Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Getty Images
the national interest

Biden’s Defense of Democracy May Not Work, But It Is Right

The case against taking authoritarianism seriously is too cynical.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Getty Images

Wednesday night, President Biden delivered a speech on democracy in which he made a better and more precise argument than his more hyped speech on the same subject in Philadelphia. But by now, even some of Biden’s supporters have lost patience with his fixation on the matter.

Josh Barro, who is both one of the sharpest and most pro-Biden commentators out there, has written a column expressing a cynicism about the president’s message about democracy that seems to be growing despite — or perhaps because of — the Republican Party’s ever more starkly authoritarian cast.

Before it veers awry, Barro’s column makes two persuasive points. First, it argues that Biden’s decision to focus on democracy does not actually help the cause. Elections are decided by a small group of swing voters, most of whom do not follow the news closely and aren’t likely to be motivated by abstract procedural questions, however vital they might be. The primary audience for Biden’s message about democracy is voters who are already certain to support Democrats.

Second, taking the threat to democracy seriously implies a need to adopt a hard-headed attitude toward politics and to focus on winning. Instead, Barro complains, Biden has been diverted into a series of unpopular positions favored by progressive interest groups. He cites a list of familiar positions (from turning against the Hyde Amendment to overstimulating the recovery) on which Biden made questionable or poor choices that have hurt his political standing and created conditions to enable the election of dangerous Republican candidates.

But working from these correct premises, he makes a series of conceptual errors. The first error: He argues that Biden’s failure to follow his prescription means he doesn’t believe his own warnings. “If Democrats truly believed differently, they would have governed differently,” he concludes. “You can see from their actions that they are not actually serious about the arguments they’re making now, and I for one am sick of the disingenuous speechifying.”

This assumes that the formula for political popularity is completely obvious and undeniable. Reality is much messier. In January 2021, Biden’s team absolutely believed that goosing demand and driving down unemployment would create a hot recovery that would make them popular. That it hasn’t worked out that way doesn’t show they didn’t care about being popular. It shows their calculation was wrong.

Biden has fewer excuses for taking left-wing positions on social issues that always had shaky standing with the voters. But Barro’s argument makes no allowance for incompetence — or, to be more charitable, less-than-perfect competence — as the explanation. He assumes Biden was consciously trading away his popularity to please “the groups,” when a more realistic assessment would be that he was stumbling through and making choices he didn’t fully grasp.

Barro’s second error is to suggest Biden spurned an easy alternative: building an ideologically broad pro-democracy coalition. “In Israel and Hungary, coalitions of ideologically diverse parties have set aside their differences to run on very narrow governing agendas that are essentially about keeping the other side out,” he writes. “This approach has worked in some elections but not in others, but it hasn’t involved the Labor Party in Israel telling various right-wing anti-Netanyahu parties they must sign onto a full spectrum of left-of-center issue positions to share a coalition.”

Aside from the fact that this method has not really worked at all in either country, he elides the crucial structural difference between a parliamentary system and a presidential one. Parliamentary systems have well-formed processes for parties to combine and compromise on their platforms and cabinets. A two-party presidential system makes that task far more complicated.

What’s happened in the United States is a version of this. Republicans who can’t stomach Trump have defected from the party to support Democrats at the levels of both elected officials (Liz Cheney, Adam Kinzinger) and intellectuals (the Bulwark being the most prominent). And while they haven’t negotiated the kind of formal deal you see in parliamentary countries, these “red dog” defectors have gained some influence inside the Democratic Party.

If more Republicans were willing to cross party lines, they would have more power to expand the Democratic coalition into the center. The problem is that there simply aren’t very many of them. This is not to absolve Democrats of their responsibility to make the party genuinely welcoming to pro-democracy Republicans, but the evidence suggests to me that the failure lies overwhelmingly on the supply side rather than the demand side.

Barro’s final error is to scold Biden for arguing that the GOP’s abandonment of democratic commitments gives voters no choice but to support the other party:

The message is that there is only one party contesting this election that is committed to democracy — the Democrats — and therefore only one real choice available. If voters reject Democrats’ agenda or their record on issues including inflation, crime, and immigration (or abortion, for that matter), they have no recourse at the ballot box — they simply must vote for Democrats anyway, at least until such time as the Republican Party is run by the likes of Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger.


This amounts to telling voters that they have already lost their democracy.

Barro is right about this, and he is also correct that “no-choice politics” does not have a promising record. The problem is that Barro oddly fails to grapple with the possibility that Biden’s proposition to the electorate, while grating and unpalatable, is in fact correct.

I believe it is. When one of the two major political parties is captured by authoritarians, the best recourse is to persuade large numbers of elites associated with that party to defect to the opposing one. That has failed in part because of errors by Democrats but mainly because the vast majority of Republicans would prefer an authoritarian party that’s committed to their policy agenda to a nonauthoritarian party that isn’t. In the absence of such a mass defection, we’re left hoping for Democrats to keep winning elections until something, somehow, changes.

Is that a good plan? No. Do I have a better plan? Not really. The most optimistic thing I can say about it is that the future is difficult to predict, so we can’t be confident the system is heading into crisis or authoritarianism because we can’t be confident of any outcome at all.

It’s valuable for the Democratic Party to have critics like Barro who will highlight their mistakes fearlessly and in good faith. But in this case, I think he is confusing Biden’s duty to give voters a message that will persuade them with the critic’s duty to say what is true. The majority of voters don’t understand the danger that lies in front of them. There’s probably nothing Biden can say to change that, and maybe he shouldn’t try. But sometimes the voters are wrong.

Biden’s Defense of Democracy May Not Work, But It Is Right