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President Biden Needs to Lead an American Democracy Campaign. Now.

Democracy starts at home.
President Biden Needs to Lead an American Democracy Campaign. Now.
(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Liberal democracy is at risk at home and abroad. We therefore applaud the leadership of the Biden administration in organizing this week’s global Summit for Democracy, which is designed “to listen, learn, and engage with a diverse range of actors whose support and commitment is critical for global democratic renewal.”

But we need aggressive leadership on behalf of democracy at home too. Here in the United States, democracy is being whittled away on a daily basis. State laws are being passed that are designed to restrict voting, to enable partisan vote counting, and to help subvert election results. Phony audits and a campaign of disinformation about the 2020 election are undermining the legitimacy of our elections. An atmosphere of threats and even violence is being fostered, directed at election officials, school board officials, and other public servants just for doing their jobs according to the law.

All of this is being engineered by the twice-impeached former president, Donald Trump and a portion of the Republican party that is now fully engaged in his anti-democratic project.

Last month the three of us—coming from very different political backgrounds and points of view—organized an Open Letter in Defense of Democracy. It was signed by almost 50 writers, academics, and political activists from across the political spectrum. We were hardly alone in expressing our apprehension about democracy here in the United States. A week later, over one hundred former high-level national security officials published a similar letter, and a week after that, over a hundred scholars of democracy sounded the alarm. That our democracy may be headed over a cliff is widely understood.

And yet little is being done. Legislative efforts are being obstructed and allowed to stall. The Biden administration’s attention seems to have been focused on other policy goals.

It’s time to pivot. We need a Campaign for American Democracy that focuses on the clear and present dangers to our democracy, and we need President Biden and top congressional Democrats to lead it now, so that we can have confidence that the elections of 2022 and 2024 will be free and fair in every state. States must not be permitted to restrict the vote for partisan advantage. Elections must be administered by properly trained and certified election officials. The results of elections must be recorded and honored without political interference.

Serious pieces of legislation have been advanced in Congress this year which seek to defend, strengthen, and renew American democracy. And the Republican party uniformly opposes these efforts, even when Democrats have made good-faith attempts at compromise in order to assure that the reforms themselves are not used to partisan ends.

It is time for President Biden and other civic leaders to sound the alarm, educate the public, and promote effective legislation that expands voting, rather than limiting it. That ensures votes are counted fairly. And that prevents election results from being countermanded or overruled by partisans. A Senate filibuster tradition ought not be considered more important than the preservation of democracy.

Back in February, when he announced this week’s Democracy Summit, President Biden said, “Democracy doesn’t happen by accident. We have to defend it, fight for it, strengthen it, renew it.”

He was and is right about democracy abroad. He was and is right about democracy at home. We need a full court press for democracy. And there is no time to lose.

Todd Gitlin, Jeffrey C. Isaac, and William Kristol

Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism, sociology and communications at Columbia University. Jeffrey C. Isaac is the James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington. William Kristol is the editor at large of The Bulwark and the director of Defending Democracy Together.