In 1961, a diplomat from Sierra Leone named William Fitzjohn was refused service at a diner near Hagerstown, Md., because of the color of his skin. This incident -- one of many -- gained international notoriety and was a major embarrassment to President John F. Kennedy. Wanting to expand freedom around the world and intending to have the United States lead by moral example, Kennedy made passage of Civil Rights legislation a priority not just to ensure civil rights at home, but to give the United States credibility abroad as America sought to expand American democracy and its values.
Indeed, Secretary of State Dean Rusk testified on behalf of the civil rights legislation before the Senate Commerce Committee on July 10, 1963. Rusk said in part that “racial discrimination here at home has important effects on our foreign relations…the United States is widely considered the home of democracy and the leader in the struggle for freedom, for human rights, for human dignity…so our failure to live up to our proclaimed ideals are noted -- and magnified and distorted.”
And in June of 1963, in a speech to the country, Kennedy made clear the connection between civil rights at home and the promotion of freedom abroad. Kennedy said “Today we are committed to a worldwide struggle to promote and protect the rights of all who wish to be free… We preach freedom around the world, and we mean it, and we cherish our freedom here at home, but are we to say to the world, and much more importantly, to each other that this is the land of the free except for Negroes; that we have no second class citizens except Negroes; that we have no class or caste system, no ghettoes, no master race except with respect to Negroes…”
As the White House gets ready to host a Summit for Democracy on Dec. 9, President BidenJoe BidenPredictions of disaster for Democrats aren't guarantees of midterm failure A review of President Biden's first year on border policy Vilsack accuses China of breaking commitments in Trump-era trade deal MORE is failing in his efforts to restore faith in American Democracy at home and abroad by standing on the sidelines as The Freedom to Vote Act is being blocked by a filibuster in the Senate. A recent survey conducted by the Pew Research Center of the world’s most advanced economies found a median of just 17 percent saying democracy in the U.S. is a good example for others to follow, while 57 percent think it used to be a good example but has not been in recent years. And just this year the Economist’s Intelligence Unit placed American Democracy in the “flawed” unit, ranking it at number 25, citing erosion of trust in institutions, deep dysfunction in the functioning of government, and social polarization that makes consensus nearly impossible.
And this comes at a time when authoritarianism around the world is gaining, and at a time when President Biden himself has said that a great struggle of our time is between democracy and the rise of authoritarianism.
American Democracy is struggling largely because of the three pillars of dysfunction that plague it: The breathtakingly rapid assault on voting rights in scores of states, the role of big money as an influence on policy and policy makers, and the way congressional districts are drawn so that extremism is guaranteed at the expense of compromise. The number of state laws that have been passed in the last year that seek to both suppress and to subvert the vote have by themselves forced us to the brink of crisis. These state laws are a direct result of former President TrumpDonald TrumpPredictions of disaster for Democrats aren't guarantees of midterm failure A review of President Biden's first year on border policy Hannity after Jan. 6 texted McEnany 'no more stolen election talk' in five-point plan for Trump MORE’s repeated Big Lie that the 2020 was “stolen.”
And our democracy struggles in part because the Senate has devolved into the world’s least deliberative body with Senate Republicans on an obstructionist bender the likes of which have never been seen in the 240 plus years of the republic. The legislative graveyard dug by Sen. Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellBiden stiff arms progressives on the Postal Service Biden clarifies any Russian movement into Ukraine 'is an invasion' The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden talks, Senate balks MORE (R-Ky.) dates back years and is interred with the bones of scores of legislative initiatives ranging from the establishment of a bipartisan commission to investigate the violent uprising on Jan. 6, to transformational voting rights legislation to the more mundane but crucial confirmation of ambassadors.
Passing legislation that guarantees access to the ballot for all eligible Americans, that would end partisan extremism by limiting gerrymandering, and that would start breaking the iron grip that big money has on policy, would do more than anything else to restore the full faith and confidence in our system of government not just here but around the world.
As the Democracy Summit approaches, President Biden must make the Freedom to Vote Act his absolute priority. To proclaim democracy’s virtues of freedom and inclusion in sharp contradistinction to authoritarianism’s intolerance and oppression, all the while standing idly by as our own democracy crumbles before us, not only renders the summit meaningless, but it also further deteriorates our credibility abroad.
President Kennedy understood that the promotion of American values abroad was impossible without passage of his civil rights legislation at home. What was at stake in 1963 was no greater than what is at stake today. And the cost of failure then is the same as the cost of failure now. Failure will cost us not less than all a democracy holds dear.
Matt Keller is vice president of Democracy 21.