President Biden’s Valley Forge address might have felt like a feat of oratorical brilliance to the coterie that is locked into a mythical America. However, it was wildly out of touch with the views of many voters. Dismissing the genuine grievances and discontent with politics-as-usual, and not recognising that Trump provides an appealing alternative to disgruntled voters disillusioned with the elites and institutions, was its most grievous shortcoming.
Biden doesn’t seem to comprehend the real problem. Democracy and liberalism aren’t the same thing. America voters are threatening to desert liberalism, not to abandon democracy. Avoiding a Trump presidency requires Biden finding a bridge, some compromise or accommodation, with the alienated voters.
The evidence doesn’t indicate a rejection of democratic electoral process to determine who should have the mandate to govern, or point to a revolutionary and violent transfer of power. All most of the illiberal voters are seeking is power through the ballot.
Biden was adamant that “Political violence is never, ever acceptable in the United States political system — never, never, never. It has no place in a democracy”. Then he fails to ask how twenty three percent of Americans have come to think that “because things have gotten so far off track, true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country”. What drives a quarter of Americans to believe that the FBI instigated the 6 January assault on Congress? Biden doesn’t understand that many Americans think the government is already instigating violence against them.
He declaims “none of you believe America is failing. We know America is winning. That’s American patriotism”, while surveys show that, regardless of religious tradition, an astounding three-quarters of Americans “believe that the country is going in the wrong direction”. Moreover, fifty two percent of Americans agree that “America’s best days are now behind us”. Biden further aggravates many Americans by denying their patriotism, decrying “the MAGA Republicans”.
Biden emphasised “the truth that I had won the election and [Trump] was a loser”, but mere words won’t convince one-third of Americans who still believe “the 2020 election was stolen from Trump”; including over sixty percent of Republicans and thirty one percent of independent voters.
There is a real problem here. These voters are not anti-democratic, they just believe democracy was thwarted in 2020. Speaking from a rostrum festooned with flags and faux Roman columns won’t change their minds.
There is a malaise in America affecting public opinion on every topic. Views on the direction of the country do not vary greatly by gender, race, generation, education, region, or whether people live in rural, suburban, or urban areas. When Biden argues “The alternative to democracy is dictatorship” he excludes the reasonable critics of the system. It is not an either or situation.
Nearly forty percent of Americans say that “things have gotten so far off track in this country, we need a leader who is willing to break some rules if that’s what it takes to set things right”. The democratic system is not failing, but those who run it are and Biden reenforces this view by denying the shortcomings.
The Trump phenomenon could not exist if the established institutions and elites had not failed to deliver what Americans want. Enumerating Trump’s transgressions would not have been news to Americans. The inglorious denouement of Trump’s presidency on 6 January 2021 and the aftermath played out publicly.
America knows Trump probably better than any previous candidate. Just counting off his outrages doesn’t offer those angry or let down by politicians and institutions a reason to abandon Trump now.
A very strange narrative has emerged that exculpates the parties that have had stewardship of the nominally liberal democracies from responsibility for the rise of illiberalism. Ironically, it is deemed anti-democratic to vote for illiberal or authoritarian-inclined candidates even if those candidates don’t advocate for the abolition of elections or the replacement of democratic constitutions.
It is depicted as undemocratic for the disgruntled or economically left-behind to exercise their vote on the basis of their own self-interest or beliefs. Electors with strongly held views on gender and sexual preference policies, are indifferent or antagonistic about multiculturalism, reject asylum seekers and immigrants, and oppose the separation of church and state, are disenfranchised. Yet, it’s difficult to see a political platform on this basis as democratically invalid if their proponents win a majority.
Reconciling the difference between progressive liberals pursuing civil and political rights for minorities with people who have deeply held religious, political, or social positions, without alienating either camp, is the challenge Biden avoids in his speech. Yet this is the real task for a president.
Instead Biden opted for division; his camp are the real patriots he says, just like Trump calls his followers real Americans. The other side are the implacable enemy and when the election is over, rather than increased unity, the result will be seen as a terrible, maybe existential, defeat. Hostility will be entrenched and bipartisanship retrenched.
Tolerance, equality, and fairness are essential to a just and good society. They can’t be abandoned. But these qualities must apply to all, not just those with whom we agree. The supposed strength of democracy is that it forces politicians to seek solutions through compromise and accommodation, and to pursue peace and stability through recognition of the genuineness of opposing views.
Biden should be demonstrating a commitment to squaring the liberal/illiberal circle, not just berating and mislabelling a substantial portion of the voters. Because the more the illiberal faction is denied legitimacy the stronger it will become. Biden said he would “be president for all of America, whether you voted for me or not”, and it would have been more convincing if he had said how he would. America wouldn’t be in its current state if he had done so for the past three years, and the address at Valley Forge doesn’t indicate he knows how.
Unfortunately, Biden’s inability to do so makes a Trump victory more likely and ensures the division and disfunction in America will persist.
Copyright Mike Scrafton. This article may be reproduced under a Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 licence for non-commercial purposes, and providing that work is not altered, only redistributed, and the original author is credited. Please see the Cross-post and re-use policy for more information.
Also published in John Menadue’s Pearls and Irritations.