Last Thursday, U.S. President Joe Biden gave what may have been the most important speech of his Presidency. Set against the looming November midterms, the legal difficulties of his predecessor, and a series of unlikely legislative victories, the speech illustrated Biden’s politics and his understanding of the stakes of his presidency.
It is fair to say that reaction to the speech was varied. Republicans hated it, centrists worried that it was overly partisan and aggressive, and Democrats tended to celebrate it. We need to pay more attention, I think, to understanding the speech within the context of Joe Biden’s career and the evolution of the American electoral system.
Joe Biden’s Dark Framing
At the beginning of Joe Biden’s career in politics, it might have seemed absurd to think that an anti-democratic faction would take control of one of the two major parties and thus directly threaten the health of American democracy. Indeed, while former President Richard Nixon certainly broke the law in an effort to corrupt an election, he was eventually castigated by a majority of his own party. While Nixon eventually rehabilitated himself, he did not try to re-enter the political system. He most certainly did not attempt to take control of the GOP.
The contemporary Republican Party has utterly failed to come to grips with the anti-democratic elements in its ranks. Former President Donald Trump, in contrast to Nixon, has won the allegiance of nearly all prominent GOP political figures and continues to (poorly) hand-select candidates for state and national office across the country. The former president attempted a coup (an autogolpe, technically) designed to prevent the peaceful transfer of power. Despite some early criticism from some parts of the GOP, broad majorities of the party’s elected officials and the party’s popular base have embraced the coup attempt, and the former president’s lies about a stolen election. Framing the stakes of this conflict is entirely appropriate, even necessary.
In some ways there’s nothing particularly surprising about the response of the GOP. Trump is a popular figure with voters in the party, making it dangerous to cross him politically or to point out his many egregious lies. In global terms, it is not at all unusual for democratic systems to house anti-democratic parties. Sometimes these parties win elections, while at other times, they take power through other means but still retain a significant degree of their popularity. Authoritarians in Hungary, Russia, and China seem to enjoy significant support despite their contempt for democracy. In this sense, it is not surprising to see the Republican Party effectively reject electoral democracy in pursuit of a firmer grip on power.
Joe Biden’s Clear Warning
This is the context of President Joe Biden’s speech. It should be understood as a forthright effort to make clear the stakes that face America – and by extension, the world. Biden has worked in American politics for 50 years, during most of which he has enjoyed the reputation of a moderate reformer with a predilection for bipartisanship. What has changed in 2022 is that one political party believes in democracy, while the other does not. The willingness of the GOP to tolerate and even celebrate anti-democratic authoritarians within its ranks is undoubtedly a relevant consideration for midterm voters, and it is not wrong for the president to emphasize the stakes. Democratic systems can wither in any number of ways. The presence of enthusiastic authoritarians on the ballot cannot be laughed away and should not be ignored.
Joe Biden was correct to call out the former president and his allies as a force that intends to disrupt and corrupt American democracy. He was correct that the rest of the GOP has largely failed to manage that threat internally. For Republicans concerned about the president’s tone and who feel bad when they hear a factual description of their party, the course is clear: Repudiate Trump and his cronies thoroughly, punish those within the party who enabled his rise and work out a new relationship with the anti-democratic elements of its base.
The fault, dear GOP, is not in your stars but in yourselves.
Dr. Robert Farley has taught security and diplomacy courses at the Patterson School since 2005. He received his BS from the University of Oregon in 1997, and his Ph. D. from the University of Washington in 2004. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), and Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020). He has contributed extensively to a number of journals and magazines, including the National Interest, the Diplomat: APAC, World Politics Review, and the American Prospect. Dr. Farley is also a founder and senior editor of Lawyers, Guns, and Money.