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Biden’s Global Democracy Summit Raises an Awkward Question: Can Ours Endure?

The prospects for improving American democracy have dimmed considerably. In the months since Joe Biden took office, nineteen states have enacted thirty-three laws that make it more difficult for citizens to vote.

Biden will convene 100+ world leaders for a virtual “Summit for Democracy” later this week. Last month, pictured above, he met with leaders to discuss his Build Back Better World initiative.,Evan Vucci/AP Photo

In March, not long after Joe Biden assumed the Presidency, Freedom House, a democracy-watchdog group, ranked the state of democracy in the United States well below that in Chile, Costa Rica, and Slovakia, citing gerrymandering, the influence of money in politics, and the disenfranchisement of people of color among the reasons for the poor showing. “A change of president is not gonna make [these issues] go away,” Sarah Repucci, the group’s vice-president for research and analysis, told the Guardian at the time. Indeed, in the months since Biden took office, the prospects for improving American democracy have dimmed considerably. Nineteen states have enacted thirty-three laws that make it more difficult for citizens to vote; a number of states have replaced nonpartisan election administrators with partisan ideologues; and Republican legislatures in states that have begun to swing toward the Democrats, such as North Carolina and Texas, have redrawn electoral maps to favor Republicans and effectively disenfranchise communities of color. Given the conservative composition of the federal courts, legal challenges to the new maps are likely to be unsuccessful.

It’s against this gloomy backdrop that the Biden Administration will be hosting a virtual Summit for Democracy in early December, with invitees from more than a hundred countries. When Biden announced the summit, back in August, the goal seemed to be to reëstablish America’s standing in the world by championing human rights and democratic practices in the wake of the retrograde foreign policy of the Trump Administration. “Democracy doesn’t happen by accident,” Biden said in February. “We have to defend it, fight for it, strengthen it, renew it.” Not long afterward, Democrats in the House of Representatives passed H.R. 1, the For the People Act, a comprehensive catalogue of election reforms intended to strengthen democracy by expanding voting rights, changing campaign-finance laws to reduce the influence of money in politics, eliminating partisan gerrymandering, increasing election security, and bolstering ethics requirements of federal officeholders. This was, essentially, a clone of an earlier bill, also called H.R. 1, which was introduced in the House in 2019, when Democrats assumed the majority. Like that bill, the revived H.R. 1 was stymied in the Senate by the Republicans, who voted not to bring it to the floor for debate. The same fate bedevilled the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, a potential legislative corrective to the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder, which gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and opened the door to the many voter-suppression laws that have been passed since.

In September, some Democratic senators, led by a group that includes Amy Klobuchar and Joe Manchin, put forth a new election-related bill, the Freedom to Vote Act. It has a number of new provisions to protect election workers, and also includes others that were in the For the People Act, such as same-day voter registration, a ban on partisan gerrymandering, and a restoration of voting rights to former felons. (It does not contain other provisions that were in H.R. 1—such as particular aspects of comprehensive campaign-finance reform and the ability of voters who lack an official I.D. to cast a regular, rather than a provisional, ballot—that were objectionable to Manchin, whose outsized political influence itself represents a failure of American democracy.) But, after the Freedom to Vote Act was proposed, the Minority Leader, Mitch McConnell, dismissed it out of hand, and said he hoped that no Republican would back it. He got his wish, in October. As long as the filibuster stands, that will likely be the fate of all election-related legislation proposed by Democrats. Senators Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, Democrats who are now the darlings of Republican donors, as the Times has reported, have indicated that they will oppose any change to the filibuster rule, signalling that they have more allegiance to a Senate rule than they do to democracy. (By contrast, after the Freedom to Vote bill failed to advance, Senator Angus King, the Maine Independent who caucuses with the Democrats and had earlier rejected calls to reform the filibuster, seemed to change his mind. “I’ve concluded that democracy itself is more important than any Senate rule,” he said.)

Democracy may be our civil religion, but it’s one that has always traded heavily on myth. A government that began as a sinecure for wealthy white men required numerous constitutional amendments and acts of Congress, hard won through the centuries, to bring the country closer to Lincoln’s government by, for, and of the people. But, as the franchise has become more inclusive, many Republican strategists have become convinced that this process will be their party’s undoing. The 2020 election proved them right: voters turned out in great numbers and returned a Democratic President and Congress to Washington. No one—especially Biden and members of his Administration—should have been surprised when Republicans stepped up their efforts to redraw electoral maps and make it harder to vote for those they assume will choose Democrats.

There is something deeply wishful about hosting a summit to bolster democracy around the world when our own is, at best, floundering. One of the central premises of American exceptionalism is the belief that, against all odds, our democracy will endure, that it “shall not perish from the earth.” Yet the paradox at the core of all democracies is that they can be legislated out of existence. The anti-democratic movement that coalesced around Trump’s insistence that he was the rightful winner last November persists with the blessing of a number of Republican members of Congress, in order to sow doubt in the legitimacy of the electoral process. It is an accomplice to every legislative effort by Republican state legislatures to undermine future elections.

A recent NPR poll found that just thirty-three per cent of Republicans think that the 2024 elections will be fair. This sentiment will not result in the creation of policies and rules to insure fairness, such as same-day voter registration, restoring post-felony voting rights, or requiring both hand-marked paper ballots and statistically determined, risk-limiting audits. Rather, it will lead to more spurious election challenges, such as the one in Arizona. There will also, potentially, be more breaches of election networks, such as the ones that occurred last spring in Ohio and Colorado. In those cases, vigilantes on the hunt for “fraud” were given access to secure state-election systems, possibly with the help of local officials. The information they downloaded was then circulated at the “cyber symposium,” which was organized last August by Mike Lindell, the champion of election conspiracies. The F.B.I. is now investigating.

This month, for the first time, the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, a think tank based in Stockholm, added the United States to its list of “backsliding” democracies. The U.S. received this designation, according to a report issued by the group, in part because of Trump’s insistence that the 2020 election was fraudulent. “The visible deterioration of democracy in the United States, as seen in the increasing tendency to contest credible election results, the efforts to suppress participation (in elections), and the runaway polarisation . . . is one of the most concerning developments,” the group’s secretary-general, Kevin Casas-Zamora, said. He also noted that “the violent contestation of the 2020 election without any evidence of fraud has been replicated, in different ways, in places as diverse as Myanmar, Peru and Israel.”

This, of course, is not the kind of sharing envisioned by the architects of Biden’s Summit for Democracy. An announcement on the State Department Web site states that they “aim to show how democracies can deliver on the issues that matter most to people: strengthening accountable governance, expanding economic opportunities, protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms, and enabling lives of dignity.” It continues, “The U.S. government will announce commitments in areas such as bolstering free and independent media; fighting corruption; defending free and fair elections; strengthening civic capacity; advancing the civic and political leadership of women, girls, and marginalized community members; and harnessing technology for democratic renewal. The United States will also hold itself accountable to these commitments on a global public stage.”

If the Administration is serious, the President and his supporters in Congress must now mount a sufficient defense of democratic norms to counter the Republicans’ anti-democratic machinations. Otherwise, a year from now, that stage will be dark.

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Sue Halpern is a staff writer at The New Yorker. She is the author of, most recently, the novel “Summer Hours at the Robbers Library.”