There are lots of policy questions we should focus on over the next 10 weeks: the COVID pandemic, the economic recovery, the climate crisis, systemic racism in our criminal justice system, the wealth gap, expanding access to health care. There are political matters, too: the devolution of the MAGA Republican Party into a grifters club, Democrats’ insistence on relegating the activist left to the kids table.
But as November nears, I’m convinced all of that is secondary. Foremost is something more foundational: Will we allow the continued erosion of democratic fundaments, or will we arrest our hastening slide into authoritarianism?
A more eloquent version of this idea was the centerpiece of Barack Obama’s speech during the Democratic National Convention last week, an unusually scorching takedown of his successor.
“Donald Trump hasn’t grown into the job because he can’t,” Obama said. “And the consequences of that failure are severe. One hundred seventy thousand Americans dead. Millions of jobs gone while those at the top take in more than ever. Our worst impulses unleashed, our proud reputation around the world badly diminished, and our democratic institutions threatened like never before.”
He continued: “This president and those in power — those who benefit from keeping things the way they are — they are counting on your cynicism. They know they can’t win you over with their policies. So they’re hoping to make it as hard as possible for you to vote, and to convince you that your vote doesn’t matter. That’s how they win. That’s how they get to keep making decisions that affect your life, and the lives of the people you love. That’s how the economy will keep getting skewed to the wealthy and well-connected, how our health systems will let more people fall through the cracks. That’s how a democracy withers, until it’s no democracy at all.”
His point — unspoken though not difficult to intuit — was this: As much as Joe Biden is on the ballot, democracy is on the ballot. Whatever you think of Biden is irrelevant. Win this war before you fight the next one.
I was also struck by the emotional dissonance between this speech and the sunny optimism of the 2004 DNC address that launched Obama into the national spotlight: “Now even as we speak, there are those who are preparing to divide us, the spin masters and negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of anything goes. Well, I say to them tonight, there’s not a liberal America and a conservative America; there’s the United States of America. There’s not a Black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America. … We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.”
In 16 years, we went from “we are one people” to the despair of “our worst impulses unleashed” and the desperation of “that’s how a democracy withers.”
The boyish Obama of 2004 reflected the America of Hollywood imaginations; his was a Sorkin-esque appeal to our better angels to bridge insignificant partisan divides. The wizened Obama of 2020 knows better. This wasn’t a speech about the America we want to be; it was a speech about the America we might become.
The first was a promise, the second a warning.
When the primaries began, Biden wasn’t anyone’s platonic ideal of a standard-bearer. His campaign wasn’t rooted in ambitious visions or big ideas. His pitch was his humanity — he’s Joey, a decent, empathetic guy who’s persevered through unimaginable loss and would rather be a good man than a great one.
He wasn’t there to change the country, just to save it.
In most elections — against a different opponent, without the backdrop of a pandemic and an economic crisis — that wouldn’t suffice.
But as I watched the DNC, I realized that Trump is a script-perfect foil for Biden: quiet competence to bombastic failure; knowing steadiness to perpetual tumult; the warmth of your favorite grandfather who is going to fix this mess because he still loves you, goddammit, to the uncouthness of your belligerent drunk uncle who caused the mess but blames everyone else for it.
That doesn’t tell us if he’ll be good at the job, of course.
I have reservations. Biden is moored to political instincts and advisers two decades past their sell-by date, which hints at pusillanimity. Perhaps, though, he’ll rise to the occasion. As Biden noted during his acceptance speech, “America’s history tells us that it has been in our darkest moments that we’ve made our greatest progress. That we’ve found the light. And in this dark moment, I believe we are poised to make great progress again.”
But even if he’s a mediocrity, President Biden will be a victory merely by his existence. America will have rejected a lawless regime. The new White House will take the pandemic seriously; climate change, too. Justice Ginsburg can retire. And the country will remember that the federal government wasn’t always a clown car of incompetents, white nationalists, obsequious lickspittles, and con men.
We will live to fight another day.
As Obama put it, “You can give our democracy new meaning. You can take it to a better place. … That work will continue long after this election. But any chance of success depends entirely on the outcome of this election. This administration has shown it will tear our democracy down if that’s what it takes to win.”
In other words, to fight the next war, you have to win this one.
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