In the run-up to U.S. President Joe Biden’s Summit for Democracy, critics in the free and unfree world alike did their best to discredit the entire exercise.
Most of their criticisms went something like this: How dare Mr. Biden lecture other countries on how to organize their affairs when American democracy is in such a sorry state itself – poisoned by money and gerrymandering, plagued by institutional paralysis and still reeling from what many believe was as an attempted coup by Donald Trump’s supporters barely 11 months ago.
Others warned that this week’s event risked exacerbating geopolitical tensions between the United States and its two biggest rivals, China and Russia, which were excluded from Mr. Biden’s 100-country-plus guest list. Especially at a time when global co-operation – on climate change, on ending the COVID-19 pandemic, on eliminating nuclear weapons – has never been more critical.
While it is easy to spot the flaws in American democracy, however, it is never a bad time to remind the world that the values it espouses are universal and reflect the aspirations of people everywhere and always. Or that it is resilient enough to survive Mr. Trump.
“American democracy is an ongoing struggle to live up to our highest ideals and to heal our divisions and recommit ourselves to the founding idea of our nation captured in our Declaration of Independence,” Mr. Biden said in opening his summit on Thursday.
Any suggestion that the world is witnessing a great competition between democracy and authoritarianism – and that authoritarianism is winning – defies logic. Human beings are wired for freedom. Any society that denies them of it will eventually experience a breakdown.
By the end of the Cold War, it seemed that debate had been settled for good. When Ronald Reagan left office, the Soviet Union was on its last legs and few disputed his description of the United States as “the shining city upon a hill” – reprising the phrase of John Winthrop, a 17th century pilgrim who envisioned a colony where freedom could flourish.
“And how stands the city on this winter night?” Mr. Reagan asked in his 1989 farewell address. “After 200 years, two centuries, she still stands strong and true on the granite ridge, and her glow has held steady no matter what storm. And she’s still a beacon, still a magnet for all who must have freedom, for all the pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness, toward home.”
As Alexis de Tocqueville noted in the early 19th century, however, American democracy was founded as much on the desire for freedom as the quest for equality. The inherent tension between the two has informed U.S. politics since the beginning. And not always in a good way.
“There is in fact a manly and legitimate passion for equality that incites men to want to be strong and esteemed,” de Tocqueville wrote in Democracy in America. “This passion tends to elevate the small to the rank of the great; but one also encounters a depraved taste for equality in the human heart that brings the weak to want to draw the strong to their level, and that reduces men to preferring equality in servitude to inequality in freedom.”
Mr. Trump and his supporters, who have no qualms about seeking to overturn the results of free and fair elections, are not the only – or even biggest – threat to American democracy. The identity politics of woke activists who seek to “cancel” any person or point of view that offends them may be an equal or greater threat.
Mr. Trump has failed to subvert the democratic process so far and there is every reason to believe he will continue to fail, despite the musings of some critics.
“Trump and his party have convinced a dauntingly large number of Americans that the essential workings of democracy are corrupt, that made-up claims of fraud are true, that only cheating can thwart their victory at the polls, that tyranny has usurped their government, and that violence is a legitimate response,” Barton Gellman wrote recently in The Atlantic.
So what else is new? A considerable portion of the American population has always dabbled in conspiracy theories and seen government as a threat. As disgraceful as it was, the Jan. 6 Capitol attack was less an “attempted coup” than a lashing out of a fringe of disaffected and marginalized voters on whom Mr. Trump had preyed. It was not a show of strength. It was a show of impotence.
Granted, it was not a great day for American democracy. But the city on the hill still shines, if only a little dimmer these days.
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