The Summit for Democracy: The Summit of Democracy — America — Must Repair
Mission review is always a good thing — not only when an enterprise is running smoothly, but, most especially, when it is not.
Democracy — government of, by, and for the people — is in trouble. It is not running smoothly, neither here in America nor around the world. The recent Summit for Democracy, in addition to sounding a global roll-call for Team Democracy, was basically a mission review: How is it doing, what are its weaknesses and vulnerabilities, how can it strengthen and compete against the growing tide of authoritarianism in the world and the anti-democratic movement here at home?
That last part bears repeating: “…and the anti-democratic movement here at home.”
Because: Suddenly, in the historical blink, the world’s oldest democracy — America — has sustained an assault on the democratic norms and guardrails carefully evolved over its 240+ years of existence — that is, its very operating system — led by a former President who, refusing to concede his re-election loss, is bent on wrecking that system entirely. In this anti-democratic project, he is aided and abetted by his Republican disciples in Congress. Freedom House in its annual report-card on democracies now cites the U.S. as “back-sliding” and only 83% free.
Appropriately, President Joe Biden, in opening the Summit, openly admitted America’s faltering performance of late as a democracy. “Here in the United States,” he said, “we know as well as anyone that renewing our democracy and strengthening our democratic institutions require constant effort.” Left unsaid was any reference to the insurrection of Jan. 6, but surely it was front of mind for all international attendees: Going into the summit, the commentariat widely speculated how America, so clearly deficient in tending its own democracy, could deign to lead.
What Pres. Biden did emphasize, however, is that democracy remains the pre-eminent, and historically unique, form of government that enshrines the rights of the individual, as opposed to the state. Democracy is “the best way to unleash human potential and defend human dignity.”
Thus our to-do list here at home, in the U.S.: Bolster democracy, notably around individual rights, now under assault by Trump’s anti-democratic movement. By “our,” I mean all small-d democrats, conscientious Americans of all stripes. As Mr. Biden says, “Democracy needs champions.”
Voting rights, federal level: Enact the two packages now in Congress — now, before the 2022 midterms, while Democrats control Congress (barely) and Mr. Biden can use his bully pulpit. All power in a democracy flows from the People and their vote: Ensuring each and every vote — now actively under assault by the GOP — is imperative. Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, lone Democratic holdouts, must be persuaded to do away with the filibuster. Wasn’t Vice-President Kamala Harris given this portfolio: to get these voting rights bills passed?
Voting rights, state level: Counter the Republican rollback of the franchise in the states. At this moment, Republicans in 19 Republican-controlled state legislatures have passed 33 bills that severely limit access to the ballot, per the Brennan Center for Justice. More — much more — must be done to push back at this blatantly anti-democratic move. Democrats should be filing lawsuits as fast as they can. We are a litigious country; let’s litigate.
The Jan. 6 investigation: The House select committee investigating the insurrection must ramp up and the press must spotlight the proceedings nonstop, as they are the best show-and-tell exhibit for the public to understand how central a role Trump, Inciter-in-Chief, played; how violent the rioters were; what anti-democratic anarchy looks like. To date, the committee, ably chaired by Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS) has done its due diligence — subpoenaing witnesses, citing some for contempt of Congress. But now, as The Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson urges, it must get “louder.” Crucially, procedural argle-bargle must be avoided; a compelling narrative must be crafted, not only of events, but how these events injure American democracy. (Kudos to GOP Rep. Liz Cheney for her cogent briefings.) All this must be done now, while Democrats control the House, because Republicans, if victorious in November, will scuttle this inquiry — and leave American democracy wide open for more political violence.
Control the small-d democratic narrative: In this struggle, words matter (“Defund the police” killed police reform). Trump and his allies should be labelled exactly what they are: “anti-democratic.” Same for the Jan. 6 “insurrectionists”; they were not “protesters.” Rinse, repeat.
Conduct a tutorial on democracy and its opposite: The Biden administration must take every opportunity to underscore how democracy works — and, conversely, its Nemesis. Meaning: It should tutor us how exactly strongman rule works (the word “autocracy” does not compute) — how elections truly are rigged; how voices of opposition are closed down or jailed; how state surveillance is all-pervasive; how a critical press gets labelled “the enemy of the state,” thus subject to arrest or even murder.
Bolster the press: Democracy, based on self-governance, cannot function without agreed-upon facts, reality, Truth. To do democracy’s work, the press is the delivery-system of actionable fact. Trump denigrated the press as “fake news” — and strongmen around the world adopted the label. (This, from the Summit of Democracy?) At a time of cutbacks and closings, the press, both local and national, needs our support, financial and moral.
Back to the Summit: While we in the U.S. have our to-do list, so do the democracies who attended. A follow-up meeting takes place next year, to “share progress” on these lists, as well as the global objectives of protecting human rights and fighting corruption.
Til then, expect more cynical commentary on the Summit’s utility. The Post’s editorial board, while supportive of Biden’s “pep rally,” waggishly noted that, under assault by the forces of anti-democracy headquartered in Moscow and Beijing, what does democracy do but…call a meeting? But far more meaning inheres in a democracy summit — and strongmen regimes know it. Why else did the ambassadors from Russia and China to the U.S. issue a joint statement accusing Pres. Biden of a “Cold War mentality” and — absurdly — claim they too are democracies? Summit attendees with questionable records on human rights still wish to be identified with Team Democracy. (As Oscar Wilde said, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”) Other critics claim such summits only more sharply divide the world into ideological camps, but as Atlantic’s Anne Applebaum writes, the “bad guys” are already doing that and, at the moment, they are winning.
Rather, it’s all to the good to reaffirm democracy as a value. As Timothy Snyder, author of “On Tyranny” and Yale University historian, states: “It’s important to name democracy as an aspiration. We’ve spent too long imagining that democracy is the normal state of affairs.” It is not, as current history shows; it needs repair and vigorous defending. While Russia views democracy as a joke and China views it a mess, Snyder says: “[D]emocracy is always a struggle. It’s never the status quo. The idea that the people should rule is always a radical idea and one you have to make sacrifices for or it will erode.”
For videos from the various panels at the Summit for Democracy, see here.