Earlier today, in anticipation of tonight’s address to Congress, President Joe Biden met with news anchors. The president told them that his many meetings with foreign leaders, including Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping, have convinced him that the story of this moment is whether democracy can survive the challenges of the twenty-first century. As things speed up, is it possible, he asked, to achieve the consensus necessary for democracy in time to compete with autocracy?
He told the anchors that “they’re going to write about this point in history.”
Biden nailed it. The struggle to preserve democracy is precisely what the story of this moment is—although it started long ago in the U.S., at least—and historians are already writing about it that way.
In the United States, the move toward oligarchy had been underway for decades. First, Movement Conservatives, who wanted to destroy the liberal state President Franklin Delano Roosevelt created, increasingly grabbed power through voter suppression, gerrymandering, filling the courts with originalist judges, focusing on the idea of the so-called “unitary executive,” and propaganda. Once they controlled the Republican Party, their techniques left it open to a leader like Trump to gather power to himself alone. Their admiration for oligarchy left them open to autocracy.
And now the Republican Party appears to have embraced Trump over any principles the party once held. Its leaders support the Big Lie that Trump won the election and are exercising their control of certain state legislatures to cement their power in enough states to control the federal government. They are passing laws to restrict voting and outlaw protesting; at the same time they have given up on policy and are relying on such blatant propaganda that just yesterday a writer for the pro-Trump New York Post felt obliged to quit after writing a completely fabricated story.
Biden is calling this move to autocracy like it is, and making a bid to shift the course of the nation.
Today, the Department of Justice executed search warrants on both the Manhattan home and the office of Trump’s ally and former lawyer Rudy Giuliani as part of an investigation into Giuliani’s adventures in Ukraine as he tried to dig up dirt on Biden’s son Hunter. Experts say such a search against a lawyer, and against a president’s former lawyer, to boot, is extraordinary. To get a warrant, investigators had to convince a judge that they believed it would turn up evidence of a crime that they knew had been committed. Political appointees in Trump’s Department of Justice had blocked such a warrant in the past, but Attorney General Merrick Garland lifted the block.
Federal officials also executed a search warrant on Victoria Toensing, a media personality and lawyer associated with Giuliani on his Ukraine work. The details of that search are still murky (but my long-time readers will be pleased to know that Lev Parnas is relevant).
Also today, federal prosecutors have added conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction to the charges against three men who allegedly plotted to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, and a jury in New York today convicted a Trump supporter of making a death threat against elected officials for his statements in a video he posted online after the January 6 insurrection calling for the “slaughter” of Democratic senators. The penalty for such a crime is up to ten years in prison.
While authorities seem finally to be exploring the potential lawbreaking of the previous administration, Biden is properly entrusting law enforcement to the branch of government responsible for it, leaving the actions of the previous administration to the Department of Justice and state and local authorities. He is also refusing to engage in the rhetorical brawls the right wing is trying to spark, ignoring, for example, the ridiculous story that he was going to outlaw the consumption of meat, or that the federal government had bought and distributed copies of Vice President Kamala Harris’s children’s book to incoming refugees, both of which then blew up in the faces of those who had pushed them.
Instead, Biden is advancing a vision of an active government that levels the legal, economic, and social playing field for all Americans. While observers tend to associate this vision with FDR, who gave us our modern government, in fact that vision has been shared by all our greatest presidents.
Indeed, it was Republican Abraham Lincoln who first proposed the idea that the country does best when government guarantees equality before the law and works to guarantee equality of resources to all. Under Lincoln, the Republican Party established public colleges, put farmers on land, built railroads, and backed Black equality before the law, paying for those things with our first national taxes, including an income tax.
Republican Theodore Roosevelt took that idea a step further, addressing the extremes of industrialization with a federal government strong enough to regulate business and provide support for labor. Democrat FDR went much further, using the government not just to regulate business but to provide a basic social safety net—Social Security and the Works Progress Administration, for example—and to promote infrastructure through investments like the Tennessee Valley Authority, which brought electricity and flood control to what had been a neglected region, and the Civilian Conservation Corps, which enabled men to recover the landscape from the ravages of the Dust Bowl.
Biden is in the mold of such predecessors, but his vision is new. He wants the government to support all Americans, beginning not with the ability of a man to support his family but with the idea of protecting children. Since the beginning of his presidency, he has focused on rebuilding the economy by improving the conditions in which children live—famously, reformers credited his American Rescue Plan with reducing by half the number of children living in poverty—and with the plan he announced tonight, he illustrated this reworking of society by investing in our children.
The American Families Plan calls for investing $1.8 trillion in education, providing free schooling from pre-kindergarten through community college. It calls for funding for childcare and paid family medical leave, and it includes more money for fighting child poverty. Biden plans to pay for this, in part, by enforcing existing tax laws which wealthy people and corporations currently slide by, raising as much as $700 billion. Biden also proposes increasing the top tax rate from 37% to 39.6%, the rate it was under President George W. Bush, and by increasing the capital gains rate.
“The question of whether our democracy will long endure is both ancient and urgent,” Biden reminded us tonight, in an echo of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. “Can our democracy deliver on its promise that all of us —created equal in the image of God—have a chance to lead lives of dignity, respect, and possibility? Can our democracy deliver on the most pressing needs of our people? Can our democracy overcome the lies, anger, hate and fears that have pulled us apart?”
The world’s autocrats are betting it can’t, Biden said. But he listed the accomplishments of the past 99 days, when the people of the United States came together to administer 200 million doses of vaccine and create hundreds of thousands of jobs and he pointed out: “It’s never been a good bet to bet against America.”
“Our Constitution opens with the words, ‘We the People,’” Biden reminded his listeners tonight. And “it’s time we remembered that We the People are the government. You and I. Not some force in a distant capital. Not some powerful force we have no control over. It’s us. It’s ‘We the people.’”
And if we remember that and come together, he said, “then we will meet the central challenge of the age by proving that democracy is durable and strong.” “The autocrats will not win the future….