Joe Biden wanted to convene a Summit of Democracies in his first year as president. COVID complicated matters, and the summit won’t happen before next year at the earliest. But even with the great strides the administration has made in taming the pandemic, a new question looms:
By the time the Summit of Democracies takes place, will the United States qualify to attend?
Biden has expressed his awareness of this problem. Indeed, if there is a single theme unifying his domestic and foreign policies it is his view that our biggest challenge at home and abroad is the struggle between pro-democratic and pro-authoritarian forces. In his first press conference, he called it “a battle between the utility of democracies in the 21st century and autocracies.” While Biden has often spoken confidently of America’s ultimate victory in that battle, he also understands what he is up against. Framing the issue as “whether or not democracy functions in the 21st century,” he cautioned journalists before his first big address to a joint session of Congress that, “The question is: In a democracy… can you get consensus in the timeframe that can compete with autocracy?”
Whether Biden is ready, willing and able to take the steps necessary to forge and fight for that consensus will determine not only the success of his presidency but, quite likely, the future of democracy around the world.
With the notable exception of the Trump administration, U.S. leaders have made championing democracy as a centerpiece of U.S. foreign policy for most of the past century. It was the alternative to fascism and communism. It was, we believed, what set us and our allies apart and made us great.
Our political leaders, think tanks and NGOs have not hesitated to call out threats to democracy where we have seen them. Barack Obama, for example, called out the decline of democracy in places like Hungary, the Philippines, and Egypt. He condemned events in Hungary and Egypt that had made them into places where “endless regulations and overt intimidation increasingly targeted civil society.” Biden characterized Poland and Hungary as being “more like totalitarian regimes” and compared them with places like Belarus—recently in the news for its active suppression of dissent.
The Orban government in Hungary is an example of one that has faced a loud chorus of condemnation for its efforts to systematically gut that country’s once-promising democracy. Freedom House, in a study of the Orban abuses, asserted the country was no longer a democracy because it “dropped any pretence of respecting democratic institutions.” An article by Zack Beauchamp in Vox observed that “after coming to power in 2010, Orban rewrote Hungary’s constitution and electoral rules to make it nigh impossible for the opposition to win power through elections. Tactics include extreme gerrymandering, rewriting campaign finance rules…appointing cronies to the countries constitutional court and election bureaucracy…and seizing control of nearly all media outlets…(to) render elections functionally non-competitive.” Sound familiar? (The article’s core point was that for all the reasons Orban had become the “favorite strongman” of the American right. Trump loved him.)
Similar critiques have been fielded against other allies that have seen assaults on their democratic institutions. The Brookings Institution issued a report called “The rise and fall of liberal democracy in Turkey: Implications for the West” that both illustrates how mainstream US institutions have actively attacked assaults on democracy overseas and at the same time suggest how our foreign policy specialists would be writing about America if they treated us the same way they treated our friends and allies that have followed a path similar to the one Trumpists seek to pursue in the U.S. Just the headings from the report (PDF) are enough to suggest this “Challenges to Turkey’s democratic institutions,” “Increasing powers of the president,” “Weak opposition,” “Questionable elections,” “Erosion of the rule of law,” “Drivers of democratic regression—cultural factors,” “Weakened governance in state institutions,” and so on.
The echoes are strong with the emerging warnings about where systematic GOP attacks on our democracy may take us. This past week saw a “Statement of Concern” from 100 leading scholars of democracy. They expressed alarm about “recent deterioration of U.S. elections and liberal democracy.” They cited efforts by GOP legislatures to implement “radical changes to core electoral procedures” that would transform “several states into political systems that no longer meet the minimum conditions for free and fair elections.” From putting political cronies in charge of the electoral process to restricting ballot access, they enumerated the risks. They concluded by urging Congress to do whatever is necessary “including suspending the filibuster” “to pass national voting and election administration standards that both guarantee the vote to all Americans equally, and prevent state legislatures from manipulating the rules in order to manufacture the result they want. Our democracy is fundamentally at stake. History will judge what we do at this moment.”
The scholars’ warning is eerily similar to the critiques offered in response to authoritarian creep in Poland, Hungary, Turkey, Egypt, the Philippines, and India not to mention those leveled at authoritarian states like China, Russia and Belarus that have taken steps to further restrict free speech, public gatherings, opposition parties, etc. They come as 250 measures have been proposed by the GOP in 43 states that would effectively disembowel if not kill democracy in the U.S.
Our allies are beginning to view what is happening in the US much as we viewed what happened in the states cited above. The Alliance of Democracies and a German research firm called Lantana’s most recent Democracy Perception Index—the largest survey on democracy in the world—showed a growing concern that the U.S. might no longer be the pro-democracy force it once was. Forty-four percent of those surveyed called the US a threat to democracy, more than cited Russia or China.
With those election laws looming, Trump’s “big lie” embraced by the entire GOP, no accountability for the Jan. 6 coup attempt, and Republicans actively celebrating its plotters and abettors, it is easy to see why the world is as concerned as it is. Seeing that U.S. condemnations of attacks on democracy overseas are now being perversely applied as a game plan by one major political party in the U.S.—the one the odds favor in the upcoming midterm elections—is profoundly ominous. To paraphrase Pogo, we have seen the new enemy to democracy and he is us.
The question is what does Biden do about it if he wants us to be able to attend the event he has offered to host? There is a lesson in our response to the rise of autocrats worldwide. We offered critiques and expressions of concern—but we largely stopped at that. The U.S. and our allies in Europe have failed to effectively penalize the Orbans and the Sisis and the Erdogans and the Modis and the Dutertes. Under Trump we embraced and rewarded them. But generally speaking, we have not hit them with heavy sanctions, kicked them out of international bodies, applied real pressure on them to change.
So far, that seems to be where we are headed in the U.S. Senator Schumer has said he will bring a voting rights bill to the Senate floor later this month. But it seems destined to lose. Senators Manchin and Sinema continue to oppose filibuster reform. But without that reform, without laws that truly protect the rights of voters in the U.S. and the sanctity of free and fair elections, there will be no real obstacles to Republicans who wish to follow in the footsteps of their favorite international thugs and strongmen.
The test of Biden and of our democracy will be whether we can go from heartfelt statements of principle to effective action. During World War II and the Cold War the US and our allies triumphed because we were willing to do whatever was necessary to fight for democracy. The opponents of democracy in the U.S. are now willing to do the same to eviscerate it.
To succeed in what he has defined as the central test of his presidency and our era, Biden must demonstrate that contrary to the experience of the past few years, going forward there will be a heavy price to be paid for attacking democracy.
At home this means holding coup-plotters and those who have sought to pervert the course of justice accountable. It means mobilizing American voters to stand up and defend our system so that those who attack pay the ultimate political price and are defeated. It means sending a clear message we value the Constitution above legislative tricks like the filibuster that are being used to attack it.
And abroad it means doing more than listing the flaws of the enemies of democracy and wringing our hands. Autocrats and would be despots must be sanctioned. They should be denied the benefits of the full membership in the international community. Everyone must know that there is an unacceptably high cost to not being a member of the community of democracies.