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Can the War in Ukraine Reinvigorate America’s Fight for Democracy?


Biden has an opportunity to undo the isolationist policies and mindset of the Trump era—but only if he reclaims patriotism as democratic force.



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It was a crucial election year, a war against fascism in Europe loomed, and American democracy seemed to be failing. Illiberal regimes exhibited a brazen, insatiable hunger for annexing neighboring democratic states, while modern armies bombed civilian targets indiscriminately to bully their leaders into submission. A few American radio personalities, journalists, politicians, and celebrities even praised Europe’s fascist dictators: “America First” was their rallying cry. 

Was this happening in the 1940s—or today? The answer: both. 

Eighty years ago, besieged nations in Europe, North Africa, and Asia looked to a democratic United States for leadership and resources to fight authoritarian regimes in Germany, Italy, and Japan. In what seems like a repeat performance this spring, Russian President Vladimir Putin has rattled the world—and neighboring nations—by bombarding Ukrainian cities, villages, and civilians. And as Putin’s army has been beaten back in recent weeks, evidence of grisly war crimes, forced labor, and kidnapping of Ukrainian civilians is happening in plain sight. 

It is an unspeakable tragedy that has produced an unexpected American hero: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, whose determination that his nation be part of a free and democratic Europe has not only held Ukraine together and inflicted catastrophic damage on the Russian army, but also won allies on both sides of the aisle in an otherwise polarized United States Congress.

But this patriotic revival, in a country where around 22 percent of citizens do not identify as ethnic Ukrainian, doesn’t only have to be Zelenskyy’s moment. It can be United States President Joseph Biden’s, too. Biden has done what American presidents have often done in similar situations: work with partners around the globe to sanction the aggressor, command humanitarian and military aid from Congress, and make the guarantees that will hold the NATO alliance together. 

That Biden’s policies would reverse the isolationist policies and dictator-worship of the Trump era is unsurprising. Yet the tragedy in Ukraine offers more: an opportunity to redefine what global democracy in the 21st century requires from the United States at home as well as abroad. Americans have watched as European patriots have protested and rallied to support Ukrainian refugees. They have seen thousands of Russians risk arrest, beatings, and detentions to reject their government’s official patriotism and demand democracy in their own country.

So, how might Joe Biden seize this moment to persuade Americans to not only recommit to a liberal world order as Europeans have in the face of the Russian threat, but imagine a path to refreshing and renewing democracy at home? Reclaiming patriotism from the American right, and rededicating it to liberal, humanitarian values is the path Biden must choose. But how?

***

Inspiring an inclusive American patriotism not dominated by revanchist forms of nationals might seem like a vague and old-fashioned goal for an American president, particularly given the intensity of the economic and cultural struggles that have so sharply divided United States voters in the 21st century. For almost 18 months, the Biden administration has been tied in knots trying to heal that divide with a classic display of good government. 

Beleaguered by the lingering Covid-19 pandemic, a paralyzed Congress, right-wing conspiracy theories, inflation, and now a slumping stock market, Biden’s own approval rating, 53 percent at the beginning of his presidency, has hovers at an anemic 40 percent throughout the spring of 2022. Only 11 percent of Republicans think he is doing a good job—which is unsurprising since, according to NBC News, well over half of registered Republicans do not believe he won the 2020 election.

But even success, such as a $1 trillion infrastructure bill, a lengthy pause on student loan payments, and monthly child tax credits seems like failure. These spending initiatives that directly deliver goods and services to communities have produced only a small poll bump for Biden, little relief from the Democratic Party’s anxiety about the 2022 midterm elections, and no concessions from Republican voters that Biden, rather than Trumpism, has solutions to their problems. In February, a Fox News poll declared that 91 percent of Republicans had a negative view of Biden, and only 81 percent had a negative view of Putin.

Yet many of those same Republicans resonated to Zelenskyy’s display of patriotism once the war began. On March 1, as Russian missiles rained down on Ukrainian cities, U.S. officials offered to get Zelenskyy out. Instead, he electrified the world by refusing to abandon his capital. “I need ammunition, not a ride,” Zelenskyy famously responded, following up with a TikTok in which he declared: “I am here.”

Directing a tough defense that held Russia at bay, Zelenskyy inspired allies not just with his vibrant social media presence but with his capacity to mobilize Ukrainians at home and abroad to volunteer. By mid-March, although 3 million had fled the bombing, 320,000 Ukrainians voluntarily returned to enlist in the army, territorial defense, and volunteer rescue and medic units.

It worked. Not only did these volunteer forces save their capital, staving off the Russian army long enough for military aid to arrive from Europe and the United States, but the nation united around a patriotic mission to save itself.  At the end of the first brutal month of war, Zelenskyy’s  approval rating soared: 90 percent of the Ukrainian public expressed confidence in him, a sentiment echoed by 72 percent of Americans.

Although Americans remain divided about sending troops, an April poll shows that across party lines, they support sanctions against Russia (77 percent) that will inevitably affect the United States economy, as well as billions in emergency economic and military aid (79 percent.

Republicans and Democrats have similar views about the danger Putin’s Russia poses to a free world. By May 2, 89 percent of Americans were deeply concerned about the ongoing war, and more than half believed that Russian aggression posed a threat to the United States itself.

Frustratingly, Joe Biden has been unable to convert his substantial role in backing Zelenskyy into persuading those same Americans that he is a similarly effective leader. The chaotic United States retreat from Afghanistan last summer lingers, even as Biden has made good on a State of the Union pledge to defend democracy in Europe. That pledge even produced one of the few bipartisan applause lines from an American President since 9/11: “We, the United States of America, stand with the Ukrainian people.”

To heal these divisions, and reclaim patriotism, Biden must concretely ask Americans to stand up for themselves. That means turning away from the selfishness and self-interested infighting that have characterized the United States since 2016 and fighting for their own country. And this is true for Democrats as much as for Republicans.

***

Ukraine’s cities, leveled by Russian bombs, are almost a metaphor for the damage done to American democratic politics in the last decades. From the moment he entered political life in 2011 by promoting lies about former President Barack Obama’s birth and religious upbringing, Trump and his allies shredded democratic norms and twisted the notion of patriotism. Spurning the “fake news media” during the 2016 presidential campaign, he urged his followers to follow social media instead. Pledging to “make America great again,” he implied that the nation was worth loving only as it could be—not as it was. 

Patriotism demands a higher loyalty to a nation, but Trump demanded personal loyalty—from voters and other politicians to himself. Not surprisingly, he both governed largely by executive order, spurned alliances with democratic allies in Europe, and embraced authoritarians. Most prominently, this meant  Putin, but also Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and Brazil’s Jaír Bolsonaro

Yet like these strongmen, Trump also stole the idea of patriotism and fashioned it to his own purposes. He cultivated a fanatical cult of personality and encouraged a violent, anti-democratic, right-wing social movement to jump off of the internet and into the streets. In August 2017, when neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and anti-government militias marched on Charlottesville, Virginia, killing one person, beating dozens of others, and shouting anti-Semitic slogans, Trump delighted these white supremacist insurgents by asserting that many were “very fine people.” 

In the aftermath of the January 6, 2021, attack on Congress intended to reverse Trump’s election loss, much was made of how America’s democratic institutions shook but held firm. And that was true. Numerous judges and public officials, many Republicans, refused to be coerced into supporting an attempted coup d’état

The many ordinary Trump supporters who were arrested in subsequent weeks did not view themselves as insurrectionists: They understood themselves as patriots. A group raising money to defend them calls itself the Patriot Freedom Fund, some on the right now recognize January 6 as “Patriot Day,” and Fox News pundit Tucker Carlson has produced a movie decrying the prosecutions called “Patriot Purge.” Worse, all but a few Republicans now accept the everyday extremism that Trumpism represents as the only defense against “the left.”

For their part, Democrats and their voters seem barely to know the word “patriotism.” True, it took a beating during the Vietnam War, and an inconclusive, violent, and dishonest engagement in Afghanistan and Iraq did nothing to encourage. In 2019, fewer than 25 percent of Democrats (in contrast to 54 percent of Republicans) said they were “very proud” to be Americans. They also had a more expansive definition of what it meant to be a patriot: flag burning, refusing to pay taxes, and refusing to serve in the military were all potentially patriotic acts for Democrats.

This is a startling shift for American liberals who, for almost a century, have forwarded positive assertions of patriotism through national service. During Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, federal programs put Americans to work building infrastructure, making art, and doing myriad other tasks to help fellow Americans recover from the Great Depression.

Most importantly, Roosevelt—unlike Biden—cultivated patriotism by defining what democracy was, why the fate of American democracy was linked to a democratic Europe. “The philosophy of force that justifies and accompanies dictatorships,” Roosevelt explained on January 3, 1940, in a nationally-broadcast State of the Union address, was rooted in democracy’s failure to care for people. But that could change. Contrasting national fascism with his own New Deal, dictators arose “in places where democratic action for one reason or another has failed to respond to modern needs and modern demands.” A year later, a newly re-elected Roosevelt asked Congress to help return democracy to Europe by passing a Lend-Lease program (which Biden recently revived to arm Ukraine, a bill that passed with robust bipartisan support.)     

In other words, a president must lead, but also teach Americans why true patriotism requires democracy. In his 1941 State of the Union Address, less than a year away from entering a war that his voters had little stomach for, Roosevelt did just this. A “healthy and strong democracy, at home or abroad,” he explained in that year’s State of the Union, required four guarantees: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. 

Because of this, by December 1941, when a preemptive Japanese attack on the Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor pulled the United States off the sidelines, Americans knew what, and who, they were fighting for. And it is no accident that, as a renewed liberal democracy based on the Four Freedoms defined post-World War II American foreign policy, democracy expanded at home too: the next 30 years saw successful fights against domestic censorship, religious and racial bigotry, poverty, and political violence that crested in the late 1960s.

Can President Biden be another Roosevelt? Not exactly—the time, and even the crisis, are far too different. Nor can he be a Zelenskyy: his age, and his lack of media savvy preclude it. But Joe Biden knows what liberalism is, why it is a liberal democratic vision that is driving the Ukrainian people to victory, and how their unity, patriotism and self-sacrifice is bringing Ukrainian democracy back to life. 

But what he can do is put those traditional liberal freedoms back at the center of American democracy and use them to take patriotism back for real patriots. Americans know that the war in Ukraine is not just a war for Europe: their overwhelming support for Biden’s program to help that country proves it.

But it should also give us hope that it is possible to teach Americans, once again, to fight for ourselves.

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