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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.