Thursday Reads: The State of U.S. Democracy

Susan Wheeler

Illustration by Susan Wheeler

Good Afternoon!!

Sorry if today’s illustrations seem incongruous, but I found them comforting and I need that right now.

This morning President Biden is hosting a virtual “democracy summit,” and the current state of democracy in the U.S. is getting lots of criticism. The AP reports on Biden’s open speech: Biden sounds alarm at virtual summit about global democracy.

President Joe Biden on Thursday opened the first White House Summit for Democracy by sounding an alarm about a global slide for democratic institutions and called for world leaders to “lock arms” and demonstrate democracies can deliver.

Biden called it a critical moment for fellow leaders to redouble efforts on bolstering democracies. In making the case for action, he noted his own battle win passage of voting rights legislation at home and alluded to the United States’ own challenges to its democratic institutions and traditions.

“This is an urgent matter,” Biden said in remarks to open the two-day virtual summit. “The data we’re seeing is largely pointing in the wrong direction.”

The video gathering, something that Biden had called a priority for the first-year of his presidency, comes as he’s repeatedly made a case that the U.S. and like-minded allies need to show the world that democracies are a far better vehicle for societies than autocracies.

The premise is a central tenet of Biden’s foreign policy outlook — one that he vowed would be more outward looking than his predecessor Donald Trump’s “America First approach.

Some critiques:

The New York Times on criticism from foreign adversaries: Biden Rallies Global Democracies as U.S. Hits a ‘Rough Patch.’

A few days before President Biden’s Summit for Democracy, a virtual meeting of more than 100 countries that opened Thursday morning, the Chinese foreign ministry released a stinging report about the American democratic system.

Kitty's Tea Party, by Harry Brooker

Kitty’s Tea Party, by Harry Brooker

The “gunshots and farce on Capitol Hill have completely revealed what is underneath the gorgeous appearance of the American-style democracy,” the Chinese report said, citing the Jan. 6 riot. In a country where “money decides everything,” the report charged, “an entrenched political paralysis” renders governing impossible.

A spokeswoman for the Russian foreign ministry struck a similarly contemptuous tone in late November. “The United States claims the right to decide who is worthy of being called a democracy and who is not,” said the spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, according to Tass, the state news agency. “It certainly looks cynical. I would say that it looks pathetic, given the state of democracy and human rights in the United States and in the West in general.”

During the presidential campaign, Mr. Biden vowed to shore up U.S. alliances, which he has said suffered badly during the Trump era, and to unite democracies against the authoritarianism of rising powers, including Russia and China. So a backlash from authoritarian governments that were not invited to a summit meeting meant to support democratic values is hardly surprising.

But even U.S. officials concede that American democracy is straining from political polarization, racial injustice and discord, voting rights restrictions and domestic extremism, among other issues. Some activists are urging Mr. Biden to devote more attention to problems at home before turning his focus abroad.

“You can’t try to export and defend democracy globally when you can’t protect it domestically,” said Cliff Albright, a co-founder and executive director of the Black Voters Matter Fund, a progressive nonprofit group in Atlanta. “You can’t be the global fireman when your house is on fire.”

That tension will loom over the two-day virtual gathering of leaders from model democracies like Germany, Japan and Sweden to countries with mixed records such as Georgia, Nigeria and Pakistan. The meeting, which also includes journalists, civil society activists and business leaders, is meant to be a forum for democracies to exchange ideas and critiques, U.S. officials say. Participants will also make commitments on political reform, corruption, human rights and other matters.

Nicole's Magic Tea Party, by Ann PeckA tongue lashing from David Rothkopf at The Daily Beast: The First Rule of the Democracy Club? Be a Damn Democracy.

For the summit, which will virtually host 110 countries, to be of any real value, it needs to establish real benefits for being a democracy, penalties for not being one, incentives to promote democracy, and standards high enough to preclude faux democracies, non-democracies and fading democracies from participating.

So far, the White House has been trying to have it both ways. It has excluded countries like China and Russia from the summit because they’re not democracies and are seen as the central bad actors in President Joe Biden’s view of geopolitics today as a struggle between democracies and autocracies.

In fact, excluding them was, polite press statements notwithstanding, one of the main reasons for holding this event.

On the other hand, it has tried to tiptoe around the list of who is in and who is out with statements like Jen Psaki’s “Inclusion or invitation is not a stamp of approval on their approach to democracy—nor is exclusion a stamp of the opposite of that, of disapproval.” I’m a big Jen Psaki fan, but that is weak stuff. Exclusion most definitely is a stamp of disapproval, as it should be. Indeed, that’s the point. And exclusion has already sent a strong and much-needed message to countries like Turkey, Hungary, Egypt and, for that matter, every government in the Middle East except for Iraq and Israel.

And inclusion is definitely a stamp of approval, one that has been extended to governments and leaders invited despite demonstrably undermining democracy in their own countries? That includes Jair Bolsanaro in Brazil and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, both of whom have shown strong autocratic tendencies. Narendra Modi in India, who has overseen serious backsliding on democratic rights and protections in India. And the governments of Pakistan, Poland, Angola, and Congo, all of which probably should have been dinged from the list. As for Iraq and Israel, the former is often more influenced by the neighboring government in Iran than it is its own people while the other excludes millions within its borders from full participation in its government and society.

Bunnies' tea party

Bunnies’ tea party postcard

On the precarious situation here in the U.S.:

…[T]he Democracy Summit is a U.S. foreign policy initiative that was conceived from the get-go with a domestic political element. When Biden talks about the battle between pro-democratic and pro-autocratic forces in the world, he is not just thinking about China and Russia but also about Donald Trump and his Republican Party’s systematic efforts to undercut democracy here.

This is a party that is defending the organizers of a coup attempt, promoting the principle architect of that attempt as their leader, carving away voting rights, seeking to disenfranchise voters of color through gerrymandering and racism-bespoke voting restrictions, promoting an anti-democratic, extraconstitutional, minority-driven rule in the US Senate, enabling the minority to dictate the course of the judiciary, and promoting campaign finance rules that give huge advantages to America’s wealthiest citizens at the expense of everyone else.

Further, should that party win in 2022 and 2024, the experience of the Trump years suggests they will take further steps to ensure that their president is above the law, carve away at congressional oversight, negate checks and balances, twist the mission of the Department of Justice, and eliminate laws and mechanisms that might constrain their ability to impose their will on the American people.

The efforts of the enemies of democracy in the U.S. have already taken a toll. According to a Pew Global Attitudes survey of leading countries this spring, few believe U.S. democracy is any longer a “good model” for other nations. Among foreigners in 16 countries polled, a median of 17 percent saw us as a good model while 57 percent said “we used to be a good example.” We know it, too. Among Americans surveyed, just 19 percent said we are a good example, while 72 percent said we are no longer.

At HuffPost, SV Date states it baldly: U.S. Now ‘Exhibit A’ Among Imperiled Democracies At Summit, Thanks To Trump.

As President Joe Biden opens a long-ago-promised “democracy summit” Thursday with over 100 nations participating, he finds himself in charge of “Exhibit A” among the world’s imperiled democracies.

Among the major industrial powers that make up the Group of Seven, only the United States has suffered an attempt to overthrow representative democracy since the group’s creation a half century ago, in the form of Donald Trump’s efforts to void the 2020 election and remain in power. Among the 17 democracies in the G-20, the U.S. is one of just two, along with Turkey, to have seen its chief executive abuse that power to in an attempt to remain in office.

Tea Party, by Nancy Lee Moran

Tea Party, by Nancy Lee Moran

Fiona Hill, a former National Security Council analyst and United Kingdom native who was among the first to describe the Trump-incited insurrection on Jan. 6 as a coup attempt, said the idea that it could ever happen in this country had been unthinkable.

“Not in a million years did I imagine that the United States would be exemplifying this crisis in democracy,” she said.

“Biden has to be candid upfront about the U.S. being the latest battleground of democracy versus autocracy,” said Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a history professor and authoritarianism expert at New York University. “And use the summit to send a message to democrats and autocrats that the U.S. will pursue anti-democratic forces with vigor and resolve.”

Ironically, Biden specifically citied Trump’s anti-democratic tendencies when he first mentioned the need for a summit to rally the world’s democracies in a July 11, 2019, campaign speech.

Read the rest at HuffPost

Today’s news on the ongoing Republican coup attempt:

The Washington Post: Low-profile heiress who ‘played a strong role’ in financing Jan. 6 rally is thrust into spotlight.

Eight days before the Jan. 6 rally in Washington, a little-known Trump donor living thousands of miles away in the Tuscan countryside quietly wired a total of $650,000 to three organizations that helped stage and promote the event.

The lack of fanfare was typical of Julie Fancelli, the 72-year-old daughter of the founder of the Publix grocery store chain. Even as she has given millions to charity through a family foundation, Fancelli has lived a private life, splitting time between her homes in Florida and Italy, and doting on her grandchildren, according to family members and friends.

Now, Fancelli is facing public scrutiny as the House committee investigating the insurrection seeks to expose the financing for the rallythat preceded the riot at the U.S. Capitol.Fancelli is the largest publicly known donor to the rally, support that some concerned relatives and others attributed to her enthusiasm for conspiracy theorist Alex Jones.

The Washington Post previously reported that on Dec. 29, 2020, Fancelli donated $300,000 to Women for America First, a nonprofit group that helped organize the Jan. 6 rally, and $150,000 to the nonprofit arm of the Republican Attorneys General Association, which paid for a robocall touting a march to “call on Congress to stop the steal.”

On the same day, Fancelli gave $200,000 to State Tea Party Express, according to Sal Russo, a top consultant to the conservative group. Russo told The Post last week that he gavethe House committee recordsof Fancelli’s donation, which he said was used for radio ads and social media urging supporters of President Donald Trumpto attend the rally and subsequentmarch. He condemned the violence at the Capitol.

Read the rest at the WaPo.

Susan Wheeler2

Illustration by Susan Wheeler

Greg Sargent at The Washington Post: Opinion: Mark Meadows’s new effort to cover up Trump’s coup is ludicrous — and dangerous.

Mark Meadows, who recently revealed that Donald Trump tested positive for the coronavirus before the first 2020 debate without telling its organizers, is frantically atoning for his momentary lapse of loyalty. Trump’s former chief of staff just filed a new lawsuit designed to help Trump cover up his coup attempt.

Mark Meadows, who recently revealed that Donald Trump tested positive for the coronavirus before the first 2020 debate without telling its organizers, is frantically atoning for his momentary lapse of loyalty. Trump’s former chief of staff just filed a new lawsuit designed to help Trump cover up his coup attempt.

But this core idea is central to Meadows’s lawsuit, and indeed to the broader legal attack on the Jan. 6 committee that is coming from Trump himself.

Meadows is suing the committee over its subpoenas for extensive documents from Meadows and others. He wants the court to toss out subpoenas, which would keep buried untold new details about Trump’s coup attempt.

One of Meadows’s core arguments is that the subpoena, and the committee’s activities, lack a “legitimate legislative purpose.” The suit notes that if this can be established, the subpoena is invalid.

But that’s nonsense. There are many valid legislative purposes driving the committee’s investigation.

Of course it’s nonsense. A judge should just throw the lawsuit out. But that hasn’t been happening with other ludicrous claims–like Steve Bannon’s.

Jennifer Rubin at The Washington Post: Opinion: David Perdue confesses he would have aided a coup. He’s not the only one.

David Perdue, the former U.S. senator from Georgia and now a candidate for governor, made a stunning confession on Wednesday: Despite there being no evidence of election fraud and multiple audits that showed President Biden won the state, he would have refused to certify Georgia’s 2020 results.

The Republican told Axios: “Not with the information that was available at the time and not with the information that has come out now. They had plenty of time to investigate this. And I wouldn’t have signed it until those things had been investigated and that’s all we were asking for.”

The results were investigated in multiple audits and court cases. There was no fraud.

Perdue is saying the quiet part out loud. Given the same circumstances in 2024 — a clean election with close results in key states — Republicans would seek to undo the will of the voters, call on the House of Representatives to “fix” the election and thereby sink our democracy.

Click the link to read the rest.

It really isn’t looking good for democracy. I hope Biden has better answers for how to deal with the ongoing efforts of the Trumpists to overthrow the government he currently leads.

What do you think? Please post your thoughts and links on any topic in the comment thread below.