President-elect Joe Biden will take office at a profoundly challenging moment for American democracy. His goals of healing the country and increasing unity may well be interpreted as an anodyne evasion of difficult policy choices. But taken seriously, achieving healing and unity are incredibly ambitious goals—perhaps even more difficult to accomplish today than increasing health care coverage, slowing the pace of climate change, or expanding racial inclusion. To heal and unify on a foundation of equality and democracy, Biden will have to reach beyond his rhetoric of decency and his formidable skills of senatorial deal-making that have served him well for five decades. He must recognize the profound weakness of our democracy in the current moment and resist the temptation to confuse healing with nostalgia and unity with mere bipartisan compromise.
To heal and unify the nation, Biden will have to reach beyond his rhetoric of decency. He must recognize the profound weakness of our democracy in the current moment.
Trump’s presidency has been marked by a constant sense of crisis, so it can be easy to romanticize bygone days. But unity certainly cannot mean a return to the past. While the vast majority of Biden’s political experience has benefitted from a world that took for granted the democratic minimum—accepting electoral outcomes and transferring power peacefully—this election demonstrates how long-term forces of bitter partisanship, record inequality, and racial exclusion have eroded the foundations of our democracy to the brink of collapse. Despite clear judgments by state election officials and major news networks that Biden has secured an Electoral College win, it remains unclear when, even if, Trump will concede. At this writing, most Republican leaders have yet to acknowledge Biden’s victory. But even though Trump’s electoral manipulation strategy is particularly egregious, it extends long-term anti-democratic trends.
The truth is that our democracy has been fragile for a long while. Many state legislators now depend upon gerrymandered districts. As conservative movement luminary Paul Weyrich explained in 1980, “I don’t want everybody to vote” because “our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.” Even more than in recent elections, this year’s has been a fight not just about ideas and policies, but about the shape and scope of the franchise: who will be able to vote, how much representation they will get, and whose vote will count. This war has been waged in battles over gerrymandering, automatic voter registration, and voter identification laws. This year, the war expanded to several new fronts: the conduct of the decennial census, availability and security of vote-by-mail, and even the density of deposit locations for ballots.
A tragic dimension of American exceptionalism is that our politics have polarized not just around issues and political identities but over the constitution of the electorate itself. Parties and politicians increasingly use their power to pick voters who will be more favorable to them, rather than voters picking the politicians who best represent their interests and values. Trump’s refusal to acknowledge the election results—and groundless charges of widespread voting fraud—may have the lasting effect of sowing even greater public cynicism about legitimacy of our elections and so create wider latitude of politicians to manipulate the electoral rules to their advantage. This polarized, willful destruction of our democratic foundations means that large numbers of Americans will reject the legitimacy of Biden’s presidency.
We must repudiate the cynical and self-serving manipulation of democratic processes. Will Biden lead that charge?
A true and deep healing of the nation will require all of us to repudiate the cynical and self-serving manipulation of democratic processes and to reject those who engage in such schemes. Will Biden lead that charge? To do so, he must take three steps: make democracy a policy priority, persuade Americans that the integrity of their democracy is more important than winning, and empower citizens at the expense of political leaders. All three go against type.
On November 8, the Biden-Harris team announced four policy priorities: the pandemic, economic recovery, racial justice, and climate change. Democracy was not among them—perhaps because, like most administrations before them, this team takes it for granted. Or, worse still, perhaps they think prioritizing democracy would trigger the sort of partisan conflict they would rather avoid. But Biden must recognize that the real threat to his governing legitimacy, and the real absence of an overwhelming mandate. Unless we bolster its foundations, our enfeebled democracy won’t be able to solve any of the daunting problems Biden has singled out as top priorities.
Not that it will be easy. Facilitating more accessible voting or expanding non-partisan redistricting will surely elicit Republicans accusations of a Democratic power grab. Senator Mitch McConnell said just that in his criticism of House Resolution 1, the so-called “For the People Act,” a bill with excellent proposals—from non-partisan redistricting, automatic voter registration, early voting, online registration, campaign finance disclosure, and great public financing of campaigns. Faced with stiff opposition, Biden should not strike a deal that splits the difference with Republican adversaries on these badly needed reforms; democratic principles should not be compromised for the sake of balancing partisan advantage. Rather, he should use legislative initiatives as an opportunity to go loud and go public and to persuade tens of millions of Americans to put country before party. Central to this argument will be acknowledging that many politicians are indeed motivated to degrade democracy to preserve their own power.
Biden should not strike a deal that splits the difference with Republican adversaries on badly needed democratic reforms.
But this effort need not stop at top-down political persuasion: in can also include bottom-up citizen participation. Biden can directly strengthen democratic institutions—and build momentum for non-partisan support for pro-democracy reforms—by empowering ordinary citizens to make findings and recommendations about how his administration and Congress should address threats like voter suppression, gerrymandering, and the outsize influence of money in politics. He could, for example, appoint citizen’s commissions on democracy or support a series of national conversations. We have many models of citizen bodies to draw upon, such as redistricting commissions in California and Michigan as well as recent constitutional revision processes in Iceland and Ireland. In our environment of hyper-partisanship and suspicion of political leaders, citizens should take the lead in reimagining and rebuilding our democratic foundations.
However this battle plays out, Biden should resist the temptation to confuse unity and healing with mere insider politicking. The rise of powerful social movements on the right and the left marks another critical difference between our political moment and the decades in which Biden honed his political skills of conciliation and negotiation. Biden has partly acknowledged the power of those movements in choosing Kamala Harris to be the nation’s first black and first female vice president. But if unity and healing is misconstrued as the number of deals that can be struck in a polarized Congress, Biden will be tempted to sideline unruly progressive social movements from the Movement for Black Lives, Sunrise, and March for Our Lives to the ongoing work of #MeToo, labor groups, and the inheritors of Occupy Wall Street. Taming and shutting out such extra-institutional forces is a well-practiced method among political insiders for enlarging the deal space with partisan colleagues on the other side of the aisle.
In our environment of hyper-partisanship and suspicion of political leaders, citizens should take the lead in reimagining and rebuilding our democratic foundations.
We must not mistake congressional compromise for genuine healing of America at large. The social movements that have accrued such power arose in response to deep injuries from economic need, inequality, racism, and insults to dignity. Marginalizing their work to facilitate the familiar insider political compromises of the past would exacerbate actual pain for the sake of superficial unity. Biden’s task is to integrate these forces into a larger conversation that recognizes our deep differences but charts how we can move forward together on the once-in-a-century existential challenges we face—the pandemic, record economic inequality, climate change, and democratic fragility. His presidency can be transformative, and if he meets that challenge, it will be.