Joe Biden gave a good speech last night. Clearly he sees the current crisis as the most critical this country has faced since the Great Depression, and he means to use the crisis to be the most transformational Democratic president since FDR. He is betting that Americans are now ready to embrace proactive government, 40 years after Ronald Reagan declared that government was the problem and 25 years after Bill Clinton announced the end of the era of big government. At the same time he is invoking Americans’ patriotism, citing the need to demonstrate our democracy’s resilience in order more effectively to contend with our adversaries abroad:
Can our democracy overcome the lies, anger, hate, and fears that have pulled us apart? America’s adversaries — the autocrats of the world — are betting it can’t. They believe we are too full of anger and division and rage. They are wrong. And we have to prove them wrong.”
This patriotic framing is probably smart politics and is not without merit: China possibly and Russia certainly would be happy to watch America flounder. But Biden surely knows that the big threat to American democracy is not from any foreign adversary. It was inopportune to say so in this particular setting, but sooner or later Biden needs to come out with it: the threat to American democracy comes from the Republican party.
The GOP is now largely an anti-democratic cult bent on achieving and maintaining power by whatever means are necessary and available to overcome majority rule. That’s not true of all Republicans, of course. The outcome of the 2020 presidential election depended in good part on the integrity of key Republican officials who refused demands that they falsify election returns: the secretaries of state in Arizona, Nevada and Georgia, an election board member in Michigan, a critical number of GOP state legislators in Pennsylvania. But in today’s GOP, no honest man or woman goes unpunished. The Georgia legislature has stripped the secretary of state of most of his power over elections; the offending incumbent, Raffensperger, can expect a brutal primary challenge next year. Arizona and Nevada’s secretaries of state have been censured by their state parties, and the Michigan election board member has been removed. How many honest Republican election administrators will there be in 2024?
In Arizona, Republican legislators introduced a bill that would actually empower the legislature to choose the state’s presidential electors regardless of the state’s popular vote for president. Clearly, for many Republicans, it’s not enough to suppress voter turnout; they want to be able to negate elections that don’t turn out right for them. This is certainly Trump’s objective, and the party is still in thrall to its cult leader. The Big Lie that the 2020 election was stolen has an important practical objective beyond salving Trump’s battered ego: it prepares the base, and the party elites that must respond to the base, to steal the 2024 election if necessary. (Fight fire with fire.) The “stolen election” has an historic analog in the “stab in the back”– the myth promoted by German rightists that Germany had somehow been robbed of its rightful victory in World War I by the traitorous founders of the Weimar Republic. The “stab in the back” was useful in undermining Germany’s fragile democracy.
It is often remarked that the longtime centrist Biden seems somewhat out of character in his role as the herald of a new era of progressive government. It would be even more out of character for Biden to forcefully confront the challenge of Republican authoritarianism. Yes, he has denounced GOP efforts at voter suppression, but he needs to say more. He needs to say that today’s Republican Party, with important exceptions, is a threat to democracy. I would like to see Biden and the Democrats make right-wing extremism a major political issue. For decades during the Cold War Republicans made political hay by falsely accusing their rivals of softness on communism. Democrats need to take a few pages from that playbook and denounce the Republicans’ softness on right-wing extremism, a charge that is fully justified. A party that overwhelmingly countenances the Big Lie is effectively a party of the radical, anti-democratic right. Republicans today are more than ever committed to Newt Gingrich’s view of American politics as a “war [that] has to be fought with the scale and duration and savagery that is only true of civil wars.” That’s not like Joe Biden. Will he catch on?