Biden’s new calls to action matter, as does the one yet to come

Just as two points make a line, two speeches can draw a battle line — so it was with President Biden’s two speeches on Jan. 6 and Jan. 11. There is, however, an important front he has yet to address — the fight to control local elected offices.

On Jan. 6, 2022, Biden threw down the gauntlet before Donald J. Trump: “The former president of the United States,” Biden said, “sees his own interests as more important than his country’s interests … [H]is bruised ego matters more to him than our democracy or our Constitution. He can’t accept that he lost.”

On Jan. 11, in Atlanta, Biden issued a call to battle, drawing a line in the sand for those, inside or outside the Senate, who would allow access to the vote to be strangled or who would allow vote counting to fall into the hands of authoritarians: “How do you want to be remembered? Do you want to be on the side of Dr. King or George Wallace? Do you want to be on the side of John Lewis or Bull Connor?”

Biden’s speeches suggest we are entering a new and welcome phase of the Biden presidency. His campaign speeches about bipartisanship have gone the way of the horse drawn carriage: No more dreams of reaching across the aisle.

Name the enemy. Rally the troops.

Some understandably respond, “Too little, too late.” The New York Times’ Charles Blow wrote, “I hope that this is a better-late-than-never situation, … [b]ut hope is a feature of faith, not a pillar of politics.”

It’s worth remembering Churchill’s criticism of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the run up to WWII. He was frustrated that FDR, burdened with an isolationist Congress, did not move faster to arm and leap full-bodied to the defense of Britain from Germany. Our readiness suffered, and after Pearl Harbor, it took years to mobilize, but the Allies turned the tide against fascism.

Again, we find ourselves in a years-long, existential battle for freedom. 

The question is whether Biden’s speeches do anything more than calling out a do-nothing Senate or securing for him a place on “the right side of history.”

In the short term, we’ll learn soon whether Biden’s words will matter to Sen. Manchin and Sinema, who stand in the way of filibuster reform or a carve out for voting rights. History tells us, as George Washington University political scientist Sarah Binder testified to the Senate 12 years ago, that the filibuster “was created by mistake.”

Just days ago, Stanford Historian Jack Rakove, scholar of James Madison, emphasized that Madison would never have stood for it.

Protecting the freedom to vote, curtailing dark money in politics, limiting gerrymanders and safeguarding elections against partisan subversion matter greatly to all citizens who care about their right to choose their leaders fairly. The Senate has bypassed the filibuster some 160 times, most recently in December to extend the debt ceiling. Back in 2019, Mitch McConnell exempted approvals of Trump-appointed district court judges from the 60-vote threshold. 

If it’s good enough for conservative judge-making, it’s good enough for preserving democracy.

The long term, however, is where — like the war against Japan and Germany — this war will be won. While the current front may be the Senate, the battlefield extends across America. We know what the other side is up to. 

Steve Bannon Is On to Something” read the New York Times headline of Ezra Klein’s Jan. 9 column. What Bannon is onto is a potentially winning strategy for a Trumpist takeover of local elected offices, from school boards to registrars of voters, “precinct by precinct.” In parallel, the Jan. 9 Washington Post reported, “In recent years, far-right groups have … harness[ed] conservative outrage to influence … local offices. That effort was stepped up after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.”

Those who believe in preserving democracy must fight authoritarians’ fire, if not with fire, then with unrelenting torrents of water to douse it. Democrats – large or small “d” – need to think nationally but organize locally, and with the same dedication as Bannon’s foot soldiers.

Local officeholders, particularly election offices, make key decisions and appointments. School boards and other town, city and county positions are feeders for higher office.

There is little that is glamorous about the local political work necessary to shore up democracy’s foundations. At least since the heyday of the Obama years, Democrats have been enchanted by the world of Washington and the global order thought to be unfolding. They have, as a result, lost state legislative seats by the hundreds, ceding to Republicans control of redistricting — and collusion with Trumpist forces.

We need a new commitment to grassroots politics in every community and state, whether red or blue. The groundwork for such a commitment is already laid in local Democratic party organizations and in state and local nonprofits that are part of the Declaration for American Democracy, made up of 240 member-organizations. They include or partner with the Arizona Coalition for Change, Fairness West Virginia, Clean Elections Texas, Protect Missouri Voters, Minnesota Citizens for Clean Elections, Democracy Maine, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, Mid-Ohio Climate Action, and many other local and national activist groups.

President Biden would be well served to call on Democrats to do more than reform the filibuster and pass urgently needed national legislation. He needs to urge all who value democracy not just to wish for it or for a rescue package delivered by Congress. His speeches in the last week, vital as they were, lacked needed focus on gritty work at the state and local level.

He should broadly summon Americans to support — with action and dollars — secretary of state candidates and board of elections candidates everywhere who promise to protect our vote. Biden needs to lead by laying out the plan to rebuild the infrastructure of democracy from the ground up.

As we think about how to respond to that challenge, President Biden’s question speaks to all of us: How do we want to be remembered?

Austin Sarat is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science at Amherst College. The views expressed here do not represent Amherst College. He is author of numerous books on America’s death penalty, including “Gruesome Spectacles: Botched Executions and America’s Death Penalty.” Follow him on Twitter @ljstprof.

Dennis Aftergut is a former federal prosecutor.

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