Biden Can’t Stop America’s Democratic Decline

Biden Can’t Stop America’s Democratic Decline

A new administration won’t deliver the changes the country needs. Now it’s up to the U.S. public.

Afew years ago I developed a moderately cheering theory about the effects of four years of U.S. President Donald Trump. The thought came to me while I was covering the French presidential elections in 2017. Very few French voters seemed to be attracted to Emmanuel Macron’s Anglo-American brand of liberalism, but they voted for him in overwhelming numbers against Marine Le Pen because they felt called to defend so-called republican values against her populist nativism. The French had a collective memory of their own brush with fascism during the Vichy era and the 1930s. So, too, the Spanish, who kept their own right wing firmly in check. Perhaps, I thought, Americans’ own problem was historical complacency; if so, Trump could provide a kind of homeopathic remedy which would inoculate them against the full-blown disease of authoritarianism without making them gravely ill.

I was wrong. The democratic catharsis that I hoped this election would produce did not happen and is not happening. I need not recite the evidence, as so many others have, including Foreign Policy’s editor, Jonathan Tepperman. It is enough to say that my medical metaphor got it backward: Trump exploited a preexisting condition of contempt for democratic norms and then made it vastly worse.

What is to be done? And by whom? President-elect Joe Biden has said all the right things about bringing Americans together, and I don’t doubt that he will continue saying those things, because he believes them. As an old white guy, and a much-scarred, profoundly decent man, Biden may be a more suitable messenger than was former President Barack Obama, whose very identity as a Black man and Ivy League bearing ignited suspicion and resentment even as he issued passionate pleas for harmony. But how much can presidential rhetoric, and even symbolic deeds, accomplish?