The Memo: Biden says democracies work; the US is not helping his case

The Memo: Biden says democracies work; the US is not helping his case
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President BidenJoe BidenExpanding child tax credit could lift 4 million children out of poverty: analysis Maria Bartiromo defends reporting: 'Keep trashing me, I'll keep telling the truth' The Memo: The center strikes back MORE is casting his first international trip as an opportunity to prove to the world that democracies work — but events at home aren’t helping his case.

A Republican-led effort to tighten voting laws in many states is ringing alarm bells among those who say it will lead to widespread disenfranchisement. GOP senators recently stymied an effort to set up an independent commission to look into the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection. Biden’s predecessor, former President TrumpDonald TrumpMaria Bartiromo defends reporting: 'Keep trashing me, I'll keep telling the truth' The Memo: The center strikes back Republicans eye Nashville crack-up to gain House seat MORE, traffics in lies and conspiracy theories alleging November’s election was stolen.

The population is just as polarized as its elected representatives. A recent poll from the Public Religion Research Institute indicated that more than 1 in 4 Republican voters believed “patriots” might have to “resort to violence” for the good of the country.


Even at a more practical level, the situation is difficult. Biden flew to England on Wednesday just a day after breaking off negotiations aimed at reaching a bipartisan infrastructure deal. The prospects for an eventual agreement are not quite dead, but the talks face grave obstacles.

Much of the rest of Biden’s legislative agenda is also imperiled as a consequence of near-monolithic Republican opposition and his inability, at least for now, to end the Senate filibuster even if he wanted to.

It’s all a stark contrast from Biden’s explanation of the overarching function of his trip. His transatlantic engagements are about “demonstrating the capacity of democracies to both meet the challenges and deter the threats of this new age,” he wrote in a Washington Post op-ed on Saturday.

In the first speech of his trip, to American forces stationed at a Royal Air Force base in England, he said, "It falls to us to prove that democracies will not just endure but they will excel ... We have to discredit those who believe that the age of democracy is over."

Biden has spoken in these terms before, including in his address to a joint session of Congress in April. The refrain that “democracies work” is a keystone of his foreign policy. He hopes to provide a favorable contrast to authoritarian regimes, such as those in China and Russia.

The final — and perhaps most keenly watched — event of Biden’s trip will be a Wednesday meeting with Russian President Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinA balance of pragmatism and agendas shaped the U.S.-Russia summit Sunday shows - Voting rights, infrastructure in the spotlight Christie: 'No damage was done' from Biden's overseas trip MORE in Geneva.


Biden is well aware of the glee the Kremlin takes in evidence of American political dysfunction. He is just as cognizant of the threat posed to U.S. economic primacy by China, a regime whose actions are unbridled by any need to get democratic buy-in for its decisions — or to pay even rudimentary attention to human rights.

No one, at least in mainstream America, is suggesting that autocracy would be a better option. But the flaws and fragility of democracy are especially evident in a nation where the reverberations of January’s mob scenes at the Capitol are still being felt.

Jennifer McCoy, a political science professor at Georgia State University, said the superiority of democracies is plain over the long term.

“But now we’re in this short- to medium-term era of deep, deep problems, where we have challenges to solve while we essentially have a dysfunctional government when it comes to efficiency and performance and implementation,” she warned.

McCoy was one of more than 100 academic experts on democracy who last week signed a “Statement of Concern” issued through the liberal-leaning New America organization. The statement said the scholars had “watched the recent deterioration of U.S. elections and liberal democracy with growing alarm.”

Republicans have generally viewed such expressions of worry as overwrought and alarmist.

But among Democrats and liberal groups, the sirens are flashing red.

Jaime HarrisonJaime HarrisonDemocrat Chris Jones enters Arkansas governor race with dramatic, viral video The Hill's Morning Report - Dems to go-it-alone on infrastructure as bipartisan plan falters Progressives rave over Harrison's start at DNC MORE, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said during a recent MSNBC interview that democracy is “in balance” because of the threat to voting rights and the fair administration of elections, among other issues. Other members of his party have made similarly dire pronouncements.

Stephany Spaulding, a spokesperson for Just Democracy, a coalition of racial and social justice groups, told this column that the U.S. is at a pivot point, where it could restore a “functioning democracy” that would be an exemplar to the world.

But, at the same time, “voting rights are on the chopping block because we have a broken Senate.”

Spaulding related many of the most pressing problems back to the Senate filibuster. Sen. Joe ManchinJoe ManchinThe Memo: The center strikes back Sunday shows - Voting rights, infrastructure in the spotlight Democratic clamor grows for select committee on Jan. 6 attack MORE (D-W.Va.) announced over the weekend that he would neither support weakening the filibuster nor vote for the For The People Act, the most expansive Democratic effort to safeguard voting rights.

His decision caused outrage among progressives. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezThe Memo: The center strikes back Democrats facing tough reelections back bipartisan infrastructure deal Harris rebounds after difficult trip MORE (D-N.Y.) tweeted that Manchin was standing with the GOP in backing “voter suppression.”

Spaulding said that she worried that the assault on voting rights constitutes “an extreme threat.”

To be sure, others argue that it is easy to underestimate the power and resilience of American democracy — especially at a time when enmity seems to course through the veins of the body politic.

McCoy, the Georgia State professor, said that even while she saw no signs of a “reversal” of political polarization, it was important to recognize that the success or failure of societies has to be judged by broad and fundamental criteria.

“Do [autocracies] work better? We’re not only talking about economic growth or living standards but basic freedoms as well. So obviously democracy is much better,” she said.

Grant Reeher, a professor of political science at Syracuse University, warned against taking too short a view — focusing on something like the Trump era in a way that loses a sense of larger perspective.

“Look at where we are now, compared to 40 or 80 or 130 years ago in terms of democratic inclusion. It is just impossible to sustain the view that we have gone backwards,” he said.


“It is always an uneven march and we are living in an era where we took a step backward. But that doesn’t mean the overall direction of the curve has changed.”

Still, Reeher also acknowledged that when Biden meets the leaders of other Western democracies during his trip, they will have some questions — not only about the robustness of the American system, but about whether the U.S. can still lay claim to the leadership of the free world.

The title seemed self-evident in the 1960s or 1980s and even as recently as Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaMichelle Obama shares Father's Day tribute: 'Our daughters couldn't have asked for a better role model' Biden raised key concerns with Putin, but may have overlooked others Democrats have turned solidly against gas tax MORE’s presidency, he suggested.

“Biden does have a challenge,” Reeher said. “He is arguing, ‘I am here as the American president to be the leading voice.’ But then he is subject to people saying, ‘Wait a minute, look at what you folks have been going through. Why is it you? Why isn’t it [German Chancellor] Angela Merkel? Or one of the other leaders?’ And it’s a legitimate criticism.”

The questioning of America’s primacy would have seemed almost absurd until recently.

Now, it’s not at all clear that Biden can provide the reassurance the rest of the world wants.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.