Is America slipping to autocracy?

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Last Wednesday, President Joe Biden delivered a 65-minute speech to a joint session of Congress, with Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) historically flanking him. 

Biden spoke of many things, including coronavirus relief, infrastructure building, foreign policy, gun violence, job creation, systemic racism, education, taxes, immigration, green energy, corporate tax reform, health care and support for families. But perhaps the biggest message was Biden’s shot-across-the-bow regarding the precarious health of American democracy itself. Biden was clear: If democracy falls, everything American falls with it. 

As Biden explained, American democracy is under threat for at least three reasons: voting rights, domestic terrorism and China.

First, although there is no affirmative right to vote enshrined in the original Constitution (only amendments precluding government from banning the franchise based on immutable characteristics like race and gender), the Supreme Court has long held that the right to vote is “preservative of all other rights.” What this means is that, if people cannot meaningfully go to the polls to fire tyrannical officeholders, tyranny itself will take hold. If that occurs, all other issues that Biden spoke about — from police brutality to L.G.B.T.Q rights — will go by the wayside. In authoritarian regimes, policy choices belong to the government — not the citizenry. Thus, restrictions on access to voting affects every single American, regardless of political ilk. 

Yet, as of late March, state legislators have introduced 361 bills in 47 states this year that contain limitations around voting, a 43 percent increase from just a month earlier. The measures include things like enhanced power for poll “monitors,” fewer voting drop-boxes, restrictions on voting by mail, penalties for election officials who fail to purge voters from the rolls, and enhanced power in politicians over election procedures. Although supporters of these changes claim they are about election integrity and security, the lack of actual evidence of fraud and mismanagement in the American electoral system totally belies those cynical claims. According to Trump administration officials, the 2020 election was the most secure in history. Inescapably, therefore, these restrictive laws are about making it harder to vote, full stop. They are dangerous to democracy.

Biden weighed in, “[I]f we are to truly restore the soul of America, we need to protect the sacred right to vote. [M]ore people voted in the last presidential election than any time in American history, in the middle of the worst pandemic ever. That should be celebrated. Instead, it’s being attacked. Congress should pass H.R. 1 and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act and send them to my desk right away. The country supports it. And Congress should act now.”

Second, in March, FBI Director Christopher Wray — a Trump appointee — told Congress that “[t]he problem of domestic terrorism has been metastasizing across the country for a long time now and it’s not going away anytime soon.” Investigations of domestic terrorism have increased in number from 1,000 when he took office in 2017, to approximately 2,000 now. On its website, the FBI describes domestic terrorism as “actors crossing the line from exercising First Amendment-protected rights to committing crimes in furtherance of violent agendas.” Unlike the threat posed by the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, the cancer of terrorism now comes from within U.S. borders. 

In his speech before Congress, Biden acknowledged that white supremacy is terrorism and said his administration will not ignore it. He pointed to the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol, calling it an “existential crisis” and a test of whether American democracy can survive. 

Congress has yet to take serious action in response to that bloody event. In an interview on my YouTube series, #SimplePolitics, Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) called the Jan. 6 insurrection “an internal attack on our democracy . . . fueled by the Big Lie” that Trump somehow won the election. According to Van Hollen, Democrats haven’t pursued a 9/11-style commission because of concerns that congressional Republicans will “put people on the commission that would make a mockery of what we need to do” and use it “as a vehicle to perpetrate a fraud on the American people” around the integrity the 2020 election. 

This is an unspeakably sad statement about the state of the U.S. Congress today.  

FBI Director Wray likewise made clear that the insurrection was an act of domestic terrorism, and that we can expect more of it. “The amount of angry, hateful, unspeakable, combative, violent even, rhetoric on social media exceeds what anybody in their worst imagination (thinks) is out there,” Wray said.   

Third, China is increasingly an existential threat to democracy across the globe. As Bonnie Glaser, the director of the Asia Program for the German Marshall Fund, explained on #SimplePolitics, “China wants countries to defer to Chinese interests. . . But increasingly, [the Chinese] want to lead. They want to mold the international order, the international system that was put in place at the end of World War II, which was based on liberal Western norms. They want to revise this system . . .  They want to be able to treat their people any way they want.” So long as American democracy continues to corrode internationally, China’s goal of world dominance becomes closer and closer within its reach. 

Biden accordingly explained, “The investments I propose tonight [mean] making sure that every nation plays by the same rules in the global economy, including China. In my discussions with President Xi, I told him we welcome the competition. We’re not looking for conflict. But I made absolutely clear that we’ll defend America’s interests across the board.”

In a report issued this year, the United States fell 11 points over the last decade in its ranking of a functioning global democracy — below places on Argentina and Mongolia and on par with Romania and Croatia. The democracy watchdog group Freedom House pointed to gerrymandering and other barriers to voting as “the most corrosive and radicalizing effect on U.S. politics.” In the words of Biden, “Our Constitution opens to the words, as trite as it sounds, ‘We the people.’ It’s time we remembered that ‘We the people’ are the government. You and I. Not some force in a distant capital. Not some powerful force that we have no control over. It’s us. It’s ‘We the people.’” 

Americans need to take heed. And urgently.

Kimberly Wehle is a professor at University of Baltimore School of Law and author of the books “How to Read the Constitution — and Why,” and “What You Need to Know About Voting — and Why.” Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @kimwehle.

Tags Capitol insurrection Chris Van Hollen Christopher Wray Democracy domestic terrorism Election Joe Biden John Lewis Nancy Pelosi US-China relations Voter suppression voter suppression laws White supremacy

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