combination of legislation and violence.
Democracy has been overthrown in America before. That’s our best evidence and soberest warning that it can happen again.
It’s critical that Biden and others in government understand this point and get it right, because that history — the sometimes-successful fight for democracy and the sometimes-successful fight to thwart it — is exactly the battle that the US is facing today, and there is nothing inevitable about democracy’s success.
This notion of democracy as a way of seeing the world exists in both Biden’s speech and the democracy scholars’ letter. For Biden, democracy requires empathy: the ability to put yourself in another’s shoes, to disagree without demonizing. For the democracy scholars, it is a matter of fairness, and the basic, fundamental notion that the party that gets the most votes should win elections (the electoral college doesn’t get a mention as a counter-majoritarian force, but probably should).
More than a few of those who carried out the insurrection, for instance, truly believed that democracy was being undermined through a stolen election, that their violence was necessary to save democracy. Perhaps some of the Republican state legislators currently seeking to seize final say over elections from the voters believe that they, too, are securing democracy from a corrupt process.
That’s exactly why it is imperative that Biden has made not only defending but defining democracy central to his presidency. Making clear his vision of a democracy rooted in fairness, justice and empathy allows him to move past two sides slinging around the word as a political propaganda tool. Instead, he makes the debate about what kind of democracy, exactly, we want: one that is expansive and just, or one that is exclusive and arbitrary and consigned to failure? That’s the choice America now faces.