President Biden has defined his platform broadly as an effort to show the world what democracies can offer.
But as he summons leaders from over 100 countries to a virtual “Democracy Summit” on Thursday, growing questions arise about the stability of America’s own democracy – and the credibility of a proselytizing president towards other democratic values which no longer seem to unite. his own country.
Recognizing the clumsiness of the United States in hosting such a summit when its own democratic institutions are under attack, an administration official told reporters that “the United States approaches the summit with humility.”
“The Biden-Harris administration has made it clear that efforts to strengthen democracy globally begin with working diligently and transparently to strengthen its foundations at home,” the official said on Tuesday, speaking under the guise of anonymity to get an overview of the event. The official added: “No democracy is perfect, including ourselves.”
Opening the summit Thursday morning, Biden expressed the same humility, saying that preserving democracy is “the defining challenge of our time,” while defining the two days of meetings as a chance for a range of nations to “lock in weapons “and to strengthen democratic institutions. .
“Democracy needs champions,” he said. “Here in the United States, we know it like everyone else, renewing our democracy and strengthening our democratic institutions takes constant effort.”
America’s struggles, experts say, can be traced to the tribalism, nihilism and authoritarianism that permeates the body politic in the wake of President Trump’s four-year tenure, electoral defeat, and campaign of lies that followed that the elections had been “stolen”. Many of its adherents believe deeply in the lie that Trump continues to spread, deepening the cracks in the democratic foundations of the country.
Republicans in Congress, who feared for their own lives on January 6 when thousands of Trump supporters violently overtook Capitol Hill police officers to stop Biden’s certification of victory, quickly reverted to a partisan stance in the face of the insurgency, mostly refusing to cooperate with a bipartisan investigation into the deadly riot, decrying it as a political witch hunt and even defending the insurgents.
At the same time, Republican lawmakers in several states – using Trump’s baseless fraud claims as a pretext – have passed laws restricting voter access and, in some cases, allowing state lawmakers to overrule the results. elections certified by traditionally non-partisan election officials.
Vice President Kamala Harris, addressing the summit Thursday afternoon, referred to the new laws, calling them “an intentional effort to prevent Americans from participating in our democracy.” Harris said protecting voting rights was “a top priority” of the Biden administration and pointed to increased efforts by the Department of Justice to enforce federal voting rights laws.
But Democrats have been unable to prepare a federal response, constrained by very slim majorities and lacking the unanimity required to get around the filibuster rule that requires 60 Senate votes to advance legislation.
“The United States has lost a lot of its moral authority on this in part because we are so divided and dysfunctional as a country, we have our own leaders who question the fairness of our institutions,” Nate said. Persily, professor of constitutional law at Stanford. “When leaders send signals to their adherents that democracy is ‘rigged’, it is not surprising that large sections of the population believe this, which can lead to violence. It is a prescription for instability.
The United States is not the only country facing such dangers. Many of those represented at the two-day conference are Democratic in name only – and the administration has already taken some criticism for its somewhat baffling guest list. The White House invited countries plagued by human rights abuses (e.g. Pakistan, which withdrew from the event on Wednesday) and led by aspiring autocrats (Brazil), while excluding from others (including Hungary, a member of the European Union, and Turkey, a North Atlantic Treaty Allied Organization) where democratic safeguards have collapsed in recent years.
Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said this week that the administration’s guest list was not intended to convey a “seal of approval” from each participating country.
Democracy has been receding around the world for years, a fall that has accelerated amid the COVID-19 pandemic as citizens frustrated by the duration of the crisis have become dissatisfied with the government’s responses, according to a new survey by Pew Research.
The current reality is a far cry from the supposedly inexorable turn towards democracy that many believed would take place after the end of the Cold War more than three decades ago. According to Freedom House, a Washington-based non-partisan organization that assesses democratic conditions around the world, a 15-year global decline in freedom has accelerated in recent years, with the United States falling sharply in recent times.
Michael Abramowitz, president of Freedom House, said the democracy summit was an acknowledgment of the troubling trend. “There is no doubt that there are problems in the United States, but it is important that Biden sets that marker,” he said. “The United States is still the largest and most influential democracy in the world. No one else could have had this summit and 100 countries would have come. “
Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken referred to the Freedom House data in a USA Today editorial on Wednesday, explaining why the administration felt the need to host the summit. “Democracy faces a moment of judgment,” he wrote, adding that “all participating governments will make concrete commitments to three goals: fighting authoritarianism, fighting corruption and protecting human rights” .
At the start of the summit, Biden announced a new pledge of $ 424 million to support initiatives to strengthen free and independent media, fight corruption, defend free and fair elections, strengthen democratic reformers, and harnessing technology for democratic renewal.
Susan Stokes, director of the Center on Democracy at the University of Chicago, said the summit was “a recognition that democracy is on the defensive around the world.” Even if the gathering “is a bit performative,” she said, it could have some impact.
“To have a summit that produces video and audio that can go back to a national audience in the United States and other countries that shows that there’s this group of people listening and talking about democratic values,” it can make a difference in the wider public sense of where the momentum is, ”Stokes said.
Brendan Nyhan, a political scientist in Dartmouth and founder of Bright Line Watch, a group that monitors the state of American democracy, suggested that strengthening partnerships around the cause of democracy is a pragmatic reaction to the authoritarian populist movements that are growing. in the world.
The “American conservatives are making pilgrimages to Hungary; far-right parties in Europe want to “make Austria even more beautiful” – this is an international movement. I don’t think people realize the allegiances that have been formed, ”Nyhan said.
“It is important to remind people that democracy is not a given,” he continued. “We only became a full democracy with the adoption of civil rights a few decades ago. And we could lose what we achieved. It is important for everyone in politics to remember that what we have inherited is not set in stone, is not taken for granted, and will not necessarily last forever.
Times editor-in-chief Noah Bierman contributed to this report.