President Biden's 2020 campaign relied on promises to salvage our democracy from the likes of Trump—a promise he fulfilled. But his 2024 reelection bid could use a bit of help.
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They say that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. There’s a point when persistence becomes madness, when the will to continue rejects the obvious in favor of the fabulous. With enough repetition, we yearn, we attempt, we plead, we beg, we bargain, we rage, but at no point do we accept.
So, given that we have a third election cycle in a row trying to eject Donald Trump from the national hard drive, it’s worth asking if the United States, its people, and its elected leaders have lost our collective minds.
We are going to vote him out.
This has been the political mantra fed to voters across the country since 2016. We are going to beat him in an electoral landslide and prove that there’s no space for Donald Trump in our polity. We are going to reclaim the Oval Office from this corrupt charlatan with the power of the people and send him packing with votes. We are going to save democracy from Trump’s undisguised fascism by bowling him over with ballots and giving Joe Biden an historic—
Wait, didn’t we do that already?
At Valley Forge, just a day before the third anniversary of the January 6th Insurrection, our enthusiastic electoral support was the first and last favor asked by President Joe Biden at the understated launch of his reelection campaign. In a speech that could have been given just as easily three years earlier, Biden pointed out the depravities of his opponent, the threat he poses to our system of government, and how deeply and outrageously unprecedented Trump’s behavior is in the legacy of a now-interrupted 250-year peaceful transfer of power. And to meet all of this, to finally end the grip of the man who has eroded our relationships with our allies and undermined our diplomacy against foreign powers, incited an armed rebellion, and enriched himself at the public trough all the while, Biden calls upon the people of the United States to … fill out the little circle next to his name completely.
There are no initiatives, no changes, no challenges, no rebukes of Trumpian malfeasance out of the sitting President of the United States. Let the system work, he tells us, and vote like your life depends on it in November (because it does). But the urgency of the message falls flat with the timidity of his tone. We have tried and failed to out-vote the Trump era twice: with the first time landing him in the White House and the second resulting in a violent attack on Congress. Even without the power of the presidency, Trump has amassed such a hold on our politics that his rivals for the GOP nomination, such that they are, have all publicly committed to pardon him of federal crimes if they win the office in his stead. Votes are clearly not enough.
Which is a serious problem for a reelection campaign all on its own. Incumbent presidents have incredible tools in their corner to support their candidacies, but turnout is rarely one of them. Especially because of the previous historic high turnout and the deja vu on both sides of the ticket, this time turnout is almost certainly going to decline. Adding a disconnect between the actions that we are taking as citizens and the results of our government probably won’t be the main reason anyone stays home instead of voting for Joe Biden and Democrats, but when layered with another, more prominent, more immediate issue, it surely cannot help.
In response, I propose that President Biden and team re-read the assignment: This campaign is not about saving democracy; it’s about showing why democracy is worth saving.
The hard truth is many people across the political spectrum believe that government doesn’t work anymore. A significant share of those people don’t want it to, unless it serves their ends and theirs exclusively; they’re lost causes and already on Trump’s side. But the vast share of Americans just believe that it’s unimportant whether they engage with the system because it won’t function for them no matter what they do. Biden could tout his policy achievements at these people, but the simple fact is that he has spent the last three years averting disasters—a noble and thankless task. No one is going to be grateful for dangling off a precipice if you stop them from falling off the cliff. People will thank you when they’re safe.
So Biden has to make us safe. He has to propose a different way of shoring up this system so that “permanent historic electoral margins and a miraculous shame injection” isn’t our only answer to fascism. He has to acknowledge that we see our system as broken, and offer us tactics and strategies to repair it. He can’t just tell us what will happen if we fail to support democracy; he has to tell us what will happen when we do.
And that means not just making policy proposals, but suggesting institutional changes to rules that voters can endorse on the ballot this year. As president, he can affirm that he will sign the time waiver to the ERA any time that he’s near a microphone. As a former U.S. senator, he can robustly call for the end of the filibuster with all the heft and weight of his years of service. And as a lawyer, he can point out the ethical nightmare the Supreme Court has become. At the very least, he can publicly sympathize that as the current First Citizen of the United States, he too is frustrated by the legislature not legislating and the courts making up whatever law fits their pocketbooks and priors.
It seems complicated, but it’s quite simple: People will deliver for democracy when they believe that democracy will deliver for them. This has been borne out by every major small-d democratic victory in moments of crisis—which surely the election of Donald Trump would be—that we are motivated not by averting worse disasters but by aiming to thrive. President Biden can either rise up to join that list, or be swept away under the catastrophe he refused to solve.
Often, in his invocations of democracy, President Biden presents a sweeping, mythic version of our past—but he might do better to offer aspirational concepts for our future. Otherwise, we might be inclined to believe that the days where the United States could do extraordinary things are behind us. We broke away from a monarchy and built the most expansive republic known to history at that point. We managed a peaceful transfer of power amid a Civil War. We passed amendments ensuring equality, suffrage, direct representation, and even changed the powers of Congress. Surely, this political generation can do something more than just vote against Donald Trump when he has never successfully won a majority of voters.
We have succumbed to the madness of repetition for long enough. Now, it’s time to try something different.
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