These remarks were presented as a lecture at the closing session of the 2021 Democracy & Diversity Graduate Summer Institute of the Transregional Center for Democratic Studies, New School for Social Research. The author thanks Jeff Goldfarb, Elzbieta Matynia, Lala Pop and Jack Wells for their help with this text.
Joe Biden’s Presidential campaign centered on a simple message: Donald Trump represented a grave threat to constitutional democracy in the U.S., and a Biden presidency could put an end to that threat. Biden won the Democratic nomination and, in November 2020, he won the presidential election. He has held office since January 20. But the legitimacy of his election continues to be rejected by Trump and by a Republican party committed to supporting Trump and restoring a Trumpist government. Is Biden doing all that he can do to make good on his promise to defeat Trumpism and strengthen constitutional democracy? Does the Biden administration represent a new beginning, or a brief calm before the return of a great storm? As I look to the 2022 midterm elections and the 2024 presidential election, I see dark storm clouds on the horizon.
“ . . . historical processes are created and constantly interrupted by human initiative, by the initium man is insofar as he is an acting being. Hence it is not in the least superstitious, it is even a counsel of realism, to look for the unforeseeable and unpredictable, to be prepared for and to expect ‘miracles’ in the political realm. And the more heavily the scales are weighted in favor of disaster, the more miraculous will the deed done in freedom appear . . . “
Hannah Arendt, “What Is Freedom?” (1961).
Hi. It is my great pleasure to be here today to talk to you, and with you, about whether the Biden administration represents a new beginning for American democracy. And I’d like to thank my dear friends and colleagues Elzbieta Matynia, Lala Pop, and Jeff Goldfarb for welcoming me as a partner in the important work that they do, and for inviting me to give this talk, in which I will share some thoughts, and also be very eager to hear your thoughts and respond to your questions.
To cut to the chase, I believe that the Biden administration represents a change from what preceded it, and it offers a real sense of relief, but almost certainly does not represent a new beginning for American democracy. And we all ought to be very worried about American democracy and whether it can survive both further erosion and the cynical and malevolent attacks being leveled against it by a Republican party that is becoming more authoritarian, and perhaps even neo-fascistic, by the day. This is no cause for despair. But it is reason to adopt a hopefulness that is thoroughly realistic, in the sense mentioned above by Arendt, but also in a more Weberian, strategic sense. There are resources on which to draw for the defense of democracy. But they are pretty frail. And we sure would benefit from some kind of political “miracle.”
But before I briefly develop this argument, I’d like to begin with what is perhaps a paradox: The theme of “new beginnings” is a fitting theme with which to end this year’s Democracy & Diversity Graduate Summer Institute of the Transregional Center for Democratic Studies.
There are three reasons why.
First, because the Center一a program of the New School for Social Research一has always taken its bearings from the initiatives of those Central European anti-communist dissidents of the 1960’s, 70’s and ‘80’s who themselves were inspired, in part, by the thinking of Hannah Arendt about the creative possibilities of political agency. Arendt ended a truly dark book, Origins of Totalitarianism, with these words: “every end in history necessarily contains a new beginning . . . Beginning, before it becomes a historical event, is the supreme capacity of man; politically, it is identical with man’s freedom.” The theme of natality, and the possibility of initiating something new in the world that comes with every new birth, was one of the overriding themes of Arendt’s entire corpus; and it is also a lesson of the “Revolutions of 1989.”
Second, because this ending of the summer program is a terminus, a culmination, but also a new beginning for you students, as individuals and as a “cohort,” who will take whatever you have experienced and learned during these weeks with you, as you move forward in your careers and your lives, as public intellectuals and as citizens.
And, finally, because we inhabit dark times, and face real forms of human degradation and injustice, and new forms of political authoritarianism, and we are all eager to discern new openings, new possibilities to improve rather than to degrade our world, and to act一in word and deed一to foster these openings and realize these possibilities.
And so the question of new beginnings is an apt one.
There is no single way to even describe the current situation in the world. And for each of us, where we are in the world, and how we experience the world from that location and that history, will play an important role in our descriptions as well as our prescriptions.
At the same time, I think it is fair to say that the work of the Transregional Center, and of the Democracy Seminar to which it is linked, is focused on the current global threats to liberal democracy一in countries ranging from Hungary and Poland to Brazil and India to Turkey and Russia to South Africa to the U.S.一and on the ways that supporters of liberal democracy can work to support, strengthen, and deepen this kind of regime一a regime which is flawed, fragile, disappointing, and yet indispensable to the practice of freedom in the modern world.
With that premise in mind, I will briefly expand on two basic points: that Trumpism poses a continuing threat to liberal democracy in the U.S., and that the Biden administration seems neither poised nor well-equipped to counter this threat. I will then conclude, with a nod to the Arendt quote that is my epigraph, by briefly reflecting on what those of us who wish to counter this threat can and should do, or at least think about doing.
The Dark Shadow of Trumpism
What happens in the U.S. matters a lot in the world, because of the economic, geopolitical, and cultural power of the U.S.. And the ascendancy of Donald Trump to the pinnacle of governing power in the U.S. in 2016, and the past four years of the Trump administration, generated much understandable fear一and loathing一for many U.S. citizens, and indeed for those, everywhere, who care about the fate of liberal democracy (of course, these developments have also generated much excitement, and even fanaticism, on the parts of authoritarian nationalists everywhere).
Nothing springs from nothing. And, as sad as it is to admit, Donald Trump exists, and is something, not nothing一though for years I regularly posted on Facebook that he is a blight on Being itself!一and so he did not spring from nothing. Trump was born, politically, by a situation: the long-term shift to the right of the Republican party一what my colleagues Sandy Schram and Richard Fording call in their new book the hard white; the fecklessness of the Democratic party under Obama, especially in responding to the financial crisis of 2008; a powerful racist backlash against Obama; and the more general erosion of political parties, the decline of journalism, and the toxic virality made possible by Twitter, Facebook, and digital media more generally.
Trumpism was, and is, an effect.
But it also became a malignant cause. Trump’s ascendance on the public stage, and his uniquely virulent way of acting on this stage, brought into existence a new and grotesque form of politics. This politics is still with us, and it is the major source of my worry about the future of democracy.
Trump in office did his best to gut the core institutions of liberal democracy in the U.S., to press the rule of law to the breaking point, and to poison public life. He generated hysteria, disinformation, conspiracy theories and even, in the ongoing response of his most ardent followers to COVID-19, a kind of death cult. Trump fomented rage and encouraged and even incited violence.
He almost succeeded in overturning the November election and retaining power via a kind of “coup.”
He did not succeed in that.
But he did succeed in completely capturing the Republican party.
He succeeded in winning almost 73 million votes一almost six million more votes than he received in 2016, before the half-million pandemic deaths he helped to cause. In other words, his murderous negligence in the face of Covid earned him millions of new voters.
And he set in motion, during his four years in office and especially in the months since the election, a series of dangerous authoritarian efforts, from the January 6 insurrection to the ongoing “Stop the Steal” hysteria to the voting rights restrictions and other anti-democratic measures that are currently being enacted by statehouse Republicans across the country.
All the same, Trump exited the White House on January 20, and Joe Biden was inaugurated the new president. A traumatic end, and a new beginning一but only in a way.
Biden represents an end to the (first?) Trump administration, but not an end to Trumpism, and not a “new beginning”一though the story of the current government is still unfolding.
Trump’s defeat, and Biden’s victory, represented a moment of real hopefulness about the future. Ever since Biden had become the Democratic nominee, many commentators had been playing up the similarities between his situation and the situation facing FDR in 1932. Biden himself began referencing FDR and talking about a “New New Deal.” His campaign did a good job of bringing the progressive wing of the party, and especially the supporters of Bernie Sanders, within his fold. In office Biden has mainly done and said the right things.
The Atlantic’s Anand Giridharadas, in a piece entitled “Welcome to the New Progressive Era,” spoke for many when he expressed hopefulness that Biden might rise to the occasion and “recognize an opening when history ripped one open right before his eyes. Maybe he will lead the parade through that space into a new era, not because this has always been his crusade, but precisely because it hasn’t一because he, like much of the country, bought into the old assumptions, and he, like much of the country, now doesn’t.”
I share the hope that this might happen.
But I also think that the likelihood it will happen is very slim.
The Republican party is currently conducting an all-out assault on constitutional democracy, and it is succeeding.
Over 20 restrictive voting laws have already been enacted this year in Republican-controlled states, and many more such laws are currently in the process of being enacted一most notably in Texas, where Democratic state legislators have fled the state to break a quorum in order to prevent passage, and where the Trumpist Republican Governor has threatened to have them arrested when they return to their homes.
And even more ominously, the threat posed by right-wing and white supremacist militias has never been greater. A substantial number of Trumpist intellectuals一many associated with the Claremont Institute and its publications, Claremont Review of Books and The American Mind, disparage liberal constitutionalism and unabashedly invoke the rhetoric of war. As former Republican strategist Matthew Dowd has repeatedly argued, Republican hostility to democracy “is the most important issue of our time and . . . it’s actually the most important issue in the last 150 years since the civil war, because we’re at that point in our history where this could really fall apart. Our grand experiment could completely fall apart.” Conservative writer Damon Linker has similarly warned that: “The threat of civil war didn’t end with the Trump presidency: The stage is being set for even more electoral turbulence.”
In a recent piece, George Shulman notes thatwhile Trump may have lost the election, “his defeat further radicalized the party, even as it retained its grip on state and local governments.” Schulman suggests that many of the roughly 73 million people一mostly white, across class lines一who voted to reelect Trump, did so not in spite of but because of his hostility to racial minorities, liberals, and the Democratic party. Further, most of these people still do not regard Biden as the legitimate president of the U.S.
According to a recent IPSOS poll, 56% of Republicans believe the election was stolen by the Democrats, and 53% of Republicans somehow believe that Donald Trump, and not Joe Biden, is actually the current President (at the same time, others apparently believe the QAnon prediction that Trump will return to the Capitol in August to be reinstated as the rightful president一a prediction that apparently seriously worries some Homeland Security officials). These beliefs are widely and intensely promulgated by social media and Fox News broadcasts, and are reinforced by large numbers of evangelical churches. They have become the “common sense” of millions of Americans who, in the words of former conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin, inhabit “a meaner, alternative universe.”
The past week has seen the publication of a number of pieces that amplify this danger.
And Bright Line Watch just published a report, based on June surveys of both public opinion and experts, arguing that “Americans have reason to worry about the state of their democracy.”
President Biden has consistently criticized these developments, most strongly in a major address last week, in which he explicitly denounced the “assault on democracy” and intoned that “we shall overcome.”
He declared that his Justice Department is dedicated to doing what it can to enforce what is left of the Voting Rights Act and to protect free and fair elections.
And he strongly endorsed the passage of the two main pieces of legislation designed to strengthen voting rights nationally一the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Restoration Act.
But the Democratic majority in the Senate is slim and weak; Republicans have succeeded in obstructing this legislation; and key Democratic Senators, most notably Joe Manchin, refuse to challenge the Senate’s archaic filibuster rule that requires any legislation to receive sixty votes in order to pass.
Biden’s speech employed stirring rhetoric; but it was politically disappointing.
Ronald Brownstein, writing in The Atlantic, highlighted “The Tool That Biden Refuses To Use,” argued that by ignoring the filibuster, and refusing to come out against it, Biden did not “go far enough.” Brownstein’s piece is excellent, and it quotes from a wide range of voting rights activists who were disappointed by what Biden did not say.
The result: the Republican party is whittling away at democracy一actually, it is hacking, not whittling一and the Democratic party appears to be too weak and disorganized to stop it. It is possible that behind the scenes there is movement taking place on important voting rights legislation. But what we know is that such legislation seems stalled, time is of the essence, and voting rights activists expected and expect much more, and much sooner, from the Biden-headed Democratic government.
Biden sits in the White House. For now.
But, as Ed Kilgore points out in a recent piece, it is quite likely, if history is a guide, that Democrats will lose their House majority in 2022 and their Senate majority in 2024, and it is also very likely that “the 2024 presidential election will be close, even if Trump is the GOP nominee.” And even if Democrats are able to win these elections, the results will almost certainly be close enough to incline Republicans to follow the tactics pioneered in 2020 and continued now一delays, audits, statehouse efforts to overturn election results一and seek to contest and overturn the results by any means necessary.
There is real urgency here.
And activists understand the danger. Groups like Stacey Abrams’s Fair Fight Action, Black Voters Matter, The Poor People’s Campaign, Indivisible, and coalitions such as Deadline for Democracy and Declaration for American Democracy, are mobilizing over the summer to press Biden and the Democrats to eliminate or at least set aside the filibuster rule and force through passage of the For the People Act and the John Lewis Act. It is possible that they might succeed, and that this will place some obstacles in the way of what I have elsewhere called Republican efforts to “Orbanify the U.S.” It is also possible that voter mobilization efforts in 2022 and 2024 might succeed in preventing a Republican recapture of the national government, and averting a disaster for civil rights, women’s rights, labor rights, environmental policy, and constitutional democracy itself.
Such successes face real obstacles; while possible, they are not very probable. But in any case they hardly represent dramatic political victories or political new beginnings, and might more aptly be described as “holding disaster at bay.”
It will take real effort to do even this. And it will take much greater effort—and much good fortune—to build the kind of strong democratic majority that can sustain an ambitious agenda of policy reform, perhaps after 2024, but not likely before.
But what is the alternative to making the effort? As Hannah Arendt noted, in human affairs things don’t simply happen, and while the scales might be heavily “weighted in favor of disaster,” there are nonetheless reasons for a certain hopefulness.
One source of hope lies in the voter mobilizations that succeeded in delivering the House to the Democrats in 2018, and in delivering the Senate and the Presidency to the Democrats in 2020, even if by very slim margins. The success in flipping the state of Georgia furnishes an example, and it is inspiring those organizations and individuals, named above, who are now working hard to press for voting rights legislation and a broader political mobilization. The recent actions of Texas statehouse Democrats provide another source of inspiration.
A second source of hope lies in the freedoms we yet still enjoy. Liberal democracy is threatened in the U.S. But the U.S. is not Belarus or Russia, and not even Hungary or Poland. Authoritarianism casts a dark shadow, and has made real inroads. But we still enjoy freedom of association, and the existence of autonomous professional and academic institutions, and media institutions not captured by the authoritarians. And indeed while the Democratic party has not yet proven itself to be strong agent of change, it represents at least a bulwark against complete “Orbanification.” The political contests一in the courts, in state and national legislatures, in elections一of the next few years matter.
And there is, finally, the existential and metaphysical source of hopefulness emphasized by Arendt一the possibility for interruption, contestation, and innovation that is afforded by the human condition of natality and plurality itself.
As Arendt noted, “the more heavily the scales are weighted in favor of disaster, the more miraculous will the deed done in freedom appear . . .”
We are all actors in this drama, through our teaching and writing and speaking and through our abstentions and our interventions.
And there are deeds yet to be done.
Jeffrey C. Isaac is the James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington, and a co-convener of Democracy Seminar