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September 25, 2021
For weeks now, I have vowed that I would finish these letters early and get to bed before midnight, and for weeks now, I have finally finished around three in the morning. That was not the case two years ago, when I started writing these at the start of the Ukraine crisis: it was rare enough for me to be writing until midnight that I vividly remember the first time it happened.
I got to thinking today about why things seem more demanding today than they did two years ago, and it strikes me that what makes the writing more time consuming these days is that we have two all-consuming stories running in parallel, and together they illuminate the grand struggle we are in for the survival of American democracy.
On the one hand we have the former president and the attempts by him and his loyalists to seize control of our country regardless of the will of the majority of voters, while Republican Party leaders are refusing to speak out in the hopes that they can retain power to continue advancing their agenda.
Since the 1980s, this branch of the Republican Party has tried to dismantle the government in place since the 1930s that tries to protect equality in America, regulating business, providing a basic social safety net, and promoting infrastructure. Members of this faction of the Republican Party—the faction that is now in control of it—want to take the government back to the 1920s, when businessmen controlled the government, operating it to try to create a booming economy without regard for social or environmental consequences.
Although initially unhappy at Donald Trump’s elevation to the White House, that faction embraced him as he advanced the tax cuts, deregulation, and destruction of government offices they believed were central to freeing businessmen to advance the economy. Believing that Democrats’ determination to use the government to level the playing field among Americans would destroy the individualism that supports the economy, they had come to believe that Democrats could not legitimately govern the country. And so, members of this Republican faction did not back away when Trump refused to accept the election of a Democratic president in 2020.
Almost a year later, the leadership of the Republican Party, composed now as it is of Trump loyalists, is undermining our democracy. It has fallen in line behind Trump’s Big Lie that he and not Biden won the 2020 election, and that the Democratic Party engaged in voter fraud to install their candidate. This is a lie, but Republicans at the state level are using that lie to justify new election laws that suppress Democratic votes and put control of state elections into their own hands. If those laws are allowed to stand, we will be a democracy in name only. We will likely still have elections, but, just as in Russia or Hungary now, the mechanics of the system will mean that only the president’s party can win.
This attack on our democracy is unprecedented, and it cannot be ignored. Tonight, for example, Trump held a “rally” in Perry, Georgia, where, to cheers, he straight up lied that the recent “audit” in Arizona proved he won the 2020 election. And yet, to overemphasize the antics of the former president and his supporters enables them to grow to larger proportions than they deserve, feeding their power. Tonight, for example, Newsmax and OAN covered Trump’s rally live, but the Fox News Channel did not, and the audience appeared bored.
On the other hand, in contrast to the former president's party, President Joe Biden and the Democrats are trying to demonstrate that democracy actually works. Rather than simply fighting the Republicans, which would permit the Republicans to define the terms under which they govern, they are defending the active government the Republicans have set out to destroy. Biden has been clear since he took office that he intends to strengthen democracy abroad, where it is under pressure from rising autocratic governments, by strengthening it at home.
To that end, he and the Democrats in Congress have aggressively worked to pass legislation that benefits ordinary Americans. The wait for such legislation to appear can be frustrating, but that is in part because the Democrats are actually doing the kind of work that used to be commonplace in Congress: hammering out compromises, finding votes, arguing, amending legislation.
Today, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) released a letter she sent to her caucus, telling members they must vote this week to pass a continuing resolution to fund the government, as well as the two major infrastructure bills on which they have been working for months: the Build Back Better Act and the bipartisan infrastructure bill. While news stories have often turned the negotiations over these bills into a fight between moderate and progressive Democrats, it is important to remember that while a handful of Republicans were willing to agree to rebuild roads and bridges and to bring broadband to rural areas, most of them are simply not negotiating at all. They reject the idea that the government should invest in infrastructure, especially that kind outlined in the Build Back Better measure: infrastructure involving childcare, elder care, and climate change. And if they can run out the clock and convince voters that government can’t get anything done, so much the better.
Democrats disagree about the details of their measures—exactly as one would expect from a big-tent party—but they all accept the principle that the government should actively help ordinary Americans. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) might disagree on the size of the infrastructure package they want, but they both agree that the government should support infrastructure.
Republicans reject that idea, standing instead on the principle that the government should simply stay out of the way of businessmen, who are better equipped to manage the country than bureaucrats. The Charles Koch–backed Americans for Prosperity, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the National Federation of Independent Business are all pouring money into defeating the $3.5 trillion Build Back Better bill, warning: “A government takeover of our economy is a fundamental departure from the spirit of entrepreneurialism we’ve relied on for generations to drive prosperity, and there’s only one outcome—unmitigated economic disaster that will be difficult to reverse.”
The profound disagreement between the Republicans and the Democrats over the role of government has led to a profound crisis in our democracy. Democrats’ argument that the government should work for ordinary Americans is popular, so popular that Republicans have apparently given up convincing voters their way is better. Through voter suppression, gerrymandering, the filibuster, and the Electoral College, and now with new election laws in 18 states, they have guaranteed that they will retain control no matter what voters actually want. Their determination to keep Democrats from power has made them abandon democracy.
For their part, Democrats are trying to protect the voting rights at the heart of our democracy, believing that if all eligible Americans can vote, they will back a government that works for the people.
And so, the task of writing these letters has gotten more complicated of late. I try to detail the growing threat that the Republicans will succeed in destroying our democracy while also explaining the ways in which the Biden administration is trying to move beyond the current crisis to demonstrate the vitality of American democracy.
And, always, I try to keep front and center that these fights are not academic. They are, fundamentally, a fight to determine whether a nation, “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal...can long endure.”