Tomorrow, President Biden will host a global summit on democracy. It is a pared down version of the original planned gathering. Instead of a grand meeting hall, delegates will gather on Zoom. (Unmute yourself, Mr. Prime Minister.) Still, Biden’s core insight is right: the world is dividing into a camp of authoritarians facing a community of liberal democracies.
But it is more than a little awkward for the United States to host this summit right now. An assault on democracy is underway in our country, an assault every bit as unnerving as the rollbacks in places such as Hungary and Poland, Turkey and the Philippines. Indeed, according to Freedom House, our country is backsliding.
We all know the facts. The Big Lie pushed by the former president and his millions of followers. Laws to cut back on voting targeted at racial minorities. Gerrymandering designed, as the Justice Department just alleged in a lawsuit against Texas, to choke off the political voice of Latinos. A systematic drive to remove the obstacles to the theft of the 2024 presidential election. What would we say if this were happening in another country?
A group of 150 top scholars of American democracy issued an alarming call to action just before Thanksgiving. “Defenders of democracy in America still have a slim window of opportunity to act,” they wrote. “But time is ticking away, and midnight is approaching. To lose our democracy but preserve the filibuster in its current form — in which a minority can block popular legislation without even having to hold the [Senate] floor — would be a short-sighted blunder that future historians will forever puzzle over. The remarkable history of the American system of government is replete with critical, generational moments in which liberal democracy itself was under threat, and Congress asserted its central leadership role in proving that a system of free and fair elections can work.”
There’s no substitute for presidential leadership at a moment like this. The presidential bully pulpit can be overrated. Chief executives, especially ones with wobbly polling like Biden, cannot simply summon a torrent of public opinion for a preferred policy. But presidents can help set agendas and focus the attention of political and media elites.
President Biden, despite his weakened political standing, can point his party and its lawmakers to the need to act.
Big legislation like the Freedom to Vote Act doesn’t pass without a champion to set the agenda and break the inertia. President Biden’s summit presents a golden opportunity to acknowledge that our democracy is in crisis. It’s time for everyone in Washington to declare which side they’re on. Unmute yourself, Mr. President.