“The answer to the problems of democracy is more democracy.” —Gov. Al Smith
“I believe with every ounce of my being that democracy must prevail … We have to defend it, fight for it.” —President Joe Biden, Feb. 19
It was true when, on the day of his Inauguration, President Biden dramatically said, “Democracy has prevailed.” But what now that Donald Trump’s authoritarianism has twice escaped conviction for obviously impeachable offenses? More broadly, “what will be the lasting effect on American democracy” asked New Yorker editor David Remnick “of Trump’s disinformation campaign?” And what of seditionists in power posing as patriots… and getting away with it?
Decades of a slowly declining democracy convinced Trump to believe that he could reverse the 2020 election result. And he came damn close. Given this brush with American-style fascism, Biden should now create a White House “Office for Democracy” to begin the process of repairing our “unfinished” nation, as poet laureate Amanda Gorman put it. Biden has already announced a World Democracy Summit for late year to stop nations’ backsliding to one-man rule. Will he also “fight” to restore the primacy of democracy at home? One measure of the urgency: is that the World Democracy Index moved the U.S. from “Full Democracy” in 2016 to “Flawed Democracy” in 2020—ranking the United States #25 behind 13 Western European countries though just ahead of Botswana.
“A luxury car is going nowhere without an ignition switch; a huge container ship needs a small tugboat to guide it safely into harbor. A small, yet powerful and efficient Office for Democracy can similarly be a sine qua non for systemic change.”
For starters, this domestic topic has to overcome institutional inertia that’s blunted earlier efforts: there’s the obvious free-rider effect that if everyone might intangibly benefit from a broad policy, there’s little specific public pressure to enact it (“Save the bees” is more politically compelling than “End the filibuster”). Meanwhile, Corporate America still has much more political sway than Common Cause and the numerous and most urgent national crises—directly affecting Americans’ health and wealth—are often seen as “process” reforms shunted to the cutting-room floor in Congress.
In 1993, for one example, an eager President Bill Clinton wanted to press ahead with a major campaign finance bill during his honeymoon months…but House Speaker Tom Foley convinced him to hold off until his big economic proposals were enacted. Soon “hold off” became “never.”
A new “Office for Democracy” now—not just as part of a standard “outreach office” to marginalized groups—would not compete with Biden’s agenda but help complete it. For what all of his policy priorities have in common—from the Covid-19 pandemic, economic decline, and climate violence to immigration, infrastructure, gun safety, and policing reform is that they enjoy majority support yet have been stymied congressionally by the minority tyranny of rural states and corporate interests. Only if government reflects popular opinion can it enact popular policies.
A luxury car is going nowhere without an ignition switch; a huge container ship needs a small tugboat to guide it safely into harbor. A small, yet powerful and efficient Office for Democracy can similarly be a sine qua non for systemic change by focusing on three core missions—the rhetorical, educational, and operational.
First is the urgent rhetorical task of vividly explaining why the public should consider a revival of Democracy as convincing as, say, “cancel culture …the deep state…voter integrity…deregulation.” President Carter did just that in the late 1970s by repeatedly talking about “human rights,” especially when he created a “Bureau for Human Rights” in his State Department—all of which elevated this previously esoteric topic to top rank on the American agenda. Presidents from Reagan to Trump relentlessly exploited their bully pulpits to beat up “Big Government” in order to undercut social and regulatory programs.
To counter, Biden-Harris must now repeatedly use their bully pulpit to proselytize for a ‘new’ narrative, one as old as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution—smart self-government can save lives and money. (E.g., auto safety regulation since the 1965 Act has averted an estimated 4.2 million deaths in the U. S.) In the context of a national pandemic, economic tailspin, and suicidal climate crisis, we look not to a state or company for solutions but to a national government equal to the task.
Educationally, it would herald the immense though invisible costs of political and economic inequality, yet at the same time debunk viral Republican falsehoods about voting—e.g., a “voter fraud” rate of .00003% somehow justifies the disenfranchisement of millions of eligible citizens.
Operationally, a Democracy Advocate would brief the president and vice-president monthly to prepare them for national addresses on best and worst practices; scour the world and states for better ways to protect the franchise and rule of law; make sure that federal agencies weigh democratic values in their decision-making; conduct original research, such as the extent to which social media metastasizes the spread of cancerous conspiracy theories and what can constitutionally be done about it; create an “American Democracy Index” to be able to clearly grade federal and state performance on majority rule; and network with elected lawmakers and staffs—as well as citizen groups—about proposals that either undermine or further the meaning of “of, by and for the people.” (Already, Republicans in 28 states have introduced 160 bills to further suppress the minority vote, ironically inspired by Trump’s lies about a “stolen election”… that he tried to steal.)
Fortunately, there already is an available “Money-Out/Voters-In” agenda pioneered over years by activists, advocates, think tanks, and state-level reforms. It includes enacting matching public funds for small donations while barring “dark money”; passing—among other pieces of legislation—the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act; establishing statehood for the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico; and ending the current Senate filibuster. Also, Automatic Voter Registration (AVR) through motor vehicle departments in every state and Social Security records; the National Popular Vote instead of the Electoral College; minimum requirements for early- and same-day voting; a ban on Members’ stock-trading; ranked choice voting; and nonpartisan state boards drawing congressional lines. (Most of these are in the newly re-introduced “For the People Act”—HR 1 an S 1—which will go nowhere without an engaged public.)
A voting process requiring that Democrats win by 4-7 points to gain control of the House, Senate or White House, however, will likely create unsustainable big state/small state tensions that in turn could eventually trigger widespread violence. California and New York won’t forever tolerate Wyoming and West Virginia dictating national policy because of political trade-offs from the 1780s.
When a bridge collapses, so does the reputation of its engineer. But how will we even know when our system of governance is approaching collapse into what Lincoln called a “mobocracy”? When the Trump presidency culminated in a lethal riot, the Ukrainian President lamented, “After something like this, I believe it would be very difficult for the world to see the U.S. as a symbol of democracy.”
In today’s clash between Democracy and Authoritarianism, the Biden-Harris administration needs to use its current trifecta of power to make sure that January 6th doesn’t inspire a bigger fire next time. FDR rose to the occasion in the 1930s by saving capitalism after Hoover’s laissez faire philosophy risked economic collapse. Joe Biden, also elected to clean up after a failed right-wing president, may yet become the man subpoenaed by history to save Democracy.